Recent British political memoirs highlight risks in the sort of government that also dominates Australia, writes Chris Bowen
Party, I found the revelation that Miliband and Balls had only two conversations during the entire 2015 election campaign extraordinary. A leader and the financial spokesman speaking two or three times a day during the campaign is more in keeping with my experience.
Pleasingly, Balls avoids chronology and has gone for a thematic book. No year-by-year accounts of his career. Rather he deals with the topics he regards as most important for his life and career in chapters such as “Family”, “Decisions” and “Reform”. Perhaps most importantly, he writes about discovering that he had an undiagnosed “internalised stammer” after his appointment as a minister, which explained why he at times had trouble getting his words out at the dispatch box or in interviews. Iain Dale, the British political publisher and blogger (and former Conservative candidate), calls Speaking Out “the best political book I have read this year”. I agree with him.
Alan Johnson was a very different style of British Labour politician. And the final instalment of his three-part autobiography, The Long and Winding Road, is a very different book. The first instalment, This Boy, was widely and rightly acclaimed. His account of his London childhood is like no other by a politician you will ever read. The Long and Winding Road is, almost in- evitably, not as compelling, but it is nevertheless an intriguing and worthwhile read.
Whereas Balls was full of ambition (as he readily concedes in the chapter titled “Ambition”), Johnson’s approach to his career seems almost lackadaisical. He entered parliament only because Tony Blair rang him and suggested it. It had never occurred to him, despite the fact he had transitioned from being a postman to national secretary of the postal union.
This lack of burning ambition on Johnson’s part shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of success. Quite the contrary. He was a successful cabinet minister in a range of portfolios, culminating in being appointed as Brown’s home secretary. He recounts a delightful exchange when Blair, as PM, rang him and asked him to become minister for higher education and to implement the introduction of income-contingent university fees, similar to Australia’s system.
“But I’ve never been to university,” Johnson pleaded. “Precisely,” Blair responded, alive to the fact a minister who had received a free university education would be open to a charge of hypocrisy. Johnson went on to navigate the minefield and get the job done.
Johnson is reminiscent of a bygone age, before the emergence and domination of professional politicians. But he doesn’t use his