Whose line is it anyway?

President Lincoln thought the world would not “long remember” the words of his Gettysburg address, 150 years ago. He was wrong: the US statesman’s phrases still resonate, not least in the new Oscar-nominated Spielberg biopic. As a broad principle, however, Lincoln was on to something.

Aficionados of political history might want to try this straightforward quiz. Who coined these classic sound bites? “Hug a hoodie”, “You’ve never had it so good”, “Crisis, what crisis?”

Were your answers: a) David Cameron, b) Harold Macmillan and c) James Callaghan? All three would be reasonable guesses but incorrect ones: the phrases were coined not by prime ministers but by newspaper sub-editors.

Most political oration is quickly forgotten: how many people can remember more than a couple of phrases from the last US election campaign? But when quotes do echo down the years, they are often inaccurate or downright wrong.

Andrew Mitchell knows this better than most. He was recently forced out of the British government despite denying allegations by police that he had told them: “Learn your f***ing place … plebs.” It is unfortunate for Mitchell, amid allegations he has been the victim of a stitch-up, that this phrase may for ever overshadow the countless words he has spoken elsewhere in his political career.

The speech-making process is one of the curiosities of the political world. For months on end, aides and sidekicks sit around discussing themes, grandiose gestures, rhetoric. Metaphors and real-life examples are put forward, rejected. Drafts are edited or amended with red ink – or, in the case of Gordon Brown, thick black marker pen – and sometimes ripped up altogether. Cameron’s team began the preparations for Friday’s big Europe speech last autumn and drafts have been circulating among his allies for weeks.

There is no single template. A conference speech can last an hour; Lincoln’s Gettysburg oration was a mere 266 words. Cameron likes to pursue a key theme, a unifying narrative; Brown structured speeches around a big policy giveaway.

But how much of the big speech is remembered by its immediate audience, let alone those watching on television? And if they do remember a ringing turn of phrase, is it the one forged by the speech-writers – or the next day’s headline?

Cameron’s breakthrough moment was at the Tory conference in the autumn of 2005 where he emerged as favourite to become party leader. The speech is forgotten. Instead, Cameron is remembered for speaking without notes, and for blowing a kiss to his wife.

But the most famous Cameron quote was coined a year later after a speech by the new Tory leader about crime and punishment: “Hug a hoodie”. The only problem is, he never said it.

The speech was written by Danny Kruger and Steve Hilton, Cameron’s shaven-headed blue-sky thinker. It was an attempt to “re-engineer” the Tories’ image on crime, just as a young Tony Blair had done for Labour with his “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” speech. But the phrase “hug a hoodie” was in the headline of an Observer splash – not in the actual speech – and was the quote of a Labour MP.

Some claim the phrase was then lifted by the News of the World for its second edition. But Neil Wallis, former deputy editor of the now defunct tabloid, insists it was also in the NOTW’s first edition: “It came to us spontaneously on the back bench that afternoon,” he says. Either way, it was common currency within days.

George Eustice, then Tory head of press, says his boss was trying to challenge the traditional crime and punishment views in his own party and push members out of their “comfort zone”. The idea was that adults should “hug a child” so that they didn’t become a destructive hoodie when they were teenagers, laments Eustice, now a Tory MP: “Giving love to criminals is not the message we were trying to get across, it was to show love to children before they became criminals.”

There followed an inevitable backlash, as editors and Labour MPs lambasted Cameron for being soft on crime. “It was a complete injustice that Labour leapt on it … although we would have probably done the same,” admits Eustice.

This was not the first time a politician has had a newspaper headline slung around his neck by the public. Harold Macmillan is widely remembered for pompously telling Britain that people had “never had it so good” in 1957. “Go around the country, go to the industrial towns, go to the farms and you will see a state of prosperity such as we have never had in my lifetime – nor indeed in the history of this country,” he told a Tory gathering. “Most of our people have never had it so good.” Note the “most”.

Twenty years later it was the turn of James Callaghan, who in 1979 – amid the “winter of discontent” – was asked how he would deal with the mounting chaos in Britain. The prime minister, returning from an economic conference in the West Indies, told his interviewer that he was being “rather parochial”. “I promise you that if you look at it from outside … I don’t think other people in the world would share the view that there is mounting chaos.”

