Over the years I have absorbed myself in the world of political biography and autobiography. It is a strange and intriguing world. When I moved to Salisbury I was glad to offload many of these volumes. It wasn’t difficult to choose which writers or politicians to hang onto. This genre of writing is fraught with self obsession, self justification and setting old scores. Pick up a major disagreement in 10 Downing Street and read the accounts from those in the Cabinet Room. For example, take the Westland affair in 1985- 1986 ( https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Westland_affair ) and we note the sheer range of descriptors of what they believed actually happened. It is sometimes perplexing to know whether those politicians were in the same room ! Memory is often unreliable. It is a human instinct to defend, justify and deal with those who stand in our way. Human nature is trusting, envious, pessimistic and sometimes just fickle !
From time to time my will to ‘manage’ the limited space of bookshelves is tested – and the purchase of this book was such a moment ! I had been intrigued by Stewart in political debate and especially at the TV hustings when Johnson was elected PM. He writes fluently and freely. He charts his journey from outsider to candidency for Prime Minister. He handled significant briefs on Prisons, Poverty, foreign affairs and Brexit. The power and agency of his reasoning and language was honed as a Harvard professor.
What emerges in these carefully organised chapters is a picture of politics which is shallow. Stewart bravely exposes ignorance, incompetence and cronyism. Without any compromise Stewart does not suffer fools and with exquisite articulation deconstructs the crisis of modern politics.
Fastidious in his responsibilities as a constituency MP he paints a dark picture of the absurdities of our times. He brings into this analysis the rich gifts of a hinterland of education and life experience. Eton and Oxford shaped his learning. This was followed by the military and a diplomatic career. He served as a commissioner in Iraq after the war and then as a charity relief specialist in Afghanistan.These experiences are described with care and insight. There is little obvious sense of entitlement. It might have been these experiences made him differently from the usual think tank, advisers and management consultants that made their way into Parliament. We all bring into our work our personalities. Into the mix add the limitations of our horizons and the blindspots of our ignorances! We may be aware of some – others remain conveniently tucked away from sight ! Stewart rises above some of these limitations with ambition and unrestraned energy. This is all helped by his fluency and a determination to set some of the record straight. His is clear about the need for a overhaul of our way of Goverment and especially for Whitehall reform.
All writing may be therapy. Disillusionment and pain ever present in these pages. The force of his anger is leashed upon the ego of Johnson whose disregard for convention and truth are laid bare. These pages are an uncomfortable and disturbing read. The casualties are dignity, restraint and even catastrophe. the integrity of modern politics suffers and we are left wondering how we are to recover from this economic crisis now made more contested by war in the Middle East. Liberality, Order and Trust are slaughtered. What will the future bring?
So this book will take its place alongside Pimlott on Wilson, the Diaries of Tony Benn, Hugo Young on Thatcher (and the rest ) until the next round of downsizing. The human lesson here – what we do with our disappointment matters very much indeed. And pain embraced is part of our own road to a happier and more contented journey.