20 November 2012

Parliament Week trailer: Ashdown & Atkinson in conversation

Tomorrow evening, Paddy Ashdown and I have been invited to an event organised by the UK Speecbwriters' Guild as part of Parliament Week 2012 (details HERE).

It's given me an excuse to rummage through some ancient video clips, and it occurred to me that those who won't be there tomorrow might like to see them.

A promising newcomer?
The first one dates from 1981, when he was still the prospective parliamentary candidate for Yeovil, and John Heritage and I were in the process of recording all the televised output from that year's three main political party conferences.


At this stage, Paddy wasn't really aware of how rhetoric works and has to break off when his three-part list prompts a burst of applause - looking vaguely surprised that it had brought so positive a response from the audience.


Nor, it appears had he given much thought to wearing a jacket and tie - and maybe he'll be able to tell us tomorrow night whether the lectern was hiding sandals.

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1987 General Election
After becoming an MP in 1983, Paddy was transport spokesman for the Liberals and had been lent a copy of my book Our Masters' Voices (1984) by a mutual friend (now Lord Bradshaw) who introduced us with a view to my helping the new MP with his speeches.

By the time of the 1987 General Election, Paddy had become the education spokesman for the SDP Liberal Alliance, which meant that he would have to speak when they launched their campaign at the Barbican.

So this was the first speech that we worked on together to be televised. A puzzle with an alliterative three-parted solution was among the lines that got the desired response. And one of these 'Rs' came from a Scrabble dictionary, which can be a useful resource for searching lists of words quickly and without being deflected by definitions.

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Although Our Masters' Voices had quite a lot to say about rhetorical devices like contrasts and three-part lists, it said little about the importance of imagery and story telling as ways of getting your message across. However, having by this stage become more involved in coaching people to make speeches and presentations, I'd become much more aware of how effective metaphors, similes, analogies and anecdotes could be.

And it was a contrastive simile that won both laughter and applause in this sequence:

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Liberal Party merger debate, 1988
Having fought the 1987 general election as two parties in an alliance, the Liberals and SDP turned to the question of whether they should become a single party.

Paddy was keen that they should, and planned to speak in support of merger at the special assembly early in 1988. I wrote a speech but did not go to the conference. On the train to the venue, one of his other advisors persuaded him to leave out every sentence I'd written - except for one.

To my great delight, it was the Tower of Babel/tower of strength contrast that  only line that was selected as a sound bite on prime-time news programmes. One of the commentators even claimed it was a 'clear statement' of Ashdown's intention to run for the leadership if a new party were formed (which it wasn't).

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Leadership campaign, 1988
Once Paddy had decided to run for the leadership of the new party, we spent weeks working with him on the speech in which he would announce his candidacy - not realising at the time that, for the next three weeks, he would need at least one new speech per day.

Amidst the ongoing panic that followed, I remember getting a note from one of the other writers saying "My price is a peerage, what's yours?" - but, for some strange reason, neither of us has (yet) been elevated to the House of Lords.

But I was quite pleased that a widely played sound bite from the speech was a simple three-part list in which yesterday, today and tomorrow were used as metaphors for past, present and future:

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The new leader
A few days before the result was announced, it became clear that our candidate was going to win. By then, the gains of the two parties at the 1987 election had been largely whittled away, and Paddy was well aware of the need to remind the public that the Alliance was still going strong (?) in a different form.

Reflecting on my brief to cook up some lines to get this across, I was stuck in one of those traffic jams on the M6 where there's so little movement that you have to turn the car engine off. 

Reaching for my pen and pad I started trying different possibilities and came up with a contrast between being "not only back in business, but mean business", which BBC political editor John Cole seem to think good enough to headline his introduction to live footage - of yet another three-part list.

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Who's helping?
I've often likened speechwriting as an occupation to being rather like robbing banks, in that you can't go around advertising your wares by boasting which speeches you wrote for whom. Nor, usually, can you expect a client to tell all his friends that he'd got someone else to help him.

But on this, Paddy had a different and refreshingly open approach. During his leadership campaign, he asked me if I would mind if he told the media who'd been helping him with his speeches. 

Initially, I wasn't convinced that this would be a good idea from his point of view, as my involvement in coaching someone to win a standing ovation at the 1984 SDP conference had earned me the name 'Dr Claptrap' in some quarters. But his line was that it was as rational to consult an 'expert' on speechmaking and rhetoric as it was to consult 'experts' on IT or any other field he felt he needed help with - 

At around that time, the director of communications of a large multi-national company told me it wouldn't do my business any good if it became known that I was associated with such losers as the Liberal Democrats.

Ten years later, I was still in business, Ashdown had more than doubled the number of Liberal Democrat MPs but the company of the director of communications had gone into liquidation a few years earlier.

Why?
As for why I got involved, I had been a keen supporter of the SDP and believed then (as I still believe now) that, if Ashdown didn't win the leadership of the new party, it would be the end of three party politics in the UK for at least a generation.

How much?
Party members who worry about how much I was paid by the Lib Dems during the twelve years I worked with Paddy will be relieved to know that it was a grand total of £0.00. In fact, given that I never charged for travel costs, it was actually a substantial minus figure - not least because, in those early years, all the Sainsbury cash had stayed with David Owen's rump SDP (before being diverted to 'New Labour').

For those of us whose journey to the Liberal Democrats was via the SDP, the Blair years were arguably  pretty much what the gang of four had been hoping for all those years ago...

1 comment:

Julien said...

Max - a particularly splendid narrative and visual account! I still have somewhere an "original" copy of one of Paddy Ashdown's speeches which my father picked up for me when he was at party conference many years ago: I detect your hand!