You might think this is terribly geeky, but I’m something of a political buff, and enjoy reading political biographies and memoirs. Of UK politicians, I have reads books on or by Tony Benn (3 different ones), Denis Healey, Richard Crossman, Michael Foot, Winston Churchill, Neil Kinnock (3), Margaret Thatcher (4), Tony Blair (2), James Callaghan, John Major (2), Roy Jenkins, Gordon Brown, Julian Critchley, Harold Wilson, Alan Clark (3), and Jonathan Aitken – pretty ridiculous, but there you go. Other people’s hobbies always seem strange – I don’t understand why anyone would do cross-stitch or Morris dancing.
I’ve reviewed three of these on Amazon, on Roy Jenkins, James Callaghan and Michael Foot, and I thought that I should corral them into one place.
Roy Jenkin’s lived a full and varied life, as a highly successful politician, writer and bon viveur (his enjoyment of claret was famous), and his memoirs, first published in 1988, certainly captures this. As a portrait of the Wilson governments they match the Castle, Crossland and Benn diaries (with greater perspective allowed to diarists who are inevitably by their medium caight in the moment), and he takes into the formation and eventual rupturing of the SDP.
But first he tells us how he got there. Rather like Gordon Brown, Jenkins was not born into a wealthy family but rather an family of some local political importance. He proceeded to Balliol College, Oxford, where he wryly admits to only ever attending one lecture, and meets future political allies and adversaries such as Tony Crosland and Ted Heath (president of the Oxford Union, generally a route to future success) and also captures some of the excitement of the 1945 Labour victory. As a political buff myself it was heartening to find that others followed politics with such avidity!
His life as a Minister is well captured; Jenkins was also a highly-admired political biographer (with Asquith, Churchill and Gladstone some of his subjects), so it is no surprise that he writes so elegantly and with teasing irony on ministerial life. There are few remarkable surprises or soul-bearing disquisitions as marked the Alan Clark diaries. Rather, Jenkins gives the impression of a man of great intellect and power who knew his worth. (I find it rather telling that he constantly refers to “Wilson”, even though as PM and Chancellor they had to work closely together; he is not dismissive but it’s clear he feels that he would have made a better Prime Minister).
Some sections of the book are engrossing, especilly chapter when as Chancellor he faced a daily struggle with the value of sterling and the British economy. The passage where, in 1968, a run on the pound almost capsizes the entire government, is thrilling to read and gives an impression of the phyisical and mental stamina required at the top-levels of politics. Similarly, the early days of the SDP, where opinion polls had them at 50%, seem tremendously exciting, and given the height of the ambition (to break the British two-party system, no less) and how close he came, so they must have been. The subsequent fallout and disillusion are also keenly evoked.
However some are less captivating sections. The period as President of the European Commission is one. Perhaps it is because most readers will be less familiar with the cast of politicans from the various EEC (as it then was) countries. The post was concerned more with coordination than with policy creation, and given the near-standstill the EEC reached whilst considering the British rebate, it must have been rather tedious compared to being Chancellor or Home Secretary.
Jenkins also fills us with a sense of his “hinterland”, his enjoyment of good food, cigars, travel, books, tennis and wine. One has the sense of a rich and varied life, and he enjoys teasing other politicians (like Barbara Castle) who seem unable to switch off from politics. But little is conveyed of the character of the House of Commons, of being an MP, again unlike Alan Clark’s diaries. Perhaps this is inevitable when he was a Minister for so long, and the leader of the SDP afterwards.
It should go without saying that you’d need to have an interest in British politics to find this book enjoyable. But if you do, then its elegance, proximity to major events, historical sense and effective portraits of major postwar political figures (from JFK to Margaret Thatcher) make it one of the best of its kind.
Political memoirs have become such a growth industry in recent years that it can be difficult to remember their novelty and usefulness, in the days of far less leaky Cabinets, for the average reader. Until the 1970s and the Crosland, Castle and Benn diaries, there was very little account of the actual workings of government. Callaghan was the first PM to give a fully extant memoirs (if you exclude Wilson’s “The Labour Government 1964-1970” and “1974-76”, which I do, for being more an administrative record).
Callaghan’s memoirs take him through his childhood, his early days in the Inland Revenue and the Navy, which really do show that a politican should have a film grounding in a career before starting in political life. Not just for the experience, but to give a sense of how people at the sharp end of governmental policies are affected. After 1945 Callaghan is swept into the great Attlee landslide, and thereafter his story is essentially that of the Labour movement in the UK – the early successes, the 13 years of opposition and the Bevan/Gaitskill split, the vast hopes and gradual disillusion of the Wilson governments.
