Ewan Crawford: Spare a thought for the speech writer

LEADERS stand or fall by their performance at party conference, but it can bring panic and sleepless nights, too, for those behind the scenes, writes Ewan Crawford.

LEADERS stand or fall by their performance at party conference, but it can bring panic and sleepless nights, too, for those behind the scenes, writes Ewan Crawford.

During his presidency, Bill Clinton once delivered a vital speech without a trace of anxiety, even though the words on the autocue in front of him were whizzing backwards and forwards at great speed, before disappearing completely and being replaced by a different text.

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The final draft had been agreed at the last moment, and in the confusion the wrong speech had initially been loaded into the computer.

This story, recounted admiringly by his aides, is an extreme example of what can often be the chaotic process of drafting major political speeches.

In this country, as the Liberal Democrats gather in Brighton to issue a collective apology to the nation, Nick Clegg will this week be the first of the party leaders to deliver his annual conference address.

For Mr Clegg, David Cameron, Alex Salmond and Ed Miliband, conference speeches are often seen as defining moments. Who knows, the odd reporter may even resort to the familiar claim that one or more of these leaders “needs to give the speech of his life”.

In fact, working as a speech-writer for John Swinney during his time as leader of the SNP, I can recall very few occasions when a major speech was not cast in those terms.

Most leaders’ conference speeches will have gone through many drafts over several weeks or even months, but will sometimes be substantially rewritten in the hours leading up to the big day.

Even now I can recall the sense of panic I felt keenly one year when John took to the stage at the Eden Court Theatre in Inverness for a final rehearsal.

Although it had all seemed fine during our many conversations and redrafts in the run-up to the conference, as a speech writer you can never be quite sure if a piece of writing is going to work until it is delivered in the auditorium.

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On that occasion, at the eleventh hour, it was alarmingly clear this just wasn’t going to go well. Back at the conference hotel, as I jealously took in the familiar sounds of SNP activists enjoying themselves in the bar, the thought crossed my mind that the leader might be wondering what exactly I was being paid for.

John’s reaction – and a mark of his quality – was to go back to his hotel room, rewrite large parts of it in the early hours of the morning, improve it massively and then deliver it to great acclaim the following day.

Although this seemed a great drama at the time, the process seems like a genteel tea party compared with the accounts of the speech-writing process during Tony Blair’s leadership of the Labour Party.

His former press secretary, Alastair Campbell, even recalls one occasion when his writing was interrupted by a row with Peter Mandelson over what clothes Blair should wear. This argument ended up with the future Prime Minister physically separating his two most trusted advisers after Mandelson started throwing punches at his colleague.

Still, “speech went fine”, Campbell later wrote.

Annual conference speeches in particular are seen as so important because they will attract huge media attention, more than likely lead the news and are an opportunity to set the agenda.

But even the biggest political anorak will probably be hard-pressed to remember most of them after just a few months.

Some speeches are genuinely significant because of their long-term political impact. When one of Blair’s predecessors as Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, took on the left-wing Liverpool council in an electrifying address in 1985, his words meant something because they marked a pivotal point in the future direction of his party.

Similarly when, four years earlier, his Conservative adversary, Margaret Thatcher, announced that “the lady” was not for turning on economic policy, the consequences would be profound for the lives of millions as the post-war social settlement was banished.

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The real effectiveness of a speech is whether it sets out a strategy that, crucially, is then driven forward daily over the coming months, despite the inevitable buffeting of events.

In his address to conference last year, Ed Miliband placed a big emphasis on distinguishing between good and bad businesses – producers and predators as he called them. But in the intervening 12 months it is hard to work out how this has shaped his agenda for a future Labour government. If another neat phrase is deployed again this year but left on the conference podium nothing much will have been gained.

Tellingly for those of us in Scotland, it can be guaranteed large chunks of all the UK leaders’ speeches will be devoted to health, education and other public services. In all likelihood, because it would interfere with the business of perpetuating the idea of Britain as one united nation, at no point will any of them stop to make it clear that they are referring only to England or England and Wales.

But one of the key, unwitting, points that we will be able to glean from the speeches of Miliband, Clegg and Cameron is how different are the political values that underpin discussion of the NHS or higher education north and south of the Border.

Apart from perhaps a Nat-bashing opportunity during the inevitable sections on the brilliance of the Olympics and Team GB, the independence debate itself is unlikely to be dignified with too many mentions.

For Alex Salmond, the task is, of course, different. The basis of his speech should be an argument that will convince a majority of people in Scotland of the economic case for independence.

Given the economic conditions facing the country, and the prospect of an independence referendum, if the First Minister gets it right, this, too, could be a turning-point occasion.