Philip Collins Interview
Journalist and former Tony Blair speechwriter.
“The most intellectually coherent speech that Mr Blair ever gave is his Chicago speech about the conditions for a state intervening in the affairs of another state”
Philip Collins is an experienced journalist and speechwriter. He has dedicated many years to shape former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair’s speeches at 10 Downing Street and has participated in many of Mr Bair’s most important speeches like his last speech as the Labour party leader. Mr Collins currently works as a columnist and chief leader writer at The Times newspaper and is the chairman of the Demos think tank, Britain’s leading cross-party think tank.
Besides his career in politics, Philip Collins has been the Director of the Social Market Foundation (SMF), an independent think tank and charity between 2000 and 2004. Prior to that, Mr Collins also spent some years as an investment banker, ending his time in the City as the top ranked equity strategist in the smaller companies sector.
Philip Collins will be one of the special participants at the II ACOP Speechwriters Event on 22 February 2018.
You have argued that “bad politics and good writing don’t mix”. Can bad politics also be well communicated in a fashion that audiences’ perception is the opposite of the reality? What examples of that statement can be found today?
Unfortunately bad politics can be well communicated, although the definition of what is bad in politics is, of course, subjective. My own view is that President Trump is a prime example of bad politics well communicated. It may seem controversial to say that President Trump is a good communicator but he did have a good way of appealing to a part of the electorate which felt had lost a great deal with globalisation.
Does the fact that Brexit was the preferred option of the UK population imply that the activists who campaigned for the winning option had a better narrative? What do you think were the key elements from a communicative perspective for Brexit to succeed?
Yes I do think the Leave side had a better story. It was simpler and easier to describe. A simple story will almost always beat a complex story and the idea that Britain should leave the European Union was a nicely simple idea that resonated well. By comparison, the complicated set of reasons why staying in the EU was a better option was quite difficult to get across.
What lessons can be learnt from the UK 2017 general election? Why did Corbyn’s Labour Party, after all the internal battles and several truly unfavourable polls, had such a shocking success?
Labour in 2017 benefited from the impatience people now feel in Britain about austerity and reduced public spending. The smaller parties – the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens – all fell away and so the bulk of the opposition vote came to Labour. Then there was the inadvertent strategic genius of the Labour position on leaving the EU. Nobody really understood what the Labour position was which allowed people on both sides of the debate to vote Labour. This was an accident but a happy accident. Then, finally, young people voted Labour in large numbers. Some of them found Corbyn an attractive figure but some of them simply wanted to register a protest after a referendum in which many had failed to vote.
We are constantly taking about the importance and the impact of social media in politics and how politicians need to engage directly with their audiences, but how do you think social media has both benefitted and harmed political speech?
I am not sure that the political speech has been affected at all yet, and probably will not be. The speech has survived many changes to technology and it is today almost exactly as it was 20 centuries ago. Social media has changed political communication more broadly but that is a different question.
The social media sphere is also directed to have more influence on the young voters. How do you think speeches should be directed to today’s youngsters?
The key to reaching younger voters is to talk about things that concern them. I do not believe there is any special form of rhetoric that works for younger people and for nobody else. The references might have to differ but the essential question is that it is important to address our people in terms which they recognise. In Britain they are very concerned about housing, about inequality and and about the future of work. The speaker needs to convey a sense that he or she has something interesting to say about the future of those subjects. At the moment it is hard to find anyone capable of doing that.
You wrote “The Art of Speeches and Presentations”, what is the purpose of this book?
This book is meant to be a manual to help people speak well. It goes through the six stages of producing a good speech or presentation: understand your audience, think hard about what you expect of this speech, work out your main line of argument in detail and with great precision, think about who disagrees with what you are about to say and why, try to free yourself from jargon and business language and then speak from detailed notes so you can get a connection with the audience. Of those things the most important of all is to work on a tough line of argument. Most speeches fail because the speakers really has nothing much to say.
According to your experience, what are the main elements of making people remember what you say?
There are three components of a speech that is remembered. You must have a good argument that is worth listening to and that people can instantly recognise. Think of Churchill in 1940. Then you must try to capture your points in some vivid phrases that people will recall and quote long after the rest of the speech has faded from memory. Think of “we will fight them on the beaches”. But the most important component is not one that can be manufactured. It is the occasion and a moment of peril. Churchill was always prone to lavish phrases. It was only when the country was under the threat of war that those phrases made any sense.
Which are the main functions of a political speech?
All political speeches, indeed all speeches, have one of three functions – information, persuasion or inspiration. The first function of a speech is to provide the necessary information although speeches of this kind are rare in politics because they are rather dull. Persuasive speeches are more common. They will, of course, usually contain a great deal of information but heir purpose is to get the audience to change its mind. Then the third category is the inspirational speech. This will no doubt contain both information and persuasion but its purpose is to inspire you to do something new.
Which is, in your opinion, the best political speech delivered by Tony Blair?
I think the most intellectually coherent speech that Mr Blair ever gave is his Chicago speech about the conditions for a state intervening in the affairs of another state. The best one that I had any involvement in is the European Parliament speech in 2005. It defined the social model that Britain had developed and took a strong line against the idea that Britain was an Anglo-Saxon country outside the European mainstream. Of course, that seems rather odd now.
Which one is your favourite political speech ever?
I think the best collection of linked speeches are those that Winston Churchill gave, with the Luftwaffe in the air over Britain, during the fateful summer of 1940. But my favourite single speech of all time is the great address given by Martin Luther King at the March on Washington in 1963. The famous section at the end, which has become known as “I Have A Dream” was delivered without a script. It is the most astonishing passage of public speech in the canon.