by Tom Watson
Anthony Seldon has published a biography of Gordon Brown. I broke a golden rule and agreed to be interviewed, because I admire him and he charmed me into it. My father in law raves about his books. So I relented and talked to him for over an hour in July. It was a mistake.
After a quick skim-read of the pages on which I’m quoted or mentioned, the results do not appear disastrous. But I still feel sullied. And though I hope I’ve not hurt the feelings of the subject, I’m not sure if I’ve contributed to a greater understanding of the times.
Nevertheless, I’m told that Mr Seldon gives a good account of Gordon’s time in Number 10 – as told to him by the great leader’s friends and foes. Yet reading many of the books chronicling contemporary political times is a poor way to understand the period covered.
The very worst are political autobiographies. Just because you were centre stage doesn’t make you a playwright. Most people who write or provide testimony for these books are still grinding axes and settling scores. They justify mistakes and overplay successes. It’s not history; it’s propaganda.
The one good thing about the genre is that history’s losers still get their say. A particularly fine example of which is Ian Gilmour’s Dancing with dogma. As an account of his time during the Thatcher years, it is a loser’s story. As a Tory case for one nation Conservatism, it comprehensively exposes the absurdity of Thatcher’s neo-liberalism. Gilmour should be essential reading for Labour people who seek to understand the ideological underpinning of Osborne and Cameron’s government today.
Gilmour shows us that losers often give a better account of their times than the winners. Many of the authors of recent political memoirs still bask in the shadow of past victories and gloss over their mistakes. It is remarkable, for example, that Tony Blair only appears to regret banning fox hunting and introducing the freedom of information (FoI) act in over a decade as PM.
Incidentally, I love the freedom of information act. I’ve made over 3000 FoI requests since the Conservative-led government came to power. I accept that it’s not a comforting piece of legislation if you happen to be prime minister. But for a backbench MP who believes in greater transparency in government, it’s a great tool.
It seems that very few political winners manage to write an honest account of their experiences without devaluing their contribution or that of their colleagues. Peter Hyman pulls it off with his book 1 in 10, an affectionate and playful account of his time with Tony Blair. Even between the lines of Peter’s respectful and honest words, you can see why he chose so utterly to abandon the life and become a school teacher. His book is quirky. And the author is good-natured enough to laugh at himself and the position he was in at Number 10.
I’m still waiting for the book that truly shows the comedic nature of Whitehall life. After all, Yes Minister was funny because, most of the time, it could have been reality. And yet even the wittiest political writers underplay the absurdity of their position. Chris Mullin gets closest to it or, perhaps inadvertently, Alan Clark.
Maybe I’m destined to write that book. In the quarter of a century since I first hired on at the Labour Party, I have witnessed enough jaw-droppingly absurd moments to keep Armando Iannuci in work for just as long. And if Tony Blair can write a book about bunking up in a sleeping bag with Anji Hunter and “devouring” his wife after a bad day at the office, then why shouldn’t each MP publish every morsel of tittle-tattle that masquerades as insight in Westminster?
Gone are the days when the Crossman diaries – a serious and scholarly work on the machinery of government from a minister’s perspective – caused anger and dismay at the heart of government. The then cabinet secretary, Sir William Armstrong, on being shown an advance copy, famously remarked that “Mr Crossman breaks a tradition of mutual trust and, for that matter, of good manners”.
When I worked at the cabinet office I was stunned to be shown the little room to which John Major would retire to write his own account of his time as PM. That’s right – John Major had his own little room to write a flipping memoir. It’s not as if he had much to do after all. He was only prime minister.
Maybe this is why we see so little of David Cameron these days. While students are burning effigies of Nick Clegg, Dave is probably in a little room writing his account of the burning of Nick.
It’s got to the point that so many people are writing books about their time in government that they don’t have any time for government. And the culture of memoir writing has a weird effect behind the scenes of politics. I know of some MPs who are treated differently by their colleagues so as to get a good mention in their book.
My friend Chris Bryant writes his memoir in long hand using a fountain pen and a red leather-bound journal. I’ve seen him doing it during long and dull committees. It didn’t stop me persecuting him in his last year as a foreign office minister, but it does make me wonder how my write-up will look when he finally sends it over to Iain Dale to publish.
And if the likes of Chris are writing memoirs, why not go the whole way? Nadine Dorries – The chutzpah and the heartache. John Reid – The early years. Philip Davies – A Yorkshireman in London. For all I know these books have already been commissioned.
Thinking about it, maybe I should write my story.
Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East