Alastair Campbell on the power of oracy

The Rest is Politics podcast

King Charles III's coronation, the geopolitics of net-zero, and the power of oracy
Wednesday, May 3, 2023


RS: Well, now the next thing he wants to talk about was something called Oracy. Where initially I thought, this is some misspelling, do you mind telling us what on earth Oracy is? It’s like Morrissey, right? It’s a pop grip.

AC: Do you not know what Oracy is? this is terrible. But Oracy: The reason I want to talk about this is that I spoke at a conference last week, organised by a group, a charity – an education charity called Voice 21

And Voice 21 was founded by my former number 10 and labour colleague, Peter Hyman, who left politics to go and become a head teacher and was a very good head teacher. But it’s now gotten back into politics and he’s now working for Keir Starmer. But Voice 21 is about trying to put Oracy – which is about, if you like, how we teach listening and speaking –  on the same par as literacy and numeracy.

And there’s a guy who was the main presentation, a guy called Professor Neil Mercer, who just gave a brilliant explanation as to why in the modern age, in particular, we have to be able to teach our children to communicate clearly and properly and it is interesting: he’s actually a Cambrian roar, and he talked about how there’s no such thing that should we shouldn’t get obsessed with sort of standardised English because when he’s in Cumbria, he admits he speaks differently to when he’s in Cambridge. He’s he speaks differently when he’s doing a presentation to a roomful of teachers, as we were doing that day, to when he might be doing the same presentation to children or to people in a different part of the country. 

And what these guys do they the charity, what they do is they teach teachers, how to educate children in the art of speaking and listening. And it’s also about how you make decisions, you’ll be pleased to know that the room was full of people who listen to our podcasts. I love this idea of disagreeing agreeably. 

RS: Somewhere in the heart of this –  little plug for my three-part BBC Radio four series, which was on public speaking and rhetoric and its use. And I was very struck, particularly by an interview with two young men from St. Francis Xavier School state school in Liverpool, who felt that their lives had been turned around by entering a debating competition, public speaking. And what they felt about it was it wasn’t just about the confidence, it was also about empathy. That learning to do these debates forces you to understand the other person, since position and forces you to enter their mindset in order to try to persuade them – 

AC: Well at the start of his presentation, and I wrote a whole chapter in my new book about the importance of public speaking, and it’s not public speaking as in standing up and making speeches is public speaking, but rather when you when you’re dealing with bureaucracy when you’re trying to get something done over the phone; how do you deal with people when you open a bank account

Anyway, Neil Mercer when he started; said hands up if you were taught how to speak at school, and about, I don’t know, 15 to 20 hands went up. He said, Put your hands down. If you went to us if you went to private school. And I think they were left with two hands in the air. So the private schools do teach you when you were eaten, you were taught how to debate how to speak.

 I remember Charles Kennedy used to say that one of the things that made him a politician – he went to a state school in Lochaber in the highlands, but they had school debating and he was a very good debater, and that’s what made him want to go to university and he was a great debater there. And that’s how he became a politician. 

And I think we just need this more than ever. And I hope that with Peter Hymen now being inside Keir Starmer’s office, I think Oracy: the idea that we teach in the modern age children how to communicate – And by the way, it doesn’t mean they all have to sound like you know, ‘Queen’s English’, as it used to be called –  accents are incredibly important. People being you know, proud of where they come from is not inconsistent. 

And even the thing about you know, Ofsted for example, there was a lot of kind of criticism of Ofsted at this conference, because people were saying Ofsted go into schools, where, you know, children because of where they’re brought up and the accidents of their parents and the way their parents might be, you know, ‘we done’ rather than ‘we did’ and all that sort of stuff, that kind of stuff gets loaded on the school and the school gets marked down. 

And so anyway, I just think it’s a really interesting area. Yeah,

RS: exactly. Well, one of the things that I love about it is that at the heart of the idea of debate, or argument is the idea of persuasion, the idea that you can actually change somebody else’s mind. 

And what I hope went doing not just agreeing or disagreeing glibly, but also the possibility of persuasion because that’s incredibly important in a very polarised world. And I think it’s what Trump’s stood against.

Trump fundamentally says, my supporters and I have this fixed worldview, and nobody is going to change it. And I’m not going to change anybody else’s mind either. 

AC: And if you don’t have my view, you’re just wrong. 

RS: Exactly. And there’s this lovely book by a Yale press called Brand Gaston which is basically in defence of persuasion. He argues that politics goes wrong when you give up on the idea of being able to persuade someone because then you give up on the idea of compromise. You give up on the idea of shared truth you give up on the kind of humility which is embedded in politics.

AC: By the way, Oracy is now part of the curriculum in Scotland and Wales a good so Michael Gove when he was pressed on this apparently used to say, look, we can’t just have our kids sitting around chatting. There’s Michael Gove, who spends his entire life sitting around chatting with his Tory friends and chats

RS: Very well. And it is very good chatter. Yeah.

AC: But so there we go. There’s one for Labour I hope Oracy let’s make Oracy a word that. I mean, I’m amazed that even you didn’t know what it was really that really is. It’s…

RS: just shocking. Isn’t it shocking? Well on that I think will bring it to an end with a pang of praise to Oracy, thank you very much. 

AC: Thank you.

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