Total Politics has published an article I wrote on the secret world of Whitehall Speechwriting in this month’s issue. I’ve pasted the full text of the article below.
RITES OF PASSAGE…
Every social group has its own rites of passage. You’re not a real traveller until you’ve caught malaria. You’re not a real soldier until you’ve had your leg tattooed. And you’re not a real Lib Dem until you’ve graduated from the University of Essex, smoked a little dope and worshipped at the altar of George Osborne.
Anthropologists have studied the steps involved in rising up the hierarchies of many different cultures, but no-one has yet, to my knowledge at least, examined the hierarchy one has to rise through to become a real Whitehall Speechwriter: which is a pity because the steps involved are as intriguing as anything to be found in the jungles of Papua New Guinea. The watering holes of Whitehall are filled with speechwriters sharing their stories.
The first step for any speechwriter is the essential public humiliation. During the Renaissance, failing students were made to walk the streets wearing a pair of donkey’s ears. Today’s Whitehall speechwriters are made to endure far worse humiliations. And they never have to wait long for their moment to arrive: this is usually a week-one ritual.
I remember one newly-appointed speechwriter who received a rollocking from her Minister within days of starting. To make matters worse, that rollocking was issued from the dispatch box in the House of Commons. He had painstakingly prepared the Minister’s second reading speech and, as many new recruits do, leant rather towards the kind of purple prose of which the Minister had not approved. After reading out one particularly offensive paragraph, the Minister paused and grimaced at his opposite number: ‘Sorry. I’ve got a new speechwriter,’ he mumbled. The House erupted in laughter. His poor new speechwriter, sitting yards away in the official’s box, was mortified; to make matters worse, the Hansard writers captured his moment of shame in history: the official report recorded not only the Minister’s words, but the House’s response as well: [laughter]. It was the razor-sharp edges of the square brackets that hurt the most.
My own moment of public shame came at the hands of Mary Anne Sieghart: she launched a vicious tirade against declining linguistic standards in Britain after spotting a stray apostrophe that had surreptitiously crept into a speech I had written. This common grammatical error would not usually have warranted such a severe roasting but my crime was made all the worse because it had appeared in a speech written for – yup, you guessed it – the Secretary of State for Education. The following day, I was sent dozens of copies of ‘Eats, Shoots and Leaves’ by thoughtful colleagues in the Department. Thanks, guys.
Second step is the inevitable time-wasting that comes with being a Whitehall speechwriter- expending hours, days and weeks on words that are destined never to see the light of day. Every speechwriter knows the misery of working well into the early hours - cancelling friends, missing dinner and getting the night bus home - only to see their painstakingly crafted words disposed of like used tissue paper first thing the following morning.
Either it’s the policy has changed, the positioning has changed or the politician’s mind: whatever, it is par for the course for the speechwriter. We spend days carving our bow and whittling new arrows only to find that, by the time we’ve finished, the target has moved several yards to the left.
The trouble is that some Ministers do have minds of their own and that they tend to regard their speeches as multigyms in which to exercise them. They see speeches as opportunities to hone their ideas and test their thinking. Sadly for the speechwriter, this often means thousands of words being consigned to the bin in the process, and often in the cruelest, most dismissive manner. In the Seventies, Douglas Hurd wrote speeches for Ted Heath. He told how one of his drafts was returned with the comment: ‘This simply will not do.’ It’s hard to know where to go with that!
Of course, the other thing that can torpedo a carefully crafted speech is ‘events’. Sometimes this might be a diary clash and sometimes it might be something truly momentous.
I was at the TUC in Brighton on September 11 2001 when Tony Blair was due to make his annual speech to Congress: he had been expected to make some politically explosive comments about reforming public services and the euro, setting out an audacious stall for his second term as PM.
Of course, events in New York that day put a stop to all that: he completely discarded his prepared text and instead issued some hastily prepared brief remarks about the emerging crisis in New York before hurriedly returning to London.
I will never forget the sight of one of Blair’s then speechwriters scuttling around the bar at the Grand Hotel, distributing copies of the text which Blair had been due to deliver before the planes went in to the World Trade Centre. You could see the weeks spent working on the text etched on his forehead as he implored journalists and trade unionists to read it, pleading ‘But it contains some really important messages…!’
