Dull, lifeless and badly written: The new generation of political memoirs will soon be in the bargain bin.
By Dr Matthew Ashton
Two things tend to happen when ministers leave government. The first is signing themselves up for a host of lucrative directorships; the second is a mad dash to get books about their time in office into print.
This week has seen a variety of revelations appearing in the media drawn from Alistair Darling's forthcoming memoirs about the handling of the financial crisis and his relationship with former prime minister Gordon Brown. In fact so many extracts and snippets have appeared in the papers you've got to wonder why the Sunday Times shelled out so much money to buy itself exclusive rights. Most people will have read the juicy stuff already. It's not even if the story Darling has to tell is that original, most of the disclosures are actually quite banal.
It turns out there were a lot of disagreements about the best way to deal with the credit crunch and Gordon Brown had a very bad temper and didn't get on with many of his colleagues. Well I don't know about you but I'm shocked. Who'd have thought it? Alistair Campbell's diaries and Peter Mandelson's memoirs said almost exactly the same thing, so the only thing these books really do is underscore what terrible liars politicians can be. After all, who remembers the hundreds of Labour politicians and spin doctors who appeared on TV and in the press between 1997 and 2010 to deny that Gordon Brown and Tony Blair didn't get on? Worse yet, many of them effectively accused the press of trying to stir things up by inventing the whole thing.
So apart from letting us know that politicians can say one thing in office and another out of it, what other purpose do political memoirs serve? The justification often put forward is that they're written as an aid to future historians and students of politics to let them know what really went on behind closed doors. I'd suggest that while this may be true, two other reasons are also important. The first is that they're a useful money spinner in case the corporate directorships don't materialise. The second is that they're an attempt by the politicians to preserve their reputations. The first draft of history is the version the public tends to remember. It wouldn't be too much of an exaggeration to suggest that many recent books by politicians could be subtitled, 'How I was right and all of my colleagues were wrong'.
Recent years have seen a glut of such memoirs and the time between the politicians leaving office and publishing them seems to be getting shorter and shorter. This is a bad thing for several reasons and actually we could do with fewer books and a longer gap before they're released.
Firstly is the fact that so many of these books are terrible. Most are badly written in their author's haste to get them on to the shelves before the great British public forget who they are. Anyone who has braved the tortured prose of the more recent books will know what I'm talking about. Also, because they're written so soon upon leaving office, much of the really interesting material is either censored or left out for fear of offending colleagues still in government. The best political works tend to come from the rank and file foot soldiers, either backbench MPs or the low ranking ministers, because they have less to loose and aren't frightened of burning their bridges. Alan Clark and Chris Mullin are both good examples of this.
In very few cases do the books actually enhance the reputations of the writers, and in some cases can actually damage them. I don't think anyone thought more highly of Edwina Currie after she revealed in her diaries her long standing affair with John Major (especially when she had attacked Sara Keays for doing the same thing with Cecil Parkinson). Generally most readers take politicians complaining about their former colleagues in their stride now. What was once shocking and bold has become commonplace and rather dull.
What's worse, it actually damages the political process, as we now all have good reason to believe the standard perception of politicians as being scheming, power hungry opportunists. In any event many of these books don't even sell very well. The most interesting parts are cherry-picked for newspaper serialisation and then no one bothers to actually buy them. Most of the ones I own have been picked up in remainder shops for a pittance.
Now I'm not calling for an end to political memoirs but I certainly think we could do with less of them, and for them to be better written. At best they're a useful insight into the inner workings of power, at worst they're self-serving and sometimes outright fabrications. Off the top of my head I can think of a handful from the past couple of decades that have stood the test of time. Anything by Churchill is good because he was one of the few politicians who was also a genuinely great writer. Richard Crossman's diaries about the Wilson years and the workings of the civil service inspired the sitcom Yes Minister. Alan Clark's diaries benefited from his insightful political analysis of the fall of Margaret Thatcher and gossip about his colleagues, although possibly not his painful honesty about his sexual indiscretions. Tony Benn’s on-going diaries are fantastic because they show a panoramic view of British politics over fifty years and also because of the sheer warmth and humanity on display. Finally I'd recommend Gyles Brandreth's diaries for their account of the slow motion collapse of John Major's government between 1992 and 1997. It's possibly the funniest book ever written about being a politician.
Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.
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