The art of political biography remains in intensive care if Giles Radice’s latest book is anything to go by, says Simon Heffer

Reading accounts of the New Labour years in Giles Radice’s Odd Couples is rather like touring an abattoir before the cleaners have been in

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

21 March 2015

9:00 AM

Odd Couples: The Great Political Pairings of Modern Britain Giles Radice

I.B. Tauris, pp.304, £25, ISBN: 9781780762807

With the odd exception — I think principally of Charles Moore’s life of Margaret Thatcher — the genre of political biography has known hard times lately. There are few faster routes to the remainder shop, other, of course, than the political memoir, most of which I presume are now written to create a tax loss for their publishers. This decline is not down to poor scholarship, but, I suspect, to the general distaste so many literate and inquiring people feel for politicians. Reading accounts of the New Labour years in particular is rather like touring an abattoir before the cleaners have been in.

So those who want to write about politicians must find new ways to do so, and Lord Radice, a former long-serving Labour MP, has chosen to look at partnerships of politicians. Most are straightforward — the coalition partners Attlee and Churchill and Cameron and Clegg, for example, or brothers-in-arms such as Bevin and Morrison and Macmillan and Butler — but I assume Heath and Wilson are paired in this book because Radice sought to contrive a way of discussing politics between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s. Sadly the whole book is a contrivance, not because there was not a relationship between most of those featured (the other pairings are Thatcher and Whitelaw and Blair and Brown), but because he puts so little emphasis in his writing and analysis on the effects of the interaction between the respective couples.

The author has scoured the published works, and has himself witnessed the more recent events about which he writes. He has conducted interviews with others, though there is precious little to be discerned that is not already out there. And that is the problem with this book. It is likely to be read only by those with an obsessive or a professional interest in politics, and it is hard to believe that such people will not already know what Radice tells them. More than once, as I clambered over yet another tediously retold tale, I wondered what else he could have been doing with his time. Life is, after all, short.

In order to create the idea that he has something original to say, the author comes up with the conceit that his partnerships are divided between ‘originators’ and ‘facilitators’. Well, some are and some aren’t; leaving aside the redundant excursion into Heath and Wilson, the common thread is of people who, in varying degrees, couldn’t stand the sight of each other, mucking together to get to the finishing line. One waits for that basic insight to be presented somewhere, but it is not.

Nor, indeed, are very many others. There were, however, opportunities to do so. Radice observed New Labour at close hand but seems to have seen nothing that others had not noticed already. Sometimes the unexciting recitation of facts gives the reader the impression of an article for the Dictionary of National Biography. In his essay on Blair and Brown he misses the opportunity to bury Brown once and for all, tiptoeing lightly around his character flaws and falling for the Mandelson line that the economic catastrophe of 2008 was largely the fault of others. The reckless way that Brown expanded the money supply throughout most of his time at the Treasury is ignored, and his almost criminal increase of the deficit dismissed with a slap on the wrist. Objectivity is not essential in works such as this, but it is always refreshing to see it.

By the time we reach Cameron and Clegg one senses either ennui or exhaustion, and the lack of percipience in the writing becomes stultifying. As one wades through the swamp of the bleeding obvious it becomes clear it is far too early to make a judgment, and one wonders why the author even tried. His attempt to excuse Clegg for reneging on his support for boundary revisions, having been granted his Alternative Vote referendum, fails completely. When all the facts come out, this exercise will look naive and credulous at best.

To Lord Radice’s credit, he is generous in his attributions of his debt to the work of others. His book is not plagiarism of the sort in which Roy Jenkins ruthlessly engaged in his later works. But it adds nothing to the sum of human knowledge, and does not even provoke argument or investigation. The art of political biography remains in intensive care.

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  • ADW

    Then of course there’s Heffer’s own biography of Enoch Powell, or, rather, hagiography. Heffer can’t cope with any criticism of his hero, so we get part eulogy, part apology, and mostly whitewash (excuse the pun).

    • Callan

      Or an absorbing insight into the life of a war hero, the foremost Greek scholar of his generation, a supreme orator, a man who reflected the concerns of his constituents and the finest Prime Minister we never had.

      • ADW

        He was highly regarded for his intelligence work, but would have disowned the ‘hero’ label since he did not see actual combat (not his fault, but he would never have accepted the designation hero because of it).

        He was highly intelligent, but even his strongest admirers can’t deny his speech was a disaster and that he should have foreseen it would have the opposite effect from what he intended. Then there was his rather bitter statement in 1995 about ‘what’s wrong with racism’ which rather undoes attempts to paint him as misunderstood.

        Heffer’s book is bloated in parts and should have tackled the problems with Powell head on, in which case both the book and Powell himself would have a better reputation today.

      • whs1954

        John Campbell’s biography of Powell may be that, Heffer’s work is not.

      • Partner

        I know Heffer is a giant but isn’t that overdoing it a bit?

  • Fraser Bailey

    I can’t wait for the first biography of Rachel Reeves…

  • Partner

    The first sentence of this review is a true classic. Can one imagine a more off putting opening to a review? Room for a Speccie competition if there hasn’t been one already.

    Quite a surprise to hear Radice is still alive, actually.