Speaking of elitism, tonight I attended the annual Cyril Foster Lecture, delivered by Jack Straw, Leader of the House of Commons, Former British Home and Foreign Secretary. His talk was a reasonably generic discussion about the importance of identity in international politics. The most interesting point was when he was heckled by five young men in pinstriped suits, singing in barbershop quartet style. This was when he was trying to answer a question about how democratic it was to launch the war in Iraq. The tune was that of Rockabye Baby, the sole lyric “nonsense.” All told, it was so gracefully and effectively done that both the speaker and the Chancellor of Oxford (former Chairman of the Conservative Party and Governor of Hong Kong) thanked ‘the choir’ in their closing remarks.
People joke about how civil public discourse in the United Kingdom is, but this was a demonstration of exactly that humour, good taste, and effectiveness. To be fair, Mr. Straw also demonstrated the extent to which senior British public officials seem to be invariably excellent public speakers.
At the reception afterwards, I spoke with Mr. Straw about identity politics in profoundly divided states such as Iraq and the Former Yugoslavia. I also met Avi Shlaim, a man whose books on the middle east I have been reading since first year, and which I assigned to virtually all of my students over the summer. Anyone wishing to comment intelligently on the middle east should at least read his concise and informative War and Peace in the Middle East. I told my students to buy it, for reference and lending purposes.