A speech I’d like to have written

by Nick

Regular readers will probably have picked up that my day job is as a civil servant in one of the big UK Government departments. I deliberately don’t post about anything work-related – this is a blog about history, after all – but I figure I’m on safe ground with this post.

Officials working on policy often have to draft speeches for Ministers. These can range from keynote addresses to major conferences through to very much more technical speeches for specialist audiences. I found a great example of one of the latter recently that I would love to have been asked to write.

While searching for something else, I found a speech that Lord Falconer (Lord Chancellor until last year) made in 2004. It was to mark the 350th anniversary of the Whitelocke treaty between England and Sweden.

If you haven’t come across Bulstrode Whitelocke before, here’s a bit of background. Born in 1605, he was a lawyer and MP who became involved in supporting John Hampden’s resistance to Charles I’s fiscal policies in the 1630s. He was involved in the early failed negotiations with the king and later in the 1640s became a keeper of the great seal. He managed to hedge his bets with the trial and execution of the king: he was a member of the committee that prepared the charges, but never attended, and he stayed at home on the day of the execution itself.

In November 1652, he recorded in his memoirs that he chanced upon Cromwell late one night in St James’s Park, who asked him “what if a man should take upon him to be king?”. Whitelocked reportedly advised Cromwell against, although there are limits to the reliability we can place on this source. In 1653, Whitelocke became ambassador-extraordinary to Queen Christina of Sweden, the topic of Lord Falconer’s speech. He negotiated a treaty of peace which, as Lord Falconer makes clear, has never been repealed.

Whitelocke is important for historians of the seventeenth century because of his writings. He left two substantial works, the Annals (a narrative of public events up to 1660 which draw from his journal), and his Memorials which are a tidied up version of his journal (not quite a diary, as Blair Worden has pointed out). Both of these are fantastic sources for those reconstructing the high politics of the 1640s and 1650s.

The man himself has found less favour with historians. He’s been seen as a pragmatist, or less charitably as a trimming official concerned with saving his own skin. Probably the most memorable judgement is that of Thomas Carlyle, who characterised him as ‘Dryasdust’: ‘our Pedant friend’ but one whose prose did demonstrate ‘occasional friskiness; most unexpected, as if the hippopotamus should show a tendency to dance’. But as an official myself I’ve always had a bit more sympathy with him.

Lord Falconer’s speech is a wonderful potted history of relations between the two countries in the mid-seventeenth century. There is the obligatory delight at Whitelocke’s unusual first name, praise for Queen Christina, and a summary of Cromwellian foreign policy in 1654. And whoever drafted the speech has a wonderfully dry sense of humour. Take this line:

First, and most importantly, it sought to establish a contractual basis for long-term peace and amity between our nations. Perpetual peace, indeed (the 1654 Treaty was nothing if not ambitious). 350 years is a solid start, you will agree.