During all these moments Callaghan rose and rose, to the point where he was made Chancellor in 1964, only to spend three years fighting a losing battle against devaluation. When it came he was tarnished, but not irrevocably and swapped places with Roy Jenkins, then at the Home Office. Callaghan did not continue Jenkins’ liberal reforms, more’s the pity, but seems to be far more of a social conservative than his great rival (and also than Healy, another right-wing LAbour rival). We then see Callaghan fighting for the “renogotiation” of the EEC terms once back in office in 1974, which he relates with a straight face, which must have been difficult.
Upon Wilson’s resignation in 1976, Callaghan fought successfully for the Labour leadership (and thus Prime Ministership). But, interestingly, he says during this point that an autobiographical piece he wrote was the only one he ever wrote. The lack of self-reflection this displays seems unusual for a politican these days, given (as said above) the spate of self-justifying memoirs from even minor Cabinet ministers. Also, Callaghan during his account of his PM-ship seems only focused on the day-to-day, even while he was accounted a successful Chairman style PM: there is little sense of an overriding ideological sense guiding his choices, but rather a practical wish to incrementally improve standards in his various hobby horses – the Navy, education, social services. One really senses that for some PMs (Major being another), high public office is a goal in itself rather than offering the ability to carry out some cherished ideals.
Callaghan also mentions his farm, his wife, his abundant family, amidst the toil of being PM, to complete the sense of him as a man. He seems to have been a very good person to work for – it’s often suggested that he was a better PM than he was Chancellor, or Home or Foreign Secretary. In the end, though, despite it all, Callaghan seems now destined to be remembered for the Winter of Dicontent, which shows the truth of the adage that “all political careers end in failure”. Callaghan’s failure is more important than many others, and for this reason his memoirs are well worth reading.
Michael Foot is now sadly remembered as the most unsuccessful Labour in the post-war era, leading the party to the calamitous 1983 General Election defeat. But as this biography shows, Foot was a sucessful politician in the 1974-1979 government, as well as a pre-eminent journalist, author of many books, bibliophile and debater (in his schooldays winning a trip to the USA).
Foot’s journey through life is practically that of the Labour party in the UK, for Foot was born into a family of Liberals and started there himself politically, but shifted to the Labour party, as many post-WWI Liberals did. We learn a great deal about Foot’s family, especially his practically biblio-manicial father Issac who was a towering influence. Foot as a young man was not blessed socially (a trait worsened by asthma and psoriasis) but was a scholar of great ability and a speaker of confidence. But from his large family Foot gained an empathy with women and married Jill Craigie.
Following his time at Oxford, Foot worked as a journalist, for many years under the employ of Beaverbrook, who then had a reputation equivalent to Rupert Murdoch. Mervyn Jones shows how well Foot thought of Beaverbrook, though he does not really show what this would have been thought of in the wider Labour party. Foot then became an MP, initially for Plymouth (his home town), but following defeat in the 1955 election and Aneurin Bevan’s death, was selected for Bevan’s old seat in Wales where the Labour votes could have been weighed rather than counted!
Foot’s time as an MP could be split into four (such was his longevity): firstly his time as a “maverick” backbencher (when such positions were far more respected) until 1970; on the front benches and government (1970-1979), during which he was Employment Secretary and Leader of the House (working closely with Callaghan in his minority administration); Labour party leader (1980-1983); then a venerable backbencher (1983-1992). Each period is well represented – Foot’s backbench period was important because of his skill in defeating the Lord reforms, for example.
Foot’s period as leader is tackled sympathetically – perhaps too much so, for Jones does not really give a sense of the crisis which Labour found itself in in 1983. His election as leader is in fact hailed as helping to keep the Labour party together, when in fact it was taken as proof of a shift to the left (Callaghan would not have countanced unilateral disarmament or withdrawl from the EEC). Foot’s inability to adapt to modern (TV-based) electioneering is similarly sympathised with, rather than condemned for letting the Conservatives win the arguments by default. And this is my main criticism of this biography – Jones seems rather too close to Foot and hesitates to criticise his failures where appropriate, for Foot, regardless of his effectiveness as a Cabinet Minister, was not suited as a party leader. His handling of Tony Benn for example was far too lenient.
Nonetheless, this is an excellent, highly informative, at times moving (Foot’s wider family did not have their troubles to seek) book. Anyone interested in UK politics, in the Labour movement or indeed in post-war journalism would enjoy it greatly.