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Philip Collins: Jackie Weaver vs Aled’s iPad was a rhetorical battle for the ages

Tuesday 9 February 2021

2001: A Space Odyssey, The Usual Suspects, William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar… the Handforth Parish Council meeting had it all

Brian Tolver: When do we plan to start?

Unknown: Fuck off.

Robert McKee’s Story, the great manual of screenwriting, suggests a technique that is perfectly used here. Be sure that the first scene contains the whole film in miniature. This magnificent slice of dialogue, of which Beckett would have been proud, could be setting up Vladimir and Estragon for a search of endless futility. Instead, the protagonist Councillor Brian Tolver, chair of Handforth Parish Council, gives us a sense, in his forlorn opening question, of the colossal feud that has defined this moment before we join the action. Councillor Tolver had been ejected from a Zoom meeting of the parish council by an administrator whose authority in such matters he disdained. His opening line is dripping with this bitterness and he is answered with an anonymous imprecation, uttered sotto voce by an opponent who, though formidable and to be feared, had briefly forgotten to mute his microphone.

This scene is so perfectly scripted that there is, in a way, nothing left to be said. We have here the two elements of the drama of parish council politics. The eternal procedural dullness which leads to pointless nastiness. Politics so vicious because there is so little at stake. There is a hint of The Usual Suspects here, the usual suspects being, in this instance, Councillors Brian Tolver, Aled Brewerton (played by his iPad), Councillors John Smith and David Pincombe. And Keyser Soze, whose identity will soon be revealed.

Jackie Weaver: I think we can start any moment, chairman. I think it is just helpful to go through the same things as we went through before which is to encourage people to just switch off their microphones because it does reduce the background [noise]. I’ll continue to admit people if you’d like to start the meeting, chairman.

Brian Tolver: Can we be assured that we won’t be thrown out of the meeting like last time?

Jackie Weaver: As long as we have reasonable behaviour from everyone, no one will be excluded from the meeting.

Brian Tolver: I was thrown out of the meeting. So was Councillor Brewerton.

Peter Moore: Quite rightly.

Ms Weaver: As a point of order, chairman, could we start the meeting?

John Smith: Chair?

Brian Tolver: We haven’t started the meeting yet. Do you want to speak anyway?

John Smith: Yes, I’d like to ask a point of order.

Brian Tolver: We’re not in a meeting so points of order are not applicable.

John Smith: Has it started yet? No?

The cast then proceed straight to the big issue that is tearing Handforth Parish Council apart. It is a question that has a philosophical, even an existential, aspect: has the meeting started? Until it is resolved, none of the many things over which Handforth Parish Council has jurisdiction – allotments, bus shelters, public clocks, traffic signs, verge maintenance, litter bins, boating ponds and park benches – matter at all.

The discussion about whether the councillors are in a meeting or merely on a Zoom call as a prelude to a possible meeting is deployed well by Councillor Tolver here to rule out points of order which can only apply once a meeting, rather than an argument about a meeting, has begun. It is crucial, in politics at their most local, to understand the rulebook. Power in parish politics is procedure.

The seeds of this dispute have been laid earlier in this pivotal passage when Councillor Tolver demands to be reassured that his enemy, the indomitable Jackie Weaver of Cheshire Association of Local Councils, will not eject him from the meeting, as she had done in a caustic previous meeting of Handforth Parish Council. This is the real, enduring drama and, in the exchange that follows, we realise that Councillor Tolver’s informed use of the points of order gambit is designed to prosecute his epic irritation with Jackie Weaver.

Brian Tolver: Are you here as the proper officer?

Jackie Weaver: I am here offering support to Handforth Parish Council in the conduct of this meeting this evening.

From Aled’s iPad: You’re not the proper officer.

Brian Tolver: Is that as clerk or proper officer?

Jackie Weaver: There’s no difference between clerk or proper officer.

Brian Tolver: Of course there is.

From Aled’s iPad: Yes there is.

Brian Tolver: You must know under basic law, I would have thought.

Jackie Weaver: Are we going to start this meeting?

Brian Tolver: It isn’t the role of somebody who, however kindly, volunteers to do the clerking for a meeting, to act as a proper officer if they haven’t so been appointed. That’s against the law.

Not since HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey has a more frightening machine burst into the action than the appearance of Aled’s iPad. This is a super-computer with a human personality and all the accumulated paranoia of having spent years on a Cheshire parish council. In 2001, HAL sabotages the spacewalk of one astronaut and locks another out of the ship. It is an eerie echo of what is about to befall the terrifying Aled’s iPad.

