Leaders and Speechwriters

Dr Max Atkinson & Lord Ashdown
Image: Parliamentary copyright/Catherine Bebbington

A review of Dr Max Atkinson & Paddy Ashdown in Conversation, by speechwriter Brian Jenner.

Benjamin Disraeli said ‘With words, we govern men’. Lord Ashdown, former leader of the Liberal Democrats, was more prolix, but more specific: ‘You start by writing down the headline you want to see in the paper after you’ve delivered the speech. Then you write the two press releases for the articles you want to appear as follow-up stories to the speech. Then you sit down to write the speech.’

On Wednesday 21 November 2012, as part of Parliament Week, the UK Speechwriters’ Guild persuaded Lord Ashdown to reunite with Dr Max Atkinson, his former speechwriter, to provide some insights into how a political leader  produces his speeches. The pairing lasted from 1988 to 1999.

Max often refers to speechwriters as bank robbers, because of the clandestine nature of the work and the perils of boasting about it. So (from a Tory perspective) here were two Great Train Robbers ready to spill the beans about a formidable heist: under their watch, the number of Lib Dem MPs increased from 20 to 46 in the House of Commons. Lib Dem, Olly Grender, chaired the meeting. She’s still theoretically reaping the rewards, as she has recently worked at No 10 as a speechwriter for Nick Clegg’s team. She was there to provide the contemporary perspective.

Max spent many years of academic research into how speeches work. This led to an introduction to Paddy (as he was then) to give him some ideas for improving his presentation. Max showed video clips of how, by using the verbal equivalent of anabolic steroids, contrasts, three-part lists and puzzle-solution formats, the young Ashdown won applause from audiences, became an MP and, eventually, the leader of his Party.

Lord Ashdown acknowledged Max as his speech ‘supercharger’. It wasn’t unusual for a party conference speech to go through 48 drafts, and then be junked because of some big new story like the UK exit from the European Monetary System. Paddy had a team, but he relied on Max to soup up the final script. Max, by contrast, was still sore about the way some of his lines ended up on the cutting-room floor. He explained how party apparatchiks had scrubbed out all his lines in one key speech, except for one:

The time is now for this Party of ours to stop sounding like a Tower of Babel, and start looking like a tower of strength.

This was the one that ended up on the evening news bulletins and was interpreted, by some political commentators, as a signal that he was seeking the leadership.

The former leader was very gracious in admitting his debt to his speechwriters. He said the back office always needed a freethinker to challenge him, like the man who stood up to the tank in the picture of the Tiananman Square protests. There would be fierce rows, but that always made for better speeches in the end. He told us he preferred to write the first draft – so the ideas and the sentences came from him first.

Olly Grender said how difficult it was to write a speech for a politician who could give no clear direction. There was much grumbling about how politicians now pre-announce the content of their speeches to the media. Max pointed out that there weren’t many anthologies of political interviews. He thought speeches were still the best way for a politician to get the message across.

Lord Ashdown explained how he had to develop a new way of doing things when he became High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina in May 2002. Most of his speeches were delivered through interpreters. He gave an example of when Bill Clinton came to speak in Potočari in Bosnia to dedicate the memorial to the Srebenica genocide. He did a brilliant speech, but the interpreter was sitting behind the speaker and couldn’t catch every word. She had to improvise. He came to the conclusion that he had to draft speeches in collaboration with his interpreters, because they were effectively giving the speech.

Lord Ashdown was in favour of humour. He explained how he once found himself in a difficult position at a press conference. David Owen, a former Labour Foreign Secretary who went on to become a founder of the SDP, which then merged to become the Liberal Democrats, had announced, to Paddy’s embarrassment, that he was voting Conservative in the 1992 General Election. He phoned John Cleese, a keen supporter of the LibDems, and said he needed a line to get him out of trouble. Cleese came up with, ‘Well, it’s their turn’, which Ashdown used to brush off journalists.

The speakers bemoaned managerialism in politics, with Ashdown expressing his love of radical ideas.

When asked why some many politicians were poor speakers, he suggested that it was because they hadn’t done other things outside politics. He said the trade of a politician required him to speak with passion about something that he wasn’t passionate about. He recommended reading poetry for the rhythms and the cadences. He told us to go home and read the funeral oration for Pericles by Thucydides.



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