Keelan Carr is a former SpAd and speechwriter at Number Ten Downing Street.
March 21 2020
I can’t believe it is just a year since I wrote this — so much has happened since then, good and bad. Today, it feels like we are living in a different world.
You might find this interesting as an insight into how a prime ministerial speech is (was?) put together. At least it might kill a few minutes of social-isolation tedium.
I was reminded of it by thinking about all my former colleagues in the civil service (and the few who survive in SpAdom or as ministers) who I know are working tremendously hard on all our behalves right now. More power to their elbows.
I was always impressed and reassured by the calibre and commitment of the people I worked with in government, official and political. No group of human beings is or can be perfect, and there is room for improvement in any institution. But the strengths of our system of government far outweigh the weaknesses. And, like so many of the pillars of our national life, if we tore it down, we wouldn’t be able to put in its place anything half as good.
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Writing to reach you
21 March 2019
There comes a point in the writing of most speeches when I find a familiar sensation returning. It begins with a slight wave of nausea. All of a sudden, the room seems to have got five degrees warmer and the walls simultaneously to have moved closer together, and further apart.
You look at the clock and notice that it has ticked forward two hours closer to your deadline in the fifteen minutes since you last checked it. Looking at the words on your screen, you notice with a sinking feeling that not one of them is right. The threads of the argument you have been trying to weave together are still flapping about in a storm of vagueness.
Despite being 500 words over-length, everything you have been trying to say remains unsaid, and what you have said sounds confusing and strange. The speech for which you had such high hopes is going nowhere fast.
It is, you realise, no good.
It dawns on you that the moment you have been secretly waiting for ever since you got your very first job in politics has now arrived. The moment when it all begins to come crashing down. When, at last, you will be found-out. When the long, almost incredible streak of luck which has borne you this far will bear you just that little bit further: out of your job, out of the good opinion of your colleagues and friends, then, probably, out of your home and, ultimately, perhaps, out of your wits.
The tide will at long last go out, carrying your bathing-suit with it. You will be left exposed as, in Clement Attlee’s words to a disgruntled ex-minister after a reshuffle, “just not up to it”.
Recognising these by now familiar symptoms, you know it’s time to take a few deep breaths and pause. Head to the café for some caffeine and encouragement. If it’s after hours, pay a visit to the silently-supportive vending machines.
If it’s very late, you might take a constitutional to the Charing Cross McDonalds. Or nip over the road to the Red Lion, for a swift hand-steadier. Returning to your desk and rereading what you’ve written, you realise that it isn’t that bad, and with a few cuts and some rearrangement, the outline of something just about half decent begins to heave into view.
Mercifully, actually writing words on a screen is only part of the job of speechwriting: planning, researching, discussing, revising and getting sign-off takes up just as much time.
This process begins with a commission. This might be for a speech or written message tied to an anniversary or an externally-organised event. Or it could be an occasion we are generating for ourselves, to make a proactive policy announcement. Regular speechmaking is a fact of life for any politician, but the Prime Minister speaks more than most. While there is a team of speechwriters to draft them, there is only one Prime Minister to deliver them. And they are all her speeches — not ours. We just help to draft them.
Producing a prime ministerial speech requires teamwork and one of the great pleasures of holding the pen on one is the opportunity it gives you to work closely with different colleagues. Right across the house, the range of skills and the absolute dedication which the Prime Minister can draw on from her team is well illustrated by the speechmaking process. As the speechwriter, you get to work with everyone, drawing on their expertise to help make it a success.
Often, I find the hardest things to get right are not the policy announcements, but the speaking notes for some of the receptions that the Prime Minister hosts for important causes and groups. A national newspaper op-ed on a technical policy change is something which the left-hand side of the brain can normally handle without too much drama
But when the brief is, for example, a speech to members of the emergency services who worked during the London and Manchester terror attacks, or to families who have suffered a bereavement through drug addiction, or to commemorate Armistice Day or World AIDS Day, the challenge is different.
The audience may be much smaller than for an op-ed, but the subject matter is infinitely more meaningful for those listening. And when the speaker is the political leader of our country, the stakes are even higher. For many people, a visit to Downing Street is something they will remember for the rest of their lives — something they will tell their grandchildren about.
The words which the Prime Minuster delivers in those settings are listened to very closely. Glibness, error, or omission would be instantly perceived and fatal. Trying to suggest sincere words which carry meaning and match up to the significance of the occasion is a challenge. But it is a privilege to have the opportunity to try.
When heading out on a desperate search for caffeine or inspiration of an evening, egress via the front door is sometimes impeded by visitors taking a photo on the front steps — visitors who may have been at a reception hearing the Prime Minister speak. I am sure I’m not alone amongst Downing Street staff in never finding these short delays an irritation. Instead, they are pinch-yourself reminders of what a truly special place this is to work and what an honour it is to serve the Prime Minister of our country.
This article appeared recently on Keelan Carr’s blog.