Speaking of the British
I recently went on a business trip with three members of the British ruling classes. The late-night banter over drinks was predictably excellent. Sometimes, though, we had to work. When that happened, my companions showed up unprepared and without notes – and did just fine. No wonder, because their entire education had been a lesson in winging it. They knew that all you need to succeed is to speak well, and that's what the British ruling classes do: they speak well.
I'm talking about the caste of Britons who attended private school and/or Oxbridge before joining the establishment: senior politicians, civil servants, lawyers, pontificators and the better-dressed sort of banker. It's the class of Tony Blair, David Cameron, Christopher Hitchens, Anne Robinson and Simon Cowell: the people who speak English better than the rest of the world.
我這裡所說的是英國上過私立學校以及（或者）牛津劍橋、隨後進入體制內的那類人：資深政客、公務員、律師、高談闊論者，還有穿著考究的那種銀行家。那是托尼•布萊爾(Tony Blair)、戴維•卡梅倫(David Cameron)、克里斯托弗•希欽斯(Christopher Hitchens)、安娜•羅賓遜(Anne Robinson)和西蒙•考威爾(Simon Cowell)所屬的階層，他們的英語說得比世界其他任何階層都漂亮。
Even the entrance exam for the British establishment chiefly tests the ability to talk without knowledge. Good grades are not enough. You also need to perform in a peculiarly British ritual: the Oxbridge interview. It works like this: you are 17 years old. You are wearing a new suit. You travel to an Oxbridge college for your interview. You find the tutor's rooms. Perhaps you're served sherry, which you've never seen before. Then you talk. The tutors, sprawled on settees, drawl questions about whatever is keeping them awake. I know an applicant who was asked: “Don't you think the Piazzetta San Marco in Venice looks like a branch of Barclays bank?” If you speak well, you get handed your entry ticket to the establishment .
就連進入英國體制內大門的“入門”考試，也主要考的是沒有知識就侃侃而談的能力。成績好是不夠的，你還需要在牛津劍橋面試這個很英國式的儀式上表現良好。這個儀式就像下面這樣。 17歲時，你穿著新西裝，前往牛津或劍橋的某個學院參加面試，找到導師的房間。導師可能會請你喝杯你以前從沒見過的雪利酒，然後就開始談。導師們四仰八叉靠在沙發上，拖著長音問出各種讓他們無法入眠的問題。我認識一個申請人被問到的問題是：“你不覺得威尼斯的聖馬可廣場(Piazzetta San Marco)像巴克萊銀行(Barclays)的一家分行嗎？”如果答得漂亮，進入體制內的門票就會遞到你手中。
You arrive at Oxbridge knowing little. After all, you probably did school exams in just three subjects. At university, you only study one. Often it's English literature or history or Latin and Greek – the sort of subjects that have parents in other countries asking anxiously: “But what use will that be later?”
Nor is workaholic study encouraged. A South African relative of mine started his first “supervision” at Cambridge by confessing that he hadn't read every single book on the reading list. “Good God,” said his supervisor, “nor have I. I put them down hoping that you'd look at a couple, and tell me what they said.”
Oxbridge's teaching methods reward good talk. Aged 18, perhaps hungover, you read out your pitiful but elegant essay. The tutor points out gaps in your knowledge. For an hour, you talk your way around those gaps.
Traditionally, elite Britons then leave education aged 21. Until recently they rarely bothered with graduate school. Consequently, they know very little but speak very well, albeit only in English.
CP Snow, in his “Two Cultures” lecture of 1959, marvelled at their ignorance of basic science. Winston Churchill, for instance, had approved the misguided “area bombing” of Germany based on a flawed statistical study by his chief scientific adviser, Lord Cherwell. Of course Churchill couldn't check the numbers. His forte was rhetoric. It's no coincidence that his Nobel prize was for literature. And it's no coincidence that Britain's wartime king, George VI, is now known chiefly for his struggle – depicted in the film The King's Speech – to speak well.
查爾斯•珀西•斯諾(CP Snow)在他1959年題為《兩種文化》(Two Cultures)的講座中，驚詫於統治階層對基本科學知識的無知。例如，溫斯頓•丘吉爾(Winston Churchill)依據首席科學顧問徹韋爾勳爵(Lord Cherwell)有缺陷的統計研究，批准了受到誤導的對德“區域轟炸”。當然，丘吉爾沒辦法核對那些數字，他的強項是辭令。他拿到的諾貝爾獎是文學獎，這決非偶然。英國二戰時的國王喬治六世(George VI)現在之所以為人熟知，主要是因為他為了能把話說好曾付出很大努力，電影《國王的演講》(The King's Speech)講的就是這個故事。
Numbers remain a challenge for Britain's ruling class. It treats the City as a magical moneymaking machine, whose demands are best granted because lord knows how the thing works. Even the finance minister, George Osborne, has no education in economics beyond whatever he picked up studying history at Oxford. British public debate just doesn't feature many numerate people such as Warren Buffett, Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg or China's ruling engineers. Britain's own excellent engineers and quants are stuck in the engine room while the rhetoricians drive the train.
數字仍然是英國統治階層面臨的一個挑戰。他們把倫敦金融城當做神奇的賺錢機器，金融城的需求會得到最大程度的滿足，因為只有老天才知道那東西是怎麼運轉的。即使是英國財政大臣喬治•奧斯本(George Osborne)，除了在牛津學歷史時學到的那點皮毛外，也沒有受過什麼經濟學教育。英國公共辯論中的主角，很少是像沃倫•巴菲特(Warren Buffett)、比爾•蓋茨(Bill Gates)、馬克•扎克伯格(Mark Zuckerberg)或是中國工程師出身的領導人那樣懂數字的人。英國國內優秀的工程師和定量分析師都被關在發動機室裡，開火車的是那幫誇誇其談的傢伙。
Britain's rulers still struggle to judge scientific arguments about nuclear energy or climate change, writes the historian Lisa Jardine (who appears in this week's Inventory). When Tony Blair hinted that Iraq's “weapons of mass destruction” could hit London within 45 minutes, the establishment mostly believed him. Educated Americans would often praise Blair for arguing the case better than President Bush could. Yes, Blair spoke well. That's what he did. Where there were gaps in his knowledge, he talked around them.
Blair had only one verbal shortcoming, which he shared with Margaret Thatcher: no sense of humour. But in general, Britain's ruling classes are funny speakers. To quote Noël Coward, this class's favoured playwright: “Since my life began/The most I' ve had is just/A talent to amuse.”
布萊爾在運用語言方面只有一個缺點，他和撒切爾夫人(Margaret Thatcher)一樣，沒有幽默感。不過總體上，英國統治階層人士都是有趣的演講者。套用這個階層最喜愛的劇作家諾埃爾•考沃德(Noël Coward)的話說：“我有生以來/最為擅長的就是/讓人愉悅。”
It was the urge to amuse that recently prompted Cameron to riff on an old TV ad and shout “Calm down, dear,” at a female Labour MP. No other western leader (except Silvio Berlusconi) would have risked the sexism, because they don 't need to be funny.
Admittedly, ignorance sometimes saves Britain's rulers from error. Ignorant and suspicious of philosophy, they reject the daft ideas that sometimes ensnare the French or German elites. Anyway, running a country on eloquence alone hasn't worked out disastrously – or at least not yet .