The rhetorical technique on display here is known as prosopopoeia, which is a device by which a speaker communicates to the audience by appearing as another person or object. Aled Brewerton, the cunning parish council genius behind the disguise, is following in an ancient tradition. In Institutes of Oratory, Quintilian writes of the power of this figure to “bring down the gods from heaven, evoke the dead, and give voices to cities and states”. Or, if not cities and states, then at least the Planning and Environment committee of Handforth Parish Council.

Yet there is a troubling implication in the dialogue here. Aled’s iPad, and his accomplice Councillor Tolver, may well be right, strictly speaking, about the law. And the pair of them never speak other than strictly. There is, in point of fact, a difference between a clerk and a proper officer and the exchange reveals a truth first set by Aristotle in his Rhetoric: it is not enough merely to be correct. A persuasive argument needs to connect emotionally (pathos) as well as rationally (logos) and it needs to be embodied in a pleasant character (ethos).

The irritable Councillor Tolver and his machine sidekick lose our affection to the gentle yet firm insistence of Jackie Weaver who, despite being quite in the wrong procedurally, wins the argument through force of character.

Brian Tolver: Right, we’ll start the meeting, and I want to remind people of what I said at the start of the last meeting. That this meeting has not been called according to the law. The law has been broken.

Jackie Weaver: It has been properly called…

Brian Tolver: Will you please let the Chairman…

From Aled’s iPad: Mrs Weaver, please!

Jackie Weaver: If you disrupt this meeting, I will have to remove you from it.

From Aled’s iPad: You can’t.

Brian Tolver: It’s only the Chairman who can remove people from the meeting. You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver. No authority at all.

(Brian Tolver is removed from the meeting.)

From Aled’s iPad: She’s just kicked him out.

Jackie Weaver: I have indeed.

From Aled’s iPad: No, she’s kicked him out. No, don’t. She’s kicked him out.

Jackie Weaver: This is a meeting called by two councillors…

From Aled’s iPad: Illegally.

Jackie Weaver: May now elect a Chairman.

From Aled’s iPad: No they can’t because the vice chair is here. I take charge. 

Barry Burkhill: What are you talking about? You don’t know what you’re talking about….

From Aled’s iPad: I want to leave. She’s kicked Brian out so I’m leaving.

This is proof of the limits of rhetoric. Councillor Tolver has a point to make about the legality of proceedings and he finds the best line in the exchange, the line that will live in the memory. “You have no authority here, Jackie Weaver. No authority at all” is the “I knew Jack Kennedy and, senator, you are no Jack Kennedy” of English parish council politics. And yet it avails him of nothing.

There is a brutal realpolitik at play here and it shows that she who hosts the Zoom controls the exit button. The irony is exquisite and you can hear it in the forlorn last line uttered by Aled’s iPad. The super-computer has been defeated because the true technological power is wielded by the person who sends round the calendar invite that contains the Zoom link. This has become a political truth of the first order and, though Aled’s iPad falls back desperately on the rulebook which he angrily implores Ms Weaver to read and understand, he knows this is hopeless.

Councillor Barry Burkhill tries to intercede on Aled’s iPad’s behalf. Councillor Burkhill certainly does know what he is talking about, or at least he ought to. He has been on the council for 39 years and since 2019 has been the Mayor of East Cheshire. But notwithstanding the support of Handforth political royalty, it is only now inevitable that Aled’s iPad himself gives up and leaves the meeting. Handforth Parish Council will be conducted now by mere mortals.

John Smith: What I would say is that it was a very good example of bullying within Cheshire East…

Ian Ball: Thank you. I noted before the chairman departed from the meeting, the chairman of the Council, er, I noted that his label on his video said clerk of Handforth Parish Council. Could anyone please clarify how that came about and whether that is in fact the case right now?

John Smith: Thank you, Ian, I must admit I didn’t notice that. I have taken…

Ian Ball: I have taken a photograph of it. 

John Smith: I can only assume it was…. Did it say it on a badge or was it a tag on his laptop?

Ian Ball: It’s like you see Ian Ball on my video. It said “clerk, Handforth Parish Council” on his. 

