Lend me your ears! The art of political speechwriting | Politics

Even her fiercest supporters would acknowledge that one aspect of the new prime minister Liz Truss’s political skillset that requires urgent improvement is that of communication. She wasn’t called upon to put it to the test in winning the Conservative leadership contest, where she only had to demonstrate that she was not Rishi Sunak and avoid any challenging media interviews. But from now on she has to speak for, and most importantly to, the nation at large.

One way that politicians attempt to look as if they know what they’re talking about is by delivering a set-piece speech. If her speeches on the leadership hustings are anything to go by, Truss, who came across as if she was running for the sixth-form prefect’s office, is no Winston Churchill. She’s not even her idol, Margaret Thatcher, or indeed David Cameron, who famously won the Conservative party leadership on the strength of a speech.

As the party conference season heaves into view, it’s worth remembering that most speeches tend to be concerned with the announcement of a new tax rebate system or the like, and all but a tiny fraction are forgotten as soon they have been delivered, if not before. But if only a handful of speeches achieve a kind of immortality, countless numbers are written with the hope that they’ll capture the public’s imagination, even if the public constitutes only those gathered at the opening of a provincial bypass. To this end, a semi-hidden profession has mushroomed to produce these aspiring works of political glory – that of the speechwriter. Unlike most other forms of writing, it doesn’t offer a credit or a byline. In this country it’s a behind-the-scenes sort of occupation, unsung and uncelebrated.

Jess Cunliffe was a local newspaper reporter working in Luton and Leighton Buzzard when she covered a 2010 election event at which then Tory leader Cameron gave a speech. “It was a really good speech,” recalls Cunliffe, who describes herself as a “Cameroon Conservative”. “And I thought: ‘Rather than reporting on speeches, I’d quite like to be writing them.’” But it seemed a fanciful idea to her, akin to joining the MCC or MI5, until she read a profile of Clare Foges, who was working as a Conservative speechwriter. “And I thought: ‘She’s not Oxbridge, she didn’t go to private school, she’s not male and old. She’s a bit like me and maybe this is a career option.’”

Lend me your ears! The art of political speechwriting | Politics
Liz Truss giving her acceptance speech at the Queen Elizabeth II conference centre in London last week. Photograph: Getty Images

So she quit journalism and started working for Tory MP Mark Lancaster, got some experience writing speeches and applied for a job at Conservative central office. Cunliffe became Sayeeda Warsi’s special adviser, or spad – a political appointee with the status of a temporary civil servant – before landing a job as a speechwriter at No 10 with the man who originally inspired her. She says that Cameron, who had a background as a speechwriter himself, was unusual among senior politicians in being quick to acknowledge their input: “He would introduce me as his speechwriter and want people to meet me and know that I’d help write his speeches.”

As Tony Blair’s former speechwriter Philip Collins notes in his book on the subject, When They Go Low, We Go High, in the 19th century, politicians such as William Gladstone and Benjamin Disraeli would only make three polished speeches a year. Nowadays their equivalents can get through that number in a week. It’s not feasible, or at least not sensible, to be in high office and spend half your time honing fine rhetorical phrases.

Yet perhaps as a hangover from the 19th- and early 20th-century idea of politicians as orators, they can risk being seen as inauthentic – a mere actor reading a script – if it’s known that the words they speak are someone else’s. So with one or two exceptions, speechwriters tend to maintain a low profile and keep shtum about their efforts. “Some of the biggest things I’ve worked on I can’t talk about,” says Daniel Finkelstein, Times columnist, Conservative peer and one-time speechwriter for William Hague, among others. “Some of my best lines I can’t boast about. That’s just the way it is in this country.”

Philip Collins, who has broken cover, now runs a speechwriting website called the Draft and has arguably done more than anyone else to shed light on the shadowy business of writing for politicians. “Speechwriting is a bit like comedy writing,” he says. “The British do it alone while the Americans employ a whole battalion. So, as a writer, you are the only one, but that is not to say that plenty of people are not involved.” If it’s a big set-piece speech, such as the leader’s speech at a party conference, preparations can start months beforehand and the number of people who want an input can grow to an unruly amount. But it usually starts off in a room with several people shooting ideas around.

