by Benjamin Davies
Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics
Ed Balls, Arrow Books, 2017
Politics Between the Extremes
Nick Clegg, Vintage, 2017
Coalition: The Inside Story of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government
David Laws, Biteback, 2017
At some point in your childhood, at a museum or circus perhaps, you will have seen a zoetrope. A zoetrope is one of those hollow cylinders with slits around the edge, and a series of images inside. Spin it, peer through the slits, and watch a horse gallop, or windmill turn. Unlike when seeing real horses run or real windmills turn, the zoetrope implicates your eye in the illusion that a few different images constitute a whole story. According to one sometime Deputy Prime Minister, political careers now work like zoetropes. What we see and remember of politicians is like a small set of stills: the rise, manic popularity and crowds, the decisions, the protests, the bombproof vehicles, the resignation, the disgrace.
I speak to Nick Clegg by phone on the day of Parliament’s dissolution for the 2017 General Election. ‘I have a terrible confession to make,’ he says. ‘I find, on the whole, books by politicians… absolutely insufferable.’ He must be finding 2016/17 so far unbearable – not only because he holds the unenviable position of Liberal Democrat EU spokesperson. In 2016, we had Clegg’s Politics Between the Extremes, Ed Balls’ Speaking Out and David Laws’ Coalition (all out this year in paperback). This year has seen the release of traditional memoirs by veteran MPs Harriet Harman and Ken Clarke; Everywoman by Jess Phillips (2017); and the conclusion of Alan Johnson’s acclaimed memoir series with a third instalment, The Long and Winding Road (2017). Meanwhile, Unleashing Demons from ex-PR man Craig Oliver, is an intimate account of the EU referendum campaign. Had enough yet? David Cameron and George Osborne don’t think so – they will release their own books before year's end.
Just over a week before Theresa May’s election announcement, I visit Laws, a former MP, at the Education Policy Institute in Westminster. It is the day of PC Keith Palmer’s funeral, and the streets around the Institute, opposite the Ministry of Justice, feel quiet. It is the atmosphere of a slow day suited to somber reflection of the kind Laws probably wants to achieve with Coalition.
‘I wanted the book to be quite historical’, Laws tells me in a conference room at the Institute, where he is now Executive Chairman. He wears dark blue trousers and a white shirt unbuttoned at the collar, and sits with one arm over the back of his chair. Laws is not a household name, but was one of the most senior Lib Dems in the 2010-2015 coalition government, and a close friend and confidant of Clegg. He was sometimes present at meetings of ‘the Quad’, the most powerful and central decision-making group in the coalition.
At over 600 pages, Coalition must be among the lengthiest political memoirs of recent times. I find myself relieved to be reading it in paperback. It might have needed a more thorough editor – some passages are repeated, events revisited – but covering every year of the coalition, as Laws tries to do, justifies the length. His unspectacular and candid prose ensures that Coalition warrants that most ordinary of book descriptions: it is readable.
But ‘quite’ historical? There’s revealing unease in the wording. For anybody wary of politicians telling stories, Coalition ends up being difficult to grapple with. The hyperbolic book jacket endorsements expose some weaknesses. Chris Mullin calls it ‘forensic’. For both Mullin and former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown, it is the ‘definitive account’ of the coalition. (Neither Mullin nor Ashdown were MPs by 2010). Laws tells me Clegg has read the book, so I ask Clegg for his assessment? The reply: ‘forensic’. I wonder if they all just mean “very long”. Because Coalition swings between great factual detail and a much more anecdotal tone. I ask Laws about the sources. He says he worked from an audio diary kept every day of the government. This explains the conversations recounted – purportedly – verbatim, including when special advisor Dominic Cummings calls David Cameron a ‘complete muppet’, and George Bush Jr. calls Raul Castro ‘a total prick’. Nonetheless, Laws relies on swathes of reported speech so suspiciously large that calling the book ‘forensic’ feels overgenerous.
‘That’s not the kind of book I could or would write’, Clegg tells me. ‘I don’t really think it can even be dignified with the label of a “memoir”’, he says. Instead, Politics is arranged thematically. The chapters have names like ‘The Virtue of Compromise’, and ‘History, Grievance and Psychodrama’. It’s an approach that could flop in the hands of others, but Clegg has a deft intellectualism that gives his writing vitality. Most of the time, he achieves parallel discussion of abstract concepts and policy without being too vague or resorting to lazy sloganising, and makes interesting use of European and international political references.
