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Saturday, July 15, 2006

The art of debate

This morning's Western Mail poses the question 'What happened to the great debater?' In doing so they draw an unfavourable analogy between the quality of debate in the Welsh Assembly chamber and the World Schools Debating Championships. They also refer to the quality of speeches delivered by Aneurin Bevan, Neil Kinnock and David Lloyd George.

My instincts of course are to defend the National Assembly but like any institution the level of debate there is variable. The Western Mail itself quotes some examples of members interacting that do not give a good impression but like any snapshot that is not the whole picture. In fact I think it would be fair to say that there is some good oratory in Assembly debates just as there is bad.

The first caveat that should be drawn in all of this is that there are different types of rhetoric for different occasions. The speeches of Neil Kinnock to rallies stuffed with supporters or to Labour Conferences would not be appropriate in a small chamber of 60 members and, indeed, they would sound out of place there. Equally, the sort of speech one would give in supporting a detailed report on school funding with 27 recommendations would go down like a lead balloon at a public meeting.

In the chamber the most effective members are those who can put together a well-argued case, fluently, with good humour and a bit of hwyl. The least effective are those who deliver a well-prepared speech full of debating points and flowery language, the sort of speech in fact that may well get a huge round of applause at a meeting of the faithful.

I would also disagree with the analysis by Steve Morgan that there is nobody other than Rhodri Morgan amongst the 60 AMs who has the ability to inspire people. Even Rhodri has his off-days, whilst at their best I am sure that there are at least half a dozen other members of all parties who can both convince and inspire in the right context.

In my view one of the most effective chamber performers is the Conservative David Melding. This is part of his speech from the debate on the First Minister's report on Wednesday. Even in reading it, one can see that it is spoken with authority and good humour, whilst his grasp of the subject ensures that he is listened to by everybody:

The Beecham report is excellent and the Executive deserves some credit for allowing Sir Jeremy and his team to produce this report and to challenge it. Challenge ought to be at the heart of good government. Beecham recommends concentrating on leadership at all levels, involving all players and political parties in government at the Assembly, at the UK level and locally. The heart of his message is that we need to get more for the Welsh pound. We can have arid debates about whether the Barnett formula ought to be reformed or abandoned and whether a new magic formula based on need that would be comprehensively accepted across the UK should be brought in, but that does not answer the question about how we are to make public spending as efficient and effective as possible. That ought to be at the forefront of our minds. Beecham says that we must travel faster and further. I think that that is a mild criticism—it is a tasteful criticism—and one that I hope that the Government will take seriously as it does not necessarily undermine its authority, but it does say that we have to aim for the best, if we are to put the improvement of public services at the heart of the devolution project.

I was pleased to hear what the First Minister said about the need for a larger private sector. He said that that sector is growing, although I think that he was very particular about the measurement that he used. It is interesting that he is talking the private sector up, and I hope that he will continue to do so, because Beecham says that, in public service delivery, we need a mixed economy that makes more use of the private sector and the voluntary sector. I think that that would help. If we could see people moving from the public sector to the private sector and vice versa, and have that sort of dynamic, that would be healthy for the whole economy and we might get away from our obsession with seeing things as public or private, because there can be a good mix.

By contrast the contrived rhetoric of his Conservative colleague, Mark Isherwood, reads well the first time through, but falls flat in the chamber, mostly because it is too personal but also because he is not talking to AMs but to the world outside:

Mark Isherwood: In the House of Commons, Rhodri Morgan earned the title of wondrous Welsh word fountain. He has the gift—more than any other person—of compressing the largest number of words into the smallest amount of thought. He has the brain of a sponge but the delivery of an England football team in penalty time. If nothing else, his annual report deserves an award for creative writing to hang alongside his second golden bull award for gobbledegook, awarded by the Plain English Campaign last December. This foot-in-mouth accolade was perhaps trumped only by his inability to give a straight answer on the BBC’s Question Time. This is the man who had to be escorted from the North East Wales Institute in Wrexham, after his attempts to stage-manage a Welsh Assembly Government question time turned the audience hostile. This is the man who was late for the Queen’s eightieth birthday and the international eisteddfod, and who is late for his own overdue resignation.

In my view it is contributions like that which give politics a bad name and which lead people to conclude that the quality of debate in the Assembly is poor. It is not.
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