Friday, June 27, 2014

Famous Speech Friday: Penny Mordaunt's Loyal Address in Parliament

History does repeat itself, though the intervals are long when the historic occasion involves a woman speaking in the British Parliament in reply to the Queen's Speech. Fifty-seven years long in the case of Member of Parliament Penny Mordaunt, who earlier this month delivered the "loyal address" thanking the monarch for her speech and opening debate on the issues of the new session.

The custom says these speeches--one proposing the motion, the other seconding--"are not contentious and contain both humour and flattering references to their constituencies." But first, Mordaunt did what many women speakers do when they know they're a rarity, and talked about the lack of women speakers in these roles:
This might be a Queen’s Speech, but I am only the second woman to propose the Loyal Address in Her Majesty’s long reign. Fifty-seven years ago, Lady Tweedsmuir, the then Member for Aberdeen South, had the double pressure of proposing the Loyal Address and making her maiden speech. What she said deserves our consideration for its relevance today.
She started by extolling the strengths of Scotland in the United Kingdom. She then set out the challenges facing the country, including the forging of a new relationship with Europe based on trade and co-operation, the creation of a new defence able to respond to Russian aggression and the growing of the economy, fusing the gigantic resources of the old world to the new. She then discussed the cost of living and the reform of the upper House, and finished by advocating the advantages of having more women parliamentarians.

It is a shame that the response Lady Tweedsmuir received from the then Leader of the Opposition is less able to stand up to contemporary scrutiny. Mr Gaitskell—with gallant intent, I am sure—replied to a nodding Commons that she had probably made some good points but that, alas, he had been unable to respond to any of them, such had been the distraction of her soft, attractive voice. So struck was he that he felt that, despite being a grandmother, she was rather easy on the eye, and he had found it impossible to concentrate on anything she said.

I realise that, in recounting this, I might have left the present Leader of the Opposition with a modern man’s dilemma. Should he now risk insulting me by concentrating solely on the issues raised, and failing to mention that I am also a softly-spoken charmer? Or, if he were to compliment me, would he risk incurring the wrath of the Labour party’s women’s caucus, potentially triggering the newly introduced power of recall? These are perilous times for a chap. Whatever he decides to do, I hope that this will mark the end of the parliamentary leap year. Women parliamentarians should be allowed to propose more than once every 57 years.
Think the three paragraphs of history were just early complaining in a long speech? Think again. Every issue mentioned from the speech of Lady Tweedsmuir is a substantive issue of debate in the current Parliament, allowing Mordaunt to put policy issues out on the table early in her remarks, while telling her tale. She also used these paragraphs to show an abysmal record of putting women in spotlight roles, mention that this happens despite having a female monarch, note sexist reactions to women MPs, set boundaries and expectations for reaction to her own remarks, and give a shout-out to a woman colleague from the past. Not a bad day's work for three paragraphs.

Despite her subtle warning that male MPs comments on women's anatomy are unwelcome, Opposition Leader Ed Milliband chose to remark on her diving-show appearance when he rose to respond, and demonstrated that not much has changed in how male MPs refer to their female colleagues. Her telling of Lady Tweedsmuir's effort drew gales of laughter, which she quieted when referencing D-Day as she transitioned to policy and district issues.

This speech hit all its marks, lighting up Twitter and news sites as soon as it was over. The consensus was that Mordaunt has a bright speaking career ahead of her. What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Give a woman's speech: Despite the rarity of women speakers in this role, Mordaunt's speech is by no means an effort to fit in and sound like the men. Rather, it's loaded with a woman's perspective, from the issues discussed to the history lesson at the start on women speakers. As a result, we're hearing her authentic voice, funny and frank--and that makes this speech work.
  • Work your analogies all the way through: Referring to a colleague's doubts about the strength of the governing coalition, Mordaunt offered a thorough analogy, saying, "He might see us as the Thelma and Louise of the parliamentary Session, driving at top speed to the Grand Canyon of electoral defeat. Let me reassure him that this will not be the case, because, unlike a 1966 Thunderbird, this coalition is right-hand drive," a reference to the Conservative Party. Many speakers throw away analogies and comparisons, referring to them only briefly instead of working them all the way through an argument. Not so here.
  • Use humor to get audiences on your side: Referring to the issue of military training, the navy reservist said, "I have benefited from some excellent training by the Royal Navy, but...I felt that the lecture and practical demonstration on how to care for the penis and testicles in the field failed to appreciate that some of us attending had been issued with the incorrect kit." It was the most-quoted gem in a speech full of them, and demonstrated the benefits of using humor to connect with your audience. Mordaunt turned her star turn from a rarity to the speech people were talking about the next day. Best, she used humor without turning it on herself in a self-deprecating way in this speech, although she wields self-deprecation in reply to others' comments about her, a common conversational tactic in Britain.
You can read the full text of Mordaunt's loyal speech here, and watch the video below, with thanks to Brian Jenner for pointing me to it. Or listen to the audio version. What do you think of this famous speech?

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