My recent piece about the feebleness of Peter Mandelson’s speechwriters looked ahead to the coming international tour of David Cameron to see if his people would do a better job.
NB folks, what follows is not about policy as such. It’s about speechwriting and diplomatic technique, and the way messages are sent/received both explicitly and implicitly.
First, the headlines were caught by the Prime Minister’s strong support for Turkey’s EU membership:
When I think about what Turkey has done to defend Europe as a NATO ally and what Turkey is doing today in Afghanistan alongside our European allies, it makes me angry that your progress towards EU membership can be frustrated in the way that it has been.
My view is clear: I believe it is just wrong to say that Turkey can guard the camp but not be allowed to sit in the tent.
I will remain your strongest possible advocate for EU membership and for greater influence at the top table of European diplomacy.
Strong meat. But is it quite wise to strike such a forward position within hours of landing in Turkey?
Not according to this scathing review by Barry Rubin:
It is a textbook example of how not to conduct international affairs … everything should be conditional. The message to be delivered is that it is in your interest to respect my interests.
Cameron did the precise and exact opposite. His message was: The UK needs Turkey. Turkey is wonderful. Its behavior has been perfect. We are desperate for your help.
What is the effect? A man goes into a bazaar, points to a carpet, and says, “That is the most beautiful carpet I have ever seen. I must have it no matter what the price! How much is it?”
In addition, Cameron committed some other howling mistakes, several of which will amaze you…
Which he proceeds mercilessly to describe.
It has to be said. There is a serious point here. To open a speech like this…
Turkey is vital for our economy, vital for our security and vital for our politics and our diplomacy…
… is dubious technique. It gives a gauche hint of subservience, almost desperation. You are vital to us! You are! The effect of which is to suggest deep insecurity on our part – that we might not be vital to them.
On to the Prime Minister’s speech in India:
I come here with a very clear purpose: to show what this new start means for our two countries. I want to take the relationship between India and Britain to the next level. I want to make it stronger, wider, and deeper.
To show how serious I am I have brought with me the biggest visiting delegation of any British Prime Minister in recent years. Members of my Cabinet, our most dynamic business leaders, leaders of industry, social entrepreneurs, civic leaders, figures from our most forward-looking arts institutions and museums, sports men and women, and pioneers of community activism.
Phew! Did anyone ask India if it wanted or needed this sprawling entourage of Busy Brits?
… this country matters to Britain for many reasons beyond your economy too (sic). With over 700 million voters and three million elected representatives at council level, your democracy is a beacon to our world. You have wonderful tradition of democratic secularism; home to dozens of faiths and hundreds of languages, people are free to be Muslim, Hindu or Sikh and to speak Marathi, Punjabi or Tamil. But, at the same time, and without any contradiction, they are all Indian too.
India matters to the world because it is not only a rising power but a responsible power as well…
Lawks – the Mandelson Mistake! Pronouncing on where India fits into the world these days – as if its our natural job to make such pronouncements, and theirs to sit politely and bask in our warm praise. Why should India care if it ‘matters’ to the UK? Patronising, anyone?
At the height of the industrial revolution in the United States, they said, ‘Go west, young man, in order to find opportunity and fortune.’ For today’s investors and entrepreneurs they should go east.
Another poorly cast paragraph. It seems to say that today’s investors and entrepreneurs are where we are, whereas in fact they increasingly are in ‘the East’ themselves, and doing just fine.
… why should Britain matter to India? I believe our two countries are natural partners; Britain is one of the oldest democracies and India is the world’s largest.
Stop all this ‘mattering’! Never say ‘I believe’. Let the words themselves bring out your beliefs. And what has comparing the size of our democracies got to do with anything at all?
We have a shared commitment to pluralism and to tolerance; we have deep and close connections amongst our people, with nearly two million people of Indian origin living in the UK. They make an enormous contribution to our country – way out of proportion to their size – in business, in the arts, in sport.
I never like this glorification of ethnic communities as such – it sounds phoney, almost as if it nervously has to be said lest someone accuse you of being racist in expecting them not to make such a wonderful contribution. And what about the bad eggs in their midst?