I call Ed Balls eight days before the election. The news has gone into a frenzy about Corbyn announcing he will debate on the BBC that evening. Balls, once a cabinet minister, then Shadow Chancellor, now ex-MP, is now involved in a different, much gentler campaign: promoting his Speaking Out, recently gone to paperback.
‘I thought it was too early’, he says ‘to write … an intellectual, definitive book about a period of history.’ Instead, Speaking Out follows Politics, its near contemporary, in doing away with chronological, ‘definitive’ narrative. There are as many chapters called things like ‘Defeat’ or ‘Ambition’ as there are dealing with ‘Markets’ or ‘Opposition’. At its best, Balls’ writing seems honest and relaxed, but at worst, feels like the stuff of generic self-help books (‘the reality is none of us are perfect … But the more honest you are with yourself and other people about the struggles you face, the easier you’ll find them to cope with’). When addressing politics specifically, Balls seems quite genuine and open.
The move away from the traditional memoir model won’t please all readers – David Laws, for one. He didn’t think Balls’ was a bad book, but tells me: ‘I was very disappointed in it if it’s the only thing he’s going to write’. He asserts that, deep down, Balls is a policy geek after the style of Thatcher-era chancellor Nigel Lawson. Lawson’s doorstopper The View from No. 11 (1992) ran to over 1000 pages. Balls, says Laws rather imposingly, ‘has got within himself, and ought to produce, that sort of seriousness’. Balls himself begins our call by asserting that he won’t comment on the books of others, then reneges. He seems cautious about notions of ‘seriousness’, saying: ‘My sense about David Laws is it’s all about an agenda, and attempting to produce a view of the past.’
Balls’ and Clegg’s books have intense and constantly self-acknowledged subjectivities which succeed in messing with the zoetrope model by making their authors seem complex – a zoetrope doesn’t work if the images are incongruous. But the opportunity cost of their brevity is the characterisation of others. Laws’ book manages to negotiate a more moderate approach, particularly with senior Conservatives, and it is often only by taking all three books together that we seem to get a realistic picture. Cameron is characterised variously as ‘never really … a man for policy detail’, and ‘at his worst on the small issues and … at his best on the really big, non-political issues’. He appears obsessed with party management and nervously throwing ‘red meat’ to Tory backbenchers. I ask Laws to reflect on Cameron’s image, and he reels off negative traits (‘very petulant … liked to get his own way’), and says that in the book he ‘didn’t make a big effort to bring these characteristics out.’ Yet, I notice that the closing chapters of Coalition say that Cameron ‘will be regarded by historians as a good Prime Minister’, and ask Laws if, following the EU referendum, he wants to reassess. No, he doesn’t. He thinks that conclusion will ‘stand the test of time’.
Osborne comes across differently. In Coalition, he is ‘self-deprecating, relaxed and amusing’. Laws and Clegg both prefer him to Cameron, with the latter saying: ‘in private, [Osborne] is mischievous, gossipy, and thoughtful’. Even Balls paints him as ‘friendly and civil.’ But there are flashes of deep deceit. Laws, recalling discussions about spending targets, quotes Osborne saying with sincerity: ‘£25 billion and £33 billion are pretty similar. We can just fudge that a bit’. Of his cuts in savings tax, he admits they ‘will only really be of help to stupid, affluent and lazy people’.
Cameron and Osborne have been slow at producing their own books, both of which will be published by William Collins. Osborne’s is provisionally titled The Age of Unreason. I recall this as the exact phrase used in a section of Clegg’s book, and mention it to him. He says – only half-jokingly – ‘It’s a brazen act of plagiarism in my view. In fact, I initially proposed that title. It was a working title for my book.’ The softer portrait of Osborne in all three books combined with his publisher’s promotional line that Age of Unreason will be a ‘rallying cry to save capitalism, western democracy and to map our future course towards a fairer society’, make the book sound like Politics Between the Extremes. ‘Who knows?’ says Clegg. ‘Maybe much to my surprise … there’s an inner liberal struggling to get out of George Osborne’s very conservative exterior.’