“You will be the one holding the pen,” says Michael Lea, a former speechwriter for Gordon Brown. And the first task, he says, is to get down all the information and chatter that’s going on in the room and then try to establish a general overarching theme. But once that’s established, the other voices don’t suddenly fade away. During the drafting process, various ministers and interested parties will want to share their thoughts and try to get their particular concerns included in the final document.

“It is a curiosity of the job,” Collins has written, “that people seem to believe that if they send in a few lines with no context then the speech can be assembled from all these bits, like flat-pack furniture comprised of the parts from different chairs.” There will, at least, be plenty of opportunities for revision. “You’re talking 20-plus drafts, possibly,” says Lea. “Obviously some are major rewrites and some are minor tweaks. It depends on how your principal likes to work.”

Some of the principals are talented speechwriters themselves. Finkelstein says that George Osborne used to call writing speeches for Hague “taking free kicks for Beckham”. But using that analogy, not all free kicks are 30-yard scorchers into the top corner of the goal. It’s no good seeking an epic register if your audience are wanting something more down to earth. As Collins has noted, Churchill spent most of his political career making speeches that were far too grand for their context. It took a world war to transform his sumptuously turned sentences into spirit-rousing classics guaranteed a place in collections of great speeches.

Winston Churchill giving a speech at County Hall, London, in 1941.
Winston Churchill giving a speech at County Hall, London, in 1941. Photograph: HF Davis/Getty Images

For students of speechwriting such as Finkelstein, there is an ever-present danger, he acknowledges, of going too large. “William Hague once expressed the problem to me. He said: ‘Your speech will often read as if it’s meant to be delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, when I’m actually giving it at the Durham Conservative party Christmas dinner.’” Hague had two golden rules of speechmaking, says Finkelstein. “First of all, every half-sentence has got to be useful. And second, never use a joke unless you’re absolutely certain that it’s funny.”

Finkelstein has a reputation for being something of a joke-meister. Sometimes politicians have come to him just to insert a little humour into their rather dry proclamations. But the only test for whether a joke is funny, he says, is if someone laughs. So he says it’s vital to tell it to someone beforehand and see what the response is. “If they don’t laugh,” he notes, “there’s no point arguing that it’s funny.” Jokes are valued because they help break the tension in the audience, but also show politicians as more “human” – a quality they all want to be seen to possess but most often struggle to convey. It should go without saying that laughter is dependent not just on the funniness of the joke but also the manner in which it is delivered. Former prime minister Theresa May, for example, was never going to enjoy a second career as a standup. Finkelstein has written jokes for her but says they work best if they are kept simple with an immediate punchline, whereas with Hague he could allow for a more nuanced build-up.

Brown is another politician who no one has ever looked to for belly laughs. Much more at home with the “post neo-classical endogenous growth theory” of economics than comic banter, he tended to come across on the podium as an austerely serious man. So Lea is rightly proud of once persuading him, against the then prime minister’s better judgment, to tell a joke playing on some snowstorms that had hindered travel, but whose subtext referred to the rumours circulating of a plot to overthrow him as Labour leader. What it amounted to was Brown opening a speech by saying that he had thought he wasn’t going to be there that day. But it brought the house down and was positively referred to in the news coverage. “It’s small victories,” Lea says. “Perhaps no one else remembers it but there is no greater feeling than seeing something you’ve written read out by someone really important on TV, and even more so if you’re there.”

At this current anxious juncture of history, any speechwriter who could come up with a joke that the perennially stiff Truss was able to deliver and was actually funny would certainly command the respect, not to say amazement, of his or her fellow professionals.

What every speechwriter dreams of, though, is writing something that enters the history books and becomes part of common language. Such an outcome, as Collins has argued, depends largely on external factors and how much the speech matters. “We shall fight on the beaches … We shall never surrender” was a momentous peroration by any reckoning, but that’s in no small part because Britain was under threat of a Nazi invasion in June 1940 when Churchill uttered those deathless words.

