Jeremy Corbyn's recycling of material in a speech matters only because he pretends to “do politics differently”. He implies that his authentic “straight talking” comes straight from the heart, without the aid of speech-writers and spin doctors. So when he read someone else's words from the glass screens of the prompter, which involves no smoke but is literally a mirror designed to make it look as if he were directly addressing the audience, it was embarrassing.
It was embarrassing, furthermore, only because a journalist with an ear for language, Alex Massie, of The Spectator, recognised the words. They had been published by Richard Heller, a former adviser to Denis Healey, on his blog four years ago. Heller is a good writer. His account of how Healey boomed back to his office from the chamber of the House of Commons, rubbing his hands, saying, “I've just said that being attacked by Geoffrey Howe is like being savaged by a dead sheep,” is one of the great vignettes of contemporary history.
In recent years, Heller has fallen victim to the condition that I call Blair rage, and has wasted his talent writing colourful invective against Labour's most successful Prime Minister for The Yorkshire Post. But he has always enjoyed writing lines for leaders' speeches. The slab that Corbyn finally read out had been sent to Neil Kinnock, and Heller only published it in 2011 because Ed Miliband – to whom he had also sent it – didn't want it. His only mistake was to fail to tell Corbyn's office, when he offered it to them, that he had already put it online.
Heller is no Labour tribalist. Nick Clegg's former adviser Polly Mackenzie admitted: “At least two Richard Heller lines made it into Clegg speeches. He used to send in 'zingers' unsolicited all the time.” Sadly, Mackenzie couldn't remember what the lines were. Apparently Heller once sent in “a really epic one about a joker and a thief – I forget which was Brown and which Cameron”.
He is a professional speechwriter, so he is used to putting words into the mouths of others, just as Corbyn is a professional politician, although he wants us to think he isn't, and he doesn't have much experience of reading out the words of others. Any professional politician is a plagiarist, in the Oxford Dictionary sense of “pass[ing] off someone else's words as one's own”. They get into trouble only when those words are recognised as someone else's.
The defining example was Joe Biden's paraphrase of a Neil Kinnock speech in a television interview in 1987, in which Kinnock said, “Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?” Biden's version “Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university?”, didn't stop him becoming Vice-President 22 years later. When Gordon Brown delivered his first party conference speech as Prime Minister in 2007, The Times thought some of his phrases were familiar. It accused Bob Shrum, Brown's American adviser, of recycling speeches he had written for other clients, such as Al Gore. In fact, the similarity was pretty tenuous. Brown said: “Sometimes people say I am too serious and I fight too hard and maybe that's true.” Gore had said: “I know that sometimes people say I'm too serious, that I talk too much substance and policy.”
So it is mostly a media game of gotcha. Leading politicians don't have the time to write their own speeches, and we wouldn't want them to. The Prime Minister should be getting policy right rather than unsplitting infinitives. Speech-writers do a useful job in helping politicians to express themselves better. As a leader-writer on this newspaper, I admire their craft. All through the Iraq war, I wrote editorials for Simon Kelner, when he was editor. I supported the war; The Independent opposed it. It was Kelner's view, and the collective view of the newspaper, that counted.
What really matters about Corbyn's recycled words, therefore, is what he said. That they were rejected by Ed Miliband is relevant only as an indication of how strong their tone of class war was. The repeated refrain, that Labour's message is, “You don't have to take what you're given,” brought delegates to their feet. But I thought it insulted voters by suggesting that they had been duped into accepting their lot by sneaky capitalists. I don't care if they were Heller's words. Corbyn said them and I disagree with them.
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