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