“When I think - I’m a genius, when I write - I’m a distinguished man of letters, when I speak - I’m a fool”, a quote - heavily paraphrased - which is attributed to the Russian émigré writer, Vladimir Nabakov.
I’m sure most of us understand the sentiment. I certainly do (setting aside the ‘distinguished man of letters’ part).
It’s easy to think of stonking, relevant, insurmountable truisms in private. It’s a little harder to put them down on paper accurately and concisely. But it is hardest by far to compose an argument on the hoof and articulate it clearly, under pressure and under the glare of publicity.
That’s why the ability to do so is a rare and sought after talent. It’s also why, contrary to popular belief, not everyone has it in them to become a front line politician.
The people doing well in politics, the party leaders for instance, are professionals operating at the top of their game. Like them or loathe them, their communication skills set them apart. In the modern political world that’s an absolute necessity.
So when I note that Tom Elliott doesn’t have the necessary skills, it shouldn’t be taken as a personal criticism. It is simply an inescapable fact, which Ulster Unionists will have to face up to - either now or at a later date.
I’ve just listened to Alban Maginness, Stephen Nolan and several Radio Ulster listeners lead Tom a merry dance on the proposed sale of the Northern Ireland Electricity grid to the Republic’s main energy provider, ESB.
Setting aside the issues involved, and Elliott’s struggle with a ropy phone connection, it was blatantly obvious that he was not on top of his brief, whereas Maginness was. Nor was he able to think on his feet and improvise a decent argument.
Of course, Elliott’s followers argue that while he is not the most sparkling media performer, his personal attributes and feel for grassroots unionism surmount that difficulty. They need to get real.
No doubt Tom’s an amiable and gifted man, and an asset to the UUP. But the party is picking a figurehead tomorrow night, whose main task will be to communicate a message to voters. The repercussions are serious.
Tom declined a TV debate with Basil McCrea on Hearts and Minds last week. It’s clear why. In a debate he can be made to appear foolish by even a reasonably nimble opponent.
He sounds like a stuck record, he can’t absorb and respond to unexpected or new information and he coins otherwordly, meaningless phrases like ’integration mechanism’ (an adherence to which apparently distinguishes the UUP from the DUP).
Whether or not Tom has a better strategy for the UUP’s recovery or not could actually become an irrelevance. If the Ulster Unionist party is perceived as the ’Stumbling and Mumbling’ party, it will lose votes hand over fist, should it promise the moon and the stars to the people of Northern Ireland.
This is not a treasurer for the Fermanagh Young Farmers that the delegates are selecting. There is a serious danger that, from Thursday morning, the UUP’s message, which is already incoherent, will become even more indecipherable to the public at large.
To be perfectly clear, I'm not an out and out proponent of Basil McCrea. I don't like Stormont particularly and I don't like his emphasis on devolved politics to the exclusion of the national. If I were a UUP member, voting tomorrow night, I'd like another option. But, in a two horse race, it's no contest!
The party is famously stubborn and recalcitrant, but is it really set to name as leader someone who is so blatantly lacks the necessary skills?