John Smith: I have no idea how that has happened and as far as I’m concerned… and any other councillors here this evening… he is not the clerk of Parish Council, whether he declares himself to be or not or makes himself a badge that says “I am Clerk of Parish Council”. My understanding is he cannot do it, he is not …

Ian Ball: No. I also have an email from him saying he has taken over as clerk of Handforth Parish Council. 

John Smith: I’d like to perhaps ask Jackie; can you give us a ChALC view on this?

Jackie Weaver: Yes, thank you, chairman. Yes, most definitely I did, thank you. I did notice the moniker on the screen and then it did make it quite difficult putting names to whoever. But, having followed this quite closely, the chairman quite simply declared himself clerk and notified everybody of the case and the remaining members, quite correctly, have refused to recognise that position. Cut, as Councillor Smith says, I’m afraid there is no way of stopping him calling himself clerk. Please refer to me as Britney Spears from now on.

Roger Small: Please could Helen Murdoch be brought back into the meeting?

Jackie Weaver: Who’s Helen Murdoch?

Roger Small: Yes, please.

Jackie Weaver: No, who is Helen Murdoch?

This shows how Jackie Weaver can capture an exchange in a single memorable image. Clearly, in one sense, she is mocking the presumption of the departed Councillor Tolver for calling himself the clerk of Handforth Parish Council when he is no such thing and knows it. If Brian can be the clerk, then I can be Britney Spears. Yet why Britney Spears rather than, say, Christina Aguilera? Surely this is a reference to Ms Weaver’s accidentally-on-purpose habit of kicking Councillor Tolver back into the waiting room: ‘Oops!… I Did It Again.’

Then a strange event ensues and there is a feeling that there is more going on under the surface of the conversation than is at first sight apparent. The suspiciously plain-named John Smith takes on a reasonable persona of replacement chair and seems to be minded to observe the rules in a civilised fashion. He defers to the authority of ChALC (the Cheshire Association of Local Councils), of which Jackie Weaver is the voice. But then, out of nowhere, the Murdochs turn up….

There has been a lot of publicity recently about Murdoch’s visits to see the prime minister. Clearly, he is sending less heralded members of the family to keep an eye on Handforth Parish Council and, given what has taken place so far, no wonder.

Jackie Weaver: I have never seen such a strongly worded letter from a monitoring officer to a local council. In 25 years, I’ve never seen anything like it. 

John Smith: You’ve not been to Handforth often enough…. Yes, because otherwise it’s like that. Thank you, Jackie, which is why we’ve been walking on eggshells since July. June, yes.

Cyn: I’d say glass, I wouldn’t say eggshells. My feet are cut to ribbons….

David Pincombe: I think if this goes viral on the internet or Facebook or whatever, it’s going to start a war of words.

John Smith:  I agree that we don’t want to prejudice anything, we don’t want a turf war breaking out.

Jackie Weaver: It’s not going to be finished this side of Christmas.

John Smith: (Sighs loudly.)

David Pincombe: That would get the… that would get the flavour.

Sue: I think that’s a very good compromise.

John Smith: Yes, because then we are not… Peter?

Peter Moore: Yes, hand down. There is a vacancy.

Jackie Weaver: Okay, thank you. And… I’m trying to choose my words… You know me, I’m not often lost for words.

No, indeed, Jackie Weaver. Not often lost for words at all. The greatest speakers often deploy the rhetorical device of being a plain soul, not given to rhetoric. “I am no orator as Brutus is,” says Antony in Julius Caesar. “I have neither cleverness nor rhetorical skill nor the authority nor gesture nor eloquence nor the power of speech to stir men up,” he goes on, using rhetorical skill to stir men up. Jackie Weaver echoes this passage but at the service of a dispute more brutal than anything dreamt of in Shakespearian tragedy. “You know me. I am not often lost for words.”

The two instruments of her triumph are contained in this passage. The first is that perennial of parish council politics, the stiffly worded letter. Indeed, a letter more stiff than Jackie has seen in 25 years in the Handforth area. Let us hope that Joe Biden is watching, A stiff letter to Putin about the Navalny affair should get that sorted out. Then the shady and unlikely figure of David Pincombe clearly signals the power of modern media. “If this goes viral,” he rather suspiciously predicts, “it’s going to start a war of words.”

So it has, and a war that Jackie Weaver, the Macclesfield Aristotle, has comprehensively won. All wars are tragic, but the real tragedy of this one is that it accomplished, in the best tradition of local politics, absolutely nothing at all.