In the Sun headline the next day this became “Crisis, what crisis?”, a phrase that would dog poor Jim for the rest of his life.

The more memorable the political quote, it seems, the more likely it is to be a misquotation. Lord Tebbit, the former Tory cabinet minister, has been criticised for saying “get on yer bike” to the unemployed. In fact he was talking about his father, who was out of work in the 1930s: “He got on his bike and looked for work,” he said.

The peer says now that he is irritated at the catchphrase. “That is a rather contemptuous one and that was not the intention of it at all,” he explains. “It can be a bit frustrating.”

Denis Healey, the former shadow chancellor, is remembered for declaring he would “squeeze the rich until the pips squeak”. He has always insisted that he used the phrase against “property speculators” rather than “the rich”.

And did Harold Wilson call on Britain to grasp “the white heat of technology”? Not quite: Instead, hailing a scientific revolution, he said: “The Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution will be no place for restrictive practices or outdated methods.”

All politicians ask themselves if their message is getting through. What is the point of talking for an hour if the public only remember a sound bite or two? But they can’t help themselves from submitting to the ordeal time after time.

Speech-writing is often stressful, as Alastair Campbell describes vividly in his diaries for 1998. He writes about seeing the “dreadful scribbles” of Tony Blair and spending days working with colleagues to turn them into something usable. He complains about the prime minister, who has “worked himself unconvincingly into a lather” about the speech. And then it all passes off, as usual, and is soon forgotten.

A lot of the effort that goes into set-piece political speeches is about avoiding misunderstandings, hostages to fortune or “pratfalls”, as Lord Tebbit calls them.

One aide says his job is to sanitise political speeches so they cannot be twisted by political journalists: “You have to remind people that the speech will be written up through a filter of 30 irritating, cynical smart-arses who may dislike you, and adjust accordingly,” he says.

Michael Lea, a former Downing Street speech-writer, was involved in the early stages of preparing David Cameron’s historic statement on the Saville inquiry into Bloody Sunday. That alone involved up to 20 people, he recalls, putting together an acceptable text in just 48 hours. There was William Hague, foreign secretary, Liam Fox, then defence secretary, Owen Paterson, then Northern Ireland secretary. “And their officials and advisers are also involved, making sure the tone and balance are right. One person might only look at six lines or so and ask, ‘Can we nuance this or maybe better to say that,” says Lea. “As you go through the process it narrows and narrows.”

Despite all that, many a politician comes unstuck after their words are mis-briefed by well-meaning aides or taken out of context. John Major’s major blunder was at conference in Blackpool in 1993. His spin doctor, Tim Collins, told journalists that when Major used the phrase “back to basics” he was advocating a return to old-fashioned morality.

The speech had mostly addressed self-discipline, hard work, cold baths and respect for the law. Yet Collins said the Tory prime minister wanted his words to be interpreted as “rolling back the permissive society”, implying sexual licentiousness. Major subsequently became a laughing stock amid a succession of Tory headlines about bed-hopping MPs, cash for questions and – in one case – death by auto-erotic asphyxiation.

His predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, was furious at the reaction when she told a women’s magazine that there was “no such thing as society” – a phrase which has exemplified criticism of the Conservatives ever since. In her diaries, the former prime minister complained that her words, shorn of context, had been “distorted beyond recognition”.

Theresa May, the Tory home secretary, might sympathise. She once asked a conference audience: “You know what some people call us? ‘The nasty party’.” Those who remember the phrase tend to think, inaccurately, that she was admitting that the Tories were nasty.

Modern politicians face criticism for boiling their thoughts down into short sentences, for using “sound bites”, for oversimplification. But the logic is: if your thoughts are going to be condensed, far better to do it yourself.

Think of the famous political phrases which have been remembered accurately: “Something of the night”, Ann Widdecombe’s withering put-down of Michael Howard; “The people’s princess”, Tony Blair’s epitaph for Princess Diana. A couple of words, a sentence at most.

A final question: who went into a Hartlepool chippie and asked for “guacamole” rather than mushy peas? If you replied “Peter Mandelson” you would be wrong again. The faux pas was by a Labour researcher but later attributed to Mandelson by a mischievous Neil Kinnock. When it comes to politics, almost everything you think you know is wrong.

Jim Pickard is UK chief political correspondent for the FT


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