Ken Clarke did it over late-night brandies and cigars. Tony Blair needed someone standing over him to make him knuckle down. David Cameron reportedly shut himself away in an excruciatingly tasteful shepherd’s hut to write For the Record. But grinding out a political memoir shouldn’t be an entirely painless process – the best involve an honest reckoning with mistakes as well as the inevitable recital of triumphs.
Some of the most interesting recent political autobiographies come from those who might have led their parties but never did, and thus are less obsessed with creating legacies. Alan Johnson’s extraordinary trilogy, starting with This Boy and ending with The Long and Winding Road, revealed a natural writer with a remarkable life story to tell (orphaned at 13, he was raised by his older sister and worked as a postman before falling into politics via the union movement). Harriet Harman’s A Woman’s Work concludes with a heartfelt admission that after years of mockery she didn’t have the confidence to run for the leadership, which raises important questions about who rises to the top of politics – regardless of whether you think her reticence was the Labour party’s loss or gain. Ken Clarke’s witty, gossipy Kind of Blue takes on a new poignancy now he has lost the whip. He never seems to doubt the Tory party was mad to keep rejecting his offer to lead it, but it gives intriguing glimpses of an alternative path for the Tories that might have unfolded had he beaten William Hague in 1997.
But Cameron’s memoir will be compared primarily with memoirs of prime ministers past. Margaret Thatcher’s weighty The Downing Street Years is a product of an altogether less emotional time. It reads like an official history, shorn of the intimate details or introspection we have come to expect; even the poll tax riots, seen by many as a defining moment in her downfall, are dismissed with an indignant reference to what she sees as the “wickedness” of the protesters fighting in the street. But, with Hollywood increasingly circling the Thatcher story – Gillian Anderson will play her this autumn in The Crown, following Meryl Streep’s portrayal in Iron Lady – it’s timely to be reminded of the facts.
Some may also enjoy comparing Cameron’s account of the coalition years with that of his coalition partner. Nick Clegg’s Politics: Between the Extremes is light on biographical detail, but upfront about the pressures for a Liberal Democrat in working with the Conservatives and honest about the unnerving experience of being briefly swept up in a personality cult (remember Cleggmania?). If the polls are right, and we are again heading for a hung parliament, this might be one to dust off.
The contemporary yardstick, however, is Tony Blair’s The Journey, which pulls off the difficult trick of being informative about how government works without being stuffy, and contains disarming glimmers of self-awareness about his own shortcomings – including what he calls his “boundless, at times rather manic lust for modernisation” and its potential to be misdirected.
If all this leaves you somewhat depressed about the state of modern British politics, there’s always the Democrat mayor Pete Buttigieg’s Shortest Way Home, a lyrically written book that is as much love letter to small-town America and to his husband as it is evidence of his considerable ambition. Worth a read even if he never makes it to the White House, for the glimmer of progressive hope it contains.