When I was at Oxford, a very long time ago, I took out a life membership to the Oxford Union for something like £70. This would have worked out as a terrific bargain by now if I spent more time in Oxford - once you take your degree(s) you're no longer entitled to go back to your old college(s) and hang out in the Common Room(s) to which you once belonged, and the Union is centrally located. As it happens, I normally go back only to see Best Dentist in the World. As an undergraduate and graduate student I had very little interest in the Union and its doings; many prime ministers got started on their careers as Union hacks, but this did not hold much appeal.
Toward the end of one Hilary Term, though, I went to a debate. This was a debate, I think, to determine who should be president of the Union the following term - at any rate, this is the subject the speakers addressed. There was one I don't remember. Then another speaker whose first name, I think, was Andrew.
Andrew, if it was Andrew, had been Treasurer, and he had tackled the ugly problem of the Union's finances. The Union was in a 19th-century building with serious structural problems; it looked like a down-at-heels gentlemen's club ca. 1898, and so had trouble attracting new members (apart from the handful who knew they wanted to be hacks); it had many, many other problems which the keen Treasurer explained at some length but which I no longer remember. He had addressed these problems by undertaking a massive fundraising campaign, writing to former members, appealing for major donations, raising something in the order of a million pounds or so, putting the Union on a solid financial foundation. He was extremely proud of this and had a great deal to say about it.
In setting this out, however, he committed an unforgivable sin: he spoke from notes. Or rather, it seemed, at times, he simply read out what he had to say. Rather than standing up and giving a speech (the sort of thing David Cameron does so well). He was heckled by the crowd; people shouted 'Speech! Speech!' and 'Notes! Notes!' and at one point someone stood up and addressed the Chair, registering a formal objection to the fact that the speaker was reading from notes. He was earnest, hardworking, the sort of person who made Evelyn Waugh think the country was going to the dogs. He made a bad impression.
At this point the third candidate came up to speak. Nick Prettejohn. Tall, slim, boyish, charming. He said apologetically something like Gosh. He said he was rather taken aback by all this serious talk about the Union's Mission, its Tradition, all this talk about Moving Forward, all this talk about money, hundreds of pounds raised for this, hundreds of pounds raised for that. He said: Aren't we all taking ourselves too seriously? We're undergraduates. I just thought: It's summer, let's have fun.
He got a standing ovation.
Won by a landslide.
(The speech, I should say, was infinitely more graceful and charming than I have managed to remember after all these years. It's really for this, I think, that an antisocial workaholic needs to join the Oxford Union in the first place.)
I am contemplating, of course, the case of Gordon Brown.
Michael White offers an overview of Brown's career.
Nick Prettejohn went on to become Chief Executive of Prudential UK.