It is testament to Osborne’s youth and tremendous ambition that quitting parliament has somehow not quashed the possibility of his one day becoming PM. The adoption of the non-memoir approach may be following a growing trend in political writing, but it will be hard not to look at Age of Unreason without seeing looming behind it the book-not-written. Nonetheless, we will have to wait some time for that book. Confession is not the mode of a politician still hovering in the wings, banking on one more big moment onstage.
Clegg and Balls give near-identical answers when I ask them about Cameron’s forthcoming, untitled memoirs – how will he navigate deciding what kind of book to write? ‘I’m assuming’, says Clegg, ‘he will feel a pressure … [to] somehow conform to a kind of convention’. Trying to write a book about one’s premiership, says Balls, might involve ‘an obligation to feel complete, or to try and reach balanced conclusions’. The publicity from William Collins says that Cameron’s book will be ‘frank’. ‘Don’t all publishers use that adjective?’ asks Clegg when I bring this up. ‘“Revealing”, you know, “never before seen”, all that kind of stuff’.
Frankness might be difficult for Cameron. ‘David’s a lovely person’, Laws recalls Ken Clarke saying, ‘but I have no idea at all what he stands for.’ His enemies called it populism, his allies called it pragmatism, but all knew Cameron was a ducking-and-weaving politician for whom frankness was either a rhetorical tool or something to be avoided – certainly never, as it seems to be for Corbyn, a default way of talking, a way to bring strong ideology to all interactions. There is also the problem of propriety. In Politics, Clegg writes that some big political figures strike him as ‘more … lonesome than the public might expect’, and one suspects this may apply to Cameron. Balls writes that Cameron, in contrast to any other MP, when passing him in the House, would ‘just stare ahead, or look at his papers or his phone’ – even after resigning as PM. Apart from a recent campaign visit to Crewe, Cameron has been keeping behind closed doors at dinners or international finance conferences. Perhaps, post-referendum, he doesn’t have many allies or even amicable acquaintances in the Commons. A truly ‘frank’ memoir from him would be a great political book, but, for such a calculating politician, the price may be too much to trade in one’s last friends in Westminster.
‘Remember this too’, Hemingway implored the reader of Death in the Afternoon (1932): ‘all bad writers are in love with the epic.’ Could such a lovesickness spread to readers too? There’s something striking about being in thrall to the prospect of the comprehensive, sprawling beast of the ‘epic’ traditional memoir, something addictive about second-guessing that such a book lies dormant in every politician.
And so books like Speaking Out and Politics Between the Extremes have a sobering effect. As experimentations with new forms, they are not flawless, but are nonetheless refreshing and forward-looking, and drag readers away from the fixation with the way that big memoirs fossilise their authors. ‘I’ve just turned 50’ says Clegg buoyantly: ‘I’ve still got oodles of energy.’ The books are also not devoid of great titbits. In Speaking Out, these mostly involve Gordon Brown. For example, when Brown invites Balls into his office, shows him a whiteboard full of cabinet positions, and asks him to pick one, as one might ask a child to pick confectionary. Or when, in 2002, a Concorde carrying both men nearly crashes. They had been drafting a speech for the IMF and World Bank, and after one engine fails and the plane begins to plummet, Brown turns to Balls and says: ‘What do you think? Should we finish my speech?’
Laws’ Coalition, despite shortcomings, is enjoyable for casual readers and political anoraks alike. For the latter, particularly, there are some nice confirmations of overlong-suspected and embarrassing political truths. ‘Minister,’ says one senior civil servant to Laws: ‘immigration has never really been a priority for the Home Office.’ ‘We’ll do whatever it takes’, says Cameron to Clegg, ‘to stay in power’.
Reading more and more of these books, I start to reformulate what I take issue with: it’s not that any one book fails to be comprehensive – that just seems unsolvable. It’s that, as group, they still lack certain voices. Harriet Harman’s A Woman’s Work, a powerful book, articulates this most clearly in its acknowledgements: ‘I’d always denounced political memoirs as male vanity projects’, she says, ‘and vowed never to write mine’. Fortunately, she wrote a sorely needed one. But there is a welcome anxiety – sometimes, even humility – to the new, slimmer volumes of Clegg and Balls. To begin with zoetrope as the foundational metaphor is to begin with pluralism, and encourages scepticism and curiosity sufficient to the tremendous chaos of the political circus.
BENJAMIN DAVIES reads English at Brasenose. He lives in fear that Cormac McCarthy will die before finishing his next book.