Third step in the Whitehall Speechwriter’s rites of passage is the identity crisis. This usually strikes after a speechwriter has been writing for the same person for more than six months or so: the lines start blurring between the speechwriter’s personality and that of their principle. This is almost inevitable. After all, the whole job of speechwriting is almost necessarily one of psychological transferrance: to write convincingly for someone, you have to really get into their mind. The trouble is that this results in the absurd situation of fresh-faced recent graduates wandering around St James Park literally imagining that they are cabinet ministers or party leaders, preparing their manifestos for Britain, mouthing their messages to the nation.
The consequences can be terrifying. In some cases, speechwriters wind up speaking, acting and even looking like their speakers, like owners and their dogs. If they are writing for a charismatic, attractive politician, this can be to their advantage: but, let’s face it, there aren’t too many of them around so, for most people, the only way is down. It was a tragedy for the young skinny chap from Weybridge recruited to write John Prescott’s speeches a few years ago. One can only imagine what his poor parents thought…
The other risk is that the speechwriter starts believing their own hype. Peter Hyman was so taken in writing Tony Blair’s speeches on education (X3) that he left Number 10 to work in an Islington school. Danny Kruger was so enthused by David Cameron’s talk about the Big Society he left to set up a charity. At least someone understood what he was banging on about.
Fourth step is the crash and burn moments. These moments – when a speech unexpectedly misfires - punctuate the speechwriter’s career. It might be a joke that misses the spot, a soundbite that fails to register, or, occasionally, god forbid, the slow hand-clap. We’ve all seen the coverage of Cabinet Ministers being heckled or slow hand-clapped - Blair at the Women’s Institute, Jacqui Smith at the Police Federation, Patricia Hewitt at the Royal College of Nursing - but, the next time this happens, think less about the red-faced Minister at the podium – he is more than capable of dealing with it - think instead about about the anguished speechwriter at the back of the hall, chewing their nails and contemplating curtains their career.
Because there is nothing like the crash and burn moment to prove the old maxim – if it works, it’s because the Speaker is an amazing orator; if it bombs, it’s because the speechwriter is a complete gimp. That’s right – you’ve just got to accept responsibility and take what’s coming at you: acting as an outlet for your speaker’s anger and aggression is an unwritten part of the Whitehall Speechwriter’s job description. We all have tales to tell about receiving the ‘hairdryer treatment’ at the hands of our hollering bosses.
Fifth step is the stomach ulcer. There comes a time for every Whitehall Speechwriter when the eighteen-hour days, thousands of words every week, the relentless pressure, scrutiny and ingratitude finally take their toll.
The good news is there’s no shortage of opportunities for Whitehall Speechwriters who do reach this point.
You can go into business. In the last few months, a number of FTSE companies have scoured through Whitehall for top-level speechwriters. They are insistent on only seeing people who have had their talents forged in the white heat of Whitehall. This is proof they’ll be able to withstand the heat of a corporate environment. And they pay handsomely – six figure salaries are the norm.
You can go and write screenplays. A former colleague of mine has, within just ten years, made the transition from writing speeches about European economic reform for Helen Liddell to writing screenplays on Spooks and Fixer for ITV. He wasn’t the first speechwriter to make this leap. Peter Benchley was Richard Nixon’s speechwriter before he left to write the screenplay for Jaws. He was clearly so traumatized by his own rites of passage that he named Jaws’ first victim, Kintner: the same name of his old White House Chief of Staff.
You can write a book on speechwriting. A clutch of Whitehall Speechwriters have now gone on to do this, including myself, Susan Jones and Matthew Shinn – who have written the expert guide, the easy guide and the indispensable guide to speechwriting.
You can go into journalism, finding a paper that reflects your former boss’s politics. Andrew Neather went from being Jack Straw’s speechwriter to being a columnist on the right-wing Standard. Philip Collins went from being Tony Blair’s speechwriter to being a columnist on the right-wing Times.
Or, finally, you can take the ultimate leap yourself and go into politics. The upper echelons of all three of the main parties are swamped with former speechwriters. Ed Miliband began his career as the speechwriter to Harriet Harman. George Osborne began his career as a speechwriter to William Hague. And Nick Clegg began his career as a speechwriter to Leon Britton.
The great thing for them now is they can enjoy putting some other fresh-faced whipper-snapper through their own rites of passage.
Posted by Simon Lancaster on May 8th, 2011 :: Filed under Random