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speechwriting for a Prime Minister

Detained by the United States Secret Service while, um, speech writing

I have been busy helping wannabe candidates for Parliament polish their CVs over the last few days so missed posting this on Monday, the 10 year anniversary of my first flight to the United States.

Speech writing is usually tough, hard, lonely work. Many UK speech writing clients like to keep you as a secret resource. It’s often hard to get enough quality time with the client and the time pressure is usually huge. But sometimes you find a client who gives you the time, understands your job, has something important to say and is a bit different.

I flew from Heathrow with Air India and was upgraded to First Class and it was fantastic. I am normally an EasyJet kind of guy but the deliciously spicy food, the First Class Service and the choice of good Scotch made it a First that I could get used to.

I was picked up by a big black Embassy car and driven to the United Nations Plaza Hotel. It looks like it has been upgraded now but it was a bit tired at the time – especially compared to some of its shiny neighbours. It is a tall building on the eastern edge of Manhattan’s Midtown, directly across from the headquarters of the United Nations.

I was in New York to work with a client I had never met who was scheduled to give an important speech to important people 10 days later in the United Nations building. He was the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka. I was excited. This was big stuff.

That night I met my client, Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe M.P. at a reception at the Sri Lankan embassy. I also met his Political Secretary, Bradman Weekaron (a serious grown up with a big CV who, delightfully!, didn’t take himself seriously), members of his cabinet and the Sri Lankan Ambassadors to the United Nations and the United States. Everybody was bouncy and upbeat and there was an excited pre-match buzz in the air. The Prime Minister was gracious and smiling but taut and pent up. He was the performer. They were the fans.

When I found out what he wanted to say and achieve, I understood why. I got excited too. This was bigger than I had thought. Speech writing is too often about making dull stuff sound interesting. Writing a peace speech to the world does not come along every day.

Speech writing can’t be done in a vacuum – I need to understand the message and the messenger. I needed to understand the Prime Minister’s voice and his style and his vocabulary as well as his message. He was fantastic and gave me huge amounts of access  – many of his visitors were surprised to find me in the back of the huge room when they held their meetings with the Prime Minister and his advisors. I just sat, pen in hand, quietly absorbing it all and concentrating on him and his voice and vocabulary.

The Prime Minister and I worked together late at night high up in his corner suite after all his other meetings were over. Being a Prime Minister is tough –  18 hour days are standard. The Secret Service guards would relax after checking my United Nations pass. They had just come back from being on a security detail in Afghanistan and were happy to be back home.

It wasn’t all work though. There were loads of events during the ten days. I (glancingly) met German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who I had once chatted with in a small Kneipe in Wernigerode called the Carousel when he was campaigning to become Chancellor of Germany. I saw the scrum that surrounded Silvio Berlusconi when he arrived at the hotel. I also met and made friends with Henry Chimunthu Banda, who was the Malawian Deputy Foreign MInister, now the Speaker. I was born in Malawi, but he didn’t believe me until I pulled out my passport and showed him: Place of Birth – Blantyre, Malawi!

Then I went and got myself arrested.

The speech was over and the delegation had gone home and I had 3 hours free on my last day in New York. I had never been to the US so I went sight seeing. I wasn’t used to seeing such big buildings – in Bulawayo, where I was brought up,  there were probably only 2 or three buildings taller than 5 floors – and here I was in a city of shiny glass and metal skyscrapers. I slung my camcorder over my shoulder but under my jacket so it wouldn’t be stolen and wandered around, eyes up and mouth open, filming. I was in a different world, walking along streets decorated with green door canopies that I recognised from TV – I was hoping to find the Cheers pub and buy a souvenir drink.

Then I heard a pistol being cocked behind me to the left. A controlled voice told me to put my hands in the air. Slowly. The Controlled Voice politely said: “A moment please Sir.” – then a large hand clasped my right shoulder and arm. It wasn’t a request or a suggestion. These guys were tense.

They wanted to know why I was filming skyscrapers and buildings and they didn’t like my story much. To be fair, if you were them, would you believe a Brit who claimed to be working for the Sri Lankan Government, carried a United Nations pass and spoke with a southern African accent? And it was in the secure zone and “Bushlock” had reigned for days. (Random question: Do New Yorkers call gridlock Obamalock now?)

I got “escalated”. I was taken around the corner to a long, white pantechnicon with shiny aluminium Jacobs brakes on the outside and space for at least 15 people inside. I knew what it was because on the side in 5 foot letters it said “US Secret Service Mobile Command Centre”. Apparently, New York is loaded with them again this week, as the UN convenes again at its traditional time. In Britain it would have been a Transit van with a BT logo. A senior officer questioned me while he half-sat on a desk and played back the video footage on my camcorder, an officer took notes and someone else phoned the United Nations pass office, the British Embassy and the Sri Lankan Embassy. Twenty minutes later, they started to relax and I was released after I was sternly told that New York is safer than London.

My work over the last 20 years has taken me to remote, dusty, non-tourist bits of China, glitzy Dubai, sweaty North Africa and over a hundred towns or cities in Europe.  But I have had few gigs as memorable as my trip to America. Watching the speech live from the front of the chamber was a once off. Watching it again on CNN from inside the tiny cramped CNN studio in the United Nations building was special – MY words on CNN! MY English teacher would have been proud.

So what happened then? When he returned to Sri Lanka, The Prime Minister took over 8 hours to complete the 30 km drive from Bandaranaike International Airport to the capital Colombo because of the crowds who had come out to greet him.

According to

“Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe has returned to a hero’s welcome in the Sri Lankan capital Colombo. Tens of thousands lined the streets outside the airport to celebrate the return of Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. Swarmed by officials and supporters at the airport…

According to Wikipedia, The Sri Lankan President later sacked three ministers of the cabinet, took over the ministries using her constitutional powers and ended the uneasy coalition between her and the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe while he was out of the country.

I took this photo of the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka from the Malawi desk right at the front of the inner chamber of the United Nations.

Sri Lankan Prime Minister speaking at the United Nations

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