As Margaret Thatcher entered 10 Downing Street on 4 May 1979, she was handed a sheaf of papers by her speech-writer, Ronald Millar, who was also an accomplished playwright.
At 10 Downing Street too that day was Michael (now Lord) Dobbs, then a young political adviser. He remembers hearing the speech first-hand and Thatcher quoting words from a prayer thought to have been written early in the 20th century: “Where there is discord, may we bring harmony.”
For Dobbs (who, for the record, believes Millar to have been a great political speech-writer), the words were totally out of tune with the new prime minister’s real personality. “Margaret Thatcher was not a harmonious politician; she was not a compromiser,” says Dobbs. “She was a confrontationalist by commitment.” The high art of oratory and the dark arts of politics became Dobbs’ lifetime passion.
He went on to write the House of Cards trilogy, which inspired first a BAFTA-winning British TV series and then the worldwide political blockbuster starring Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright. Unsurprisingly, he’s thrilled that the show has ballooned into a global mega-series under US creator Beau Willimon’s creative leadership. While Dobbs plays little part in writing the scripts these days, he remains an executive producer on House of Cards.
I met Dobbs not long after the UK had voted to leave the EU. He was particularly disappointed by the absence of great speeches – to win people over, you have to believe in what you’re saying. “It’s not enough for us merely to be managers; as politicians you have to have a set of values that you stand by and want to persuade others of. If you have no values, you have no route map; you become like a sand dune in the desert when every passing wind just blows you into a different position.”
The best speeches, says Dobbs, capture a moment and reach out across barriers and individuals. “They’re actually about something that reaches deep down inside.” As with presentations, speeches don’t have to be long. Rewatch Hilary Benn’s acclaimed speech during the parliamentary debate about allowing RAF aircraft to hit targets in Syria, and it’s over in a heartbeat.
“The combination of passion, ability and the moment makes a speech come alive, and that’s something we can all learn from,” says Dobbs. More than ever, we need leaders who can strike similar high notes, says Dobbs, noting the growing sense of distance between people and government – a feeling that ‘I don’t identify with the system any more’. The ‘comfortable class’ cocooned in Westminster seems unable to find connections and build bridges. Instead of contributing to the erosion of trust in politicians, Dobbs believes that characters such as Frank and Claire Underwood have helped the public to engage with politics. “I just wonder if real life can learn a bit from the fictional, dramatic side. Can we make politics as popular as Frank Underwood?” asks Dobbs, with a twinkle in his eye.
Matthew Rock spoke to Michael Dobbs as part of the launch of season four of House of Cards on Blu-ray and DVD.
Matthew Rock is the Content Development Director at Think Publishing Ltd and was the launch editor of the UK's first entrepreneurs' magazine (Real Business).