In When They Go Low, We Go High, Collins picks out Neil Kinnock’s 1987 Welsh Labour party conference speech as an example of a great speech made in peacetime. “Why,” Kinnock famously asked, “am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?” The answer could be that the oldest British university is only a little over a thousand years old, so it’s only about 30 generations of Kinnocks who were shortchanged on their education. But he was using a rhetorical device that proved successfully emotive. So much so, indeed, that later in 1987, during his first run for the US presidency, Joe Biden borrowed heavily from Kinnock’s speech and was forced to withdraw from the race having been accused of plagiarism. What made Biden’s mistake particularly hard to understand is that he would have been surrounded by a small army of speechwriters, who either sourced the original material or failed to stop him from using it without attribution.

Neil Kinnock addresses the Welsh Labour party Conference, Llandudno, May 1987.
Neil Kinnock addresses the Welsh Labour party Conference, Llandudno, May 1987. Photograph: David Levenson/Getty Images

Ever since Ted Sorensen became known for helping to craft John F Kennedy’s inaugural address – “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country” – the role of speechwriter in US politics has grown steadily more important. The White House has its own director of speechwriting and a team of about seven or eight writers. Barack Obama’s first director of speechwriting, Jon Favreau, has gone on to become a media star with his own podcast, Pod Save America.

Clare Foges was in No 10 when Obama’s entourage, including several speechwriters, were part of a state visit in 2011. “They were very nice,” she recalls. “But they took what they did so incredibly seriously, to the point where one of them stood in our offices and started declaiming one of his speeches, you know, ‘From the plains of Ohio to the canyons of New Mexico’ sort of thing. And we were all looking at each other trying not to laugh. Obviously, Britain doesn’t have the same canvas on which to paint words. You can’t really say: ‘From the Peak District to Salisbury Plain.’ So you can be a bit grander as an American speechwriter, and they are grander.”

Foges started out working for Boris Johnson when he was mayor of London, before graduating to No 10 and Cameron. What were the differences in writing speeches for them? “Boris would be full of praise: ‘This is appallingly good!’ And then never use a word of what I’d written. Whereas Cameron was not so effusive, more exacting, but he would actually use it and, I felt, consider my opinion, which was better for the professional self-esteem, ultimately.”

If speechwriters are to an extent off-stage ventriloquists, they have to adapt their voice to that of the speechmaker. “You have to vary your tone and pace,” says Finkelstein and failure to do so can lead to formulaic or confused speeches. But what about your politics – can they be adapted to suit the speaker? Cunliffe says she couldn’t write for a Labour politician such as Keir Starmer, although she noted that he had been looking for a speechwriter.

David Cameron speaking in front of a portrait of Winston Churchill
David Cameron making a speech on MPs expenses at the St Stephen’s Club, London, in 2009. Photograph: PA Images/Alamy

“You can’t stretch it too far,” agrees Collins. “You need to be comfortable making the case. There were occasions I wrote speeches I disagreed with – the case for ID cards, for example – but that turned out to be one of the best things I ever wrote, probably because I was so acutely aware of the arguments against.”

Collins has brilliantly dissected many political speeches for the Times, a task, one speechwriter told me, that “breaks the speechwriters’ code of honour”. Collins dismisses that accusation, saying that he has merely made “the art of speechwriting in Britain a tiny bit more prominent, and I would stress the word ‘tiny’”. In any case, he has some advice for speechwriters, which they may care to take note of as the conference season nears. “I found the attention of the press office helpful in the sense that they imposed the discipline of the headline: ‘What do you want to say, in a nutshell?’ is a good question to ask of a writer, and the press office is condemned to ask it.”

Which raises the question: if a speech can be condensed into a nutshell, why does it require half an hour? Perhaps because, in spite of our supposed soundbite culture, the limited characters of Twitter and our allegedly ever-shrinking span of attention, there remains something quite impressive about a politician holding and rousing an audience over an extended period of time. There is the belief that if they can take a room with them, perhaps they can inspire the country too. It’s a belief that unfortunately is repeatedly punctured by experience, but that shouldn’t deter the ranks of unheralded speechwriters when they sit down in front of an empty screen and prepare to make rhetorical history.

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