Books dis­cussed

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Mil­lions of words have been writ­ten over the past 12 months about the state of global pol­i­tics. As the world grap­ples with the re­venge of the dis­en­fran­chised and dis­en­chanted, and gog­gles at the rolling daily drama of Trumpism, it’s in Bri­tain that the ten­drils of the body politic are per­haps most un­der strain. A fed­er­a­tion within a fed­er­a­tion, Bri­tain has al­ready left Europe, and Scot­land may yet leave Bri­tain, mean­ing that ris­ing na­tion­al­ism ac­tu­ally de­stroys the na­tion.

Mod­er­ate pro­gres­sives and po­lit­i­cal pro­fes­sion­als watch in agony as the once elec­torally dom­i­nant Labour Party seems de­ter­mined to make itself un­electable. There is se­ri­ous talk of a split for the first time since the 1980s. In re­cent weeks Labour man­aged the unthinkable: los­ing a held seat to the Tories in a by-elec­tion, the first time a govern­ing party has won a seat from the op­po­si­tion in a by-elec­tion since 1982.

On the Tory side, their elec­toral dom­i­nance masks real di­vi­sions about Europe, open­ness and im­mi­gra­tion. The ar­chi­tects and lead­ers of the Con­ser­va­tive Leave cam­paign, Boris John­son and Michael Gove, had one of the most spec­tac­u­lar fallings-out in Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal his­tory when Gove be­trayed his ally and made a lunge for the Tory lead­er­ship him­self, thus deny­ing them both the prize.

And so the rash of po­lit­i­cal au­to­bi­ogra­phies em­a­nat­ing from Bri­tain at the mo­ment is good news for po­lit­i­cal bib­lio­philes. There’s some­thing about Bri­tish politi­cians and their writings. The lit­er­ary tra­di­tion in the House of Com­mons is strong and en­dur­ing. The best po­lit­i­cal di­aries are Bri­tish (think Chips Chan­non and Alan Clark). Those who never quite make it to prime min­is­ter tend to write mag­nif­i­cent mem­oirs. De­nis Healey’s The Time of My Life (1989), for ex­am­ple, has been de­clared the best po­lit­i­cal au­to­bi­og­ra­phy of the 20th cen­tury. Roy Jenk­ins’s A Life at the Cen­tre (1991) is more mem­o­rable than the av­er­age mem­oir. Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal books tend to be an­o­dyne elec­toral pam­phlets in a more ex­pan­sive form. Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal books are the real deal.

The re­cent au­to­bi­ogra­phies of Ed Balls, Alan John­son, Ken Clarke and Mal­colm Rifkind are wor­thy ad­di­tions to this great tra­di­tion. Ev­ery po­lit­i­cal au­to­bi­og­ra­phy has its fair share of self­jus­ti­fi­ca­tion and “get-square” with op­po­nents and en­e­mies. But these books have less than most. I think each one is worth­while read­ing for any­one with an in­ter­est in Bri­tish po­lit­i­cal his­tory. And in the present sense, these lead­ing thinkers pro­vide in­sights on the enor­mous pres­sures bear­ing down on Bri­tish pol­i­tics and so­ci­ety. Col­lec­tively span­ning sev­eral decades from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron, the books pro­vide a his­tory of the changes in govern­ing cul­ture and po­lit­i­cal man­age­ment. Taken to­gether, they paint a story of the collapse of col­lec­tive cab­i­net gov­ern­ment and make a pow­er­ful case for its restora­tion.

Let’s start with the best of them. Full dis­clo­sure: I know Labour’s Ed Balls and like him. We held equiv­a­lent roles when he was shadow chan­cel­lor. On elec­tion day in May 2015, he was well aware he might end the night run­ning the econ­omy as chan­cel­lor of the ex­che­quer. In­stead, he ended the night out of par­lia­ment. Hav­ing spent most of the cam­paign trav­el­ling the coun­try, help­ing his col­leagues in mar­ginal seats, he didn’t re­alise his own seat was fall­ing from his grasp. That is ev­ery se­nior politi­cian’s night­mare. He writes mov­ingly of his emo­tions in the open­ing chap­ter, “De­feat”.

Balls was not a par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar politi­cian, in­fected by years of bad press as Gordon Brown’s pol­icy en­forcer and taunted at ev­ery op­por­tu­nity by Cameron and Ge­orge Os­borne. But Speak­ing Out: Lessons in Life and Pol­i­tics will go a long way to in­tro­duc­ing peo­ple to the Ed Balls his fam­ily and friends know and love (although pos­si­bly not as much as his post-ca­reer ap­pear­ances on TV shows The Great Bri­tish Bake Off and Strictly Come Danc­ing). His is the most per­sonal and re­veal­ing of all the four books dis­cussed here.

Balls is dis­creet about the Blair-Brown wars with­out ig­nor­ing them. There is no get-square, although his frus­tra­tion at be­ing shadow chan­cel­lor to Ed Miliband bris­tles on the page. As some­one who has worked as trea­surer and shadow trea­surer with two lead­ers of the La­bor Speak­ing Out: Lessons in Life and Pol­i­tics By Ed Balls Hutchin­son, 448pp, $55 (HB) Kind of Blue: A Po­lit­i­cal Mem­oir By Ken Clarke Macmil­lan, 352pp, $32.99 The Long and Wind­ing Road: A Mem­oir By Alan John­son Ban­tam Press, 352pp, $37.99 (HB) Power and Prag­ma­tism By Mal­colm Rifkind Bite­back Pub­lish­ing, 480pp, $39.99 (HB) Come Danc­ing

For­mer Labour politi­cian Ed Balls ap­pear­ing on Bri­tish TV show Strictly

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