Although I don’t think it was the reason the shadow chancellor was being laughed at, as a stammerer I respect his courage
On Wednesday, Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, had a bad day at the office. Shock, horror: he stammered during his response to George Osborne’s autumn statement. Cue gasps, backs of hands to foreheads, and tut-tutting with a wrinkled-chin shake of the head. You know what I thought? I thought “big deal” – and I’m sure he did too. Or he would have thought that, had he not been made to defend himself when questioned about it.
On Thursday morning, on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Sarah Montague asked Balls whether he defended his “performance” in the Commons “in political terms”. She later asked whether he “did [his] job well enough yesterday”. It was in response to this that Balls raised his stammer, explaining that, for the first couple of minutes when he begins speaking, he sometimes has a little trouble before he gets into his stride – especially with 300 MPs trying to shout him down.
Listening to him defend his position and talk about his stammer on the programme without a trace of self-pity, my first instinct was to give “Bruiser” Balls a massive hug; partly out of thanks. As a lifelong (and much more severe) stammerer myself, one who has for years been affected by prejudice and bigotry, it was almost with a sense of pride that I welcomed his acknowledging this with a firm, dignified handshake.
I can’t think of many more difficult audiences than the rowdy rabble that inhabits the House of Commons. There’s no doubt that one has to have an iron will to stand one’s ground against some of the vitriol that gets bandied around the chamber.
But the key thing is that, by and large, this vitriol is usually nothing personal. Call me naive, but I actually believe Osborne when he said that the laughter in response to Ed Balls’ statement was nothing to do with his stammer. I’ve watched the clip countless times now, and it seems clear to me that the laughter that erupted was not because of his block per se, but because it unfortunately occurred when he accidentally said that, “the national debt is NOT rising … er, is rising, is not falling … I’ll say that again … “. So he initially said the opposite of what he meant. In fact, if you watch the clip, you’ll see Ed Miliband flinch as a result of the error.
Obviously, it is vital that we all act in a civilised and sensitive way when it comes to equality and disability awareness, but it’s important we don’t get carried away to the extent that we get distracted from the main point. The fact is, however unfortunate it may have been, Balls did start off by saying the opposite of what he meant. This alone can send a stammerer into an internal frenzy. So while I don’t believe the laughter did have anything to do with his stammer, I do commend Balls for doing such a remarkable job at regaining and retaining his composure.
When flummoxed, my stammer can go into machine-gun-with-a-cork-in-it mode. Or, if you prefer a water-based analogy, it’s like the first time you use a garden hose in the spring after it’s been sitting under a ladder in the shed all winter. It splutters, sprays, explodes … and then finally calms down.
In the eyes of most decent and sensitive people – and particularly in the eyes of stammerers – to do Balls’s job with (and in spite of) a speech impediment is immensely courageous. And for that, I salute him.