India and Britain also share so much culturally; whether it’s watching Shari Kahn, eating the same food, speaking the same language, and of course watching the same sport. Many of you in this room will have grown up revering and watching Kapil Dev; I did the same in Britain watching Ian Botham. And Sachin Tendulkar, the Little Master, is so talented that wherever you are from, you cannot help but admire as he hits another century.
Aaargh. How bad a passage is that? The hapless speechwriter ran out of intelligent things to say so slumped into curry and cricket. Raaaacist!
We come at this from different angles. The Indian story is well-known. There is still a huge challenge but on any measure India is on its way, a rising economic power. On any measure, India is on an upward trajectory.
Help – the Mandelson Mistake comes back. Don’t tell other people how well they’re doing. Especially in a former colony, it sounds like proud teacher patting a diligent pupil on the head.
We in Britain are determined to work even harder to earn our living: attracting more foreign investment to our shores, making more things for the world again, selling ourselves to the world with more vigour than ever. I’m not ashamed to say that’s one of the reasons why I’m here today.
Look how defensive that sounds. All those feeble comparatives:
- work even harder
- attract more foreign investment
- make more things for the world again
- more vigour than ever
Here, more = less. It sounds too striving, too keen to make a point, too anxious.
Tomorrow I’m going to be talking to Prime Minister Singh about how we can work together to develop and deploy new and renewable energy sources, in particular to reach some of India’s poorest communities. If we get this right, it will be a triple win: clean energy, electricity brought to poorest people, new jobs and growth. And it’s precisely the sort of cooperation we need as we move forward in this relationship…
We must be the ones to act and we must act together. Together Britain and India can do the work that is needed. Together our partnership can benefit the world. So together, let us build this new relationship that can meet the scale of our great ambitions together
This passage illustrates what I don’t like about this breathless, hyperactive, self-absorbed style of speechwriting. The PM seems to pronounce all sorts of things about what the UK and India could and should be doing together before he’s talked to the Indian opposite number to see what he suggests and wants.
Maybe the Indians don’t want to work with us to ‘do the work that is needed’, to benefit the world’ in ‘partnership’. They certainly seemed happy enough to ignore us in the Climate Summit endgame:
Obama sitting down with the Brazilian, Chinese, Indian and South African leaders to hammer out something or other among themselves, far from the madding crowd of NGOs and all the other leaders.
Thus it came about in spasm of post-modern irony that a small self-proclaimed group of countries defined the main outcome on behalf of everyone else, with the European Unionists (collectively the third biggest CO2 emitter) left outside. Ditto Russia, left holding its cute little red reset button handed over by Hillary Clinton. And Indonesia, a huge emitter.
The progressive-Left symbolism of this is magnificent: no Dead White Men (especially those sanctimonious Europeans) spoiling the photo-shot!
We decide – Dead White Men pay!
In short, well done the Prime Minister for showing British energy and purpose. But not so well done in how messages are being transmitted. The basic tone as served up by the new squeaky-clean speechwriters is over-keen and unconvincingly over-confident: Hullo, I am your new best friend!
Plus it’s characteristic of the speechwriting work of people who know a lot about the UK and political spin here, but next to nothing about Foreigners. It’s far too much on Transmit, not Receive. Where are the following thoughts:
- I’m relatively new to this top-level international game. But I do know about the UK’s national strengths and comparative advantage
- I know that we have interests. So do you. We traditionally agree on some things. We also disagree on some things. Let’s talk
- I see areas where the existing relationship might be enhanced. But before plunging in to all that, I’m here to listen.
- I want to hear for myself your leaders’ views, to talk quietly with them about where we might take things forward
Keep a lot more back. Cultivate some mystery. Imply that in some areas we’ll be totally inflexible and/or drive a very hard bargain.
That is the oblique and efficient way to compliment your hosts – to hint that you relish disagreeing with them in some areas, because they – like you – are tough too.
Above all, the new government’s speechwriters need to stop talking in this febrile paternalistic Mandelsonian way about other countries’ successes and achievements.
Because in these days of commercially-minded diplomacy, it’s none of our business.