Why do politicians love writing political biographies so much?

Many politicians have the gift of the gab but few manage to acquire literary skills. Roy Jenkins and Douglas Hurd showed how to do it with their biographies of Churchill and Disraeli; now can Boris do the same?

MPs from Churchill through Douglas Hurd to William Hague have written books
The write stuff: MPs from Churchill through Douglas Hurd to William Hague have developed their thinking by plundering the lives of the greats. Photomontage by Ciara Phelan.
It made for a fine silly-season story to read that Boris Johnson was writing a book about Winston Churchill. Here we see a man, instantly recognisable and quite irrepressible, a master of wit and wordplay, from a privileged background yet with the common touch, always ready to parade his own vices to mock political correctness, and above all a bad party man with ill-concealed ambitions to get to the top. But which man?
 
The question is hardly new. When a living politician is drawn to be the biographer of a great statesman – that is, a dead politician – we are bound to wonder about the motivation. In the past, the usual reason was piety. An eminent former colleague or political disciple, preferably one with some literary bent, had to be recruited as the keeper of the bones of the saint. John Morley’s life of his hero Gladstone is a classic example. What was expected was a work in at least two volumes, as the conventional “tombstone” biography. De mortuis nil nisi bunkum.
 
This was the format that Lytton Strachey mocked when he published Eminent Victorians in 1918. Still, even now, there is a palpable demand for a fitting commemoration of a deceased statesman – or stateswoman, of course. Charles Moore’s justly acclaimed first volume on Margaret Thatcher, running to more than 800 pages and pre-cooked in her lifetime, was ready for publication within a week or so of her death. Moore is a former editor of the Daily Telegraph, and so his ideological credentials were hardly in doubt. But he took advantage of the more relaxed attitudes of today about what he could say, and the bunkum – whether personal or political – is refreshingly absent.
 
Even fewer constraints inhibit a politician when writing about a predecessor from a more distant era. Douglas Hurd had his own distinguished political career, rising to become Thatcher’s last foreign secretary, in 1989, and contesting the Conservative leadership election after her downfall. While in office, he listed his recreation in Who’s Who as “Writing thrillers” and he published many of them over the years; but now he just puts “Writing”. His most recent book, on Disraeli, coauthored with the able young historian Edward Young, follows a similar work by him on Robert Peel in 2007. Both of these are notably well written, even thrilling at times.
 
Peel and Disraeli have often been regarded as the epitome of two rival traditions in Conservative politics. In this reading, Peel is the man of business. His family owned cotton mills and he brought a modern perspective to a party historically identified with the landed interest. In 1846 he affronted his backbenchers by repealing the Corn Laws. It seemed simply the right thing to do, recognising the reality of Britain as a manufacturing country that needed free trade.
 
The snag was that Peel split his party in the process. The Conservatives subsequently had no secure grasp on power for nearly 30 years. Not until Disraeli revitalised it was the party restored. He did this by projecting his rival vision of aristocratic paternalism, reinforced with democratic reforms that reached out to the working class, so that the “two nations” that he had famously identified were thus reconciled – or so the story goes.
 
It is easy to see why Hurd wrote sympathetically about Peel. No ideological Thatcherite, he had previously served Edward Heath, who, with his own U-turns, could well have looked to 1846 for their justification as markers of statesmanship. So, we might have expected a degree of scepticism in his assessment of Disraeli. True, the Disraelian bunkum is firmly in his sights: he repeatedly subjects “One-Nation Toryism” – let alone Ed Miliband’s attempted appropriation of it as “one-nation Labour” – to scathing derision.
 
Hurd shows a deft touch in monitoring such exercises in ideological body-snatching. But this is not just a book by one politician about another: surely it is Hurd’s own alternative career as a writer that impels him to recognise an affinity with a politician who also published novels – the last of them after he had served as prime minister. “The point is that Disraeli was always a novelist, even when writing no novels at all,” Hurd maintains. “His creativity changed the nature of Victorian politics.” So, while the ideas in the novels are dismissed as “largely preposterous”, we are still enjoined to enter the world of the imagination that produced them.
 
It is not that Hurd the old Heathite has relinquished his reverence for the statesmanship of Peel. But his romantic literary yearnings have driven him to despair because politicians today are “too timid to say interesting things”. What, all of them? Well, there seems to be a single exception and even he is flawed and somewhat lacking in personal discipline. “While Disraeli tried to keep his comedy in check and did not let his wit gallop away with him,” Hurd says, “Boris [Johnson] allows himself to be consumed by his own jokes.” So, if the Mayor of London can just learn to keep a straight face, perhaps he may reap tangible benefit from his current homework on Churchill, the only prime minister after Disraeli to write a novel.
 
The most widely read biography of Churchill today, on both sides of the Atlantic, is the one by Roy Jenkins, published 12 years ago. It was Jenkins’s penultimate book; he had already written major biographies of two other prime ministers, Gladstone and Asquith (as well as a much slighter life of Baldwin). Jenkins’s career as an author was conducted for half a century at the same time as an active political career, with spells in high office.
 
His biography of Asquith, as he wrote feelingly in the preface in 1964, had “taken a whole parliament (and a long one) to complete”. It is a book of more than 500 pages and over 200,000 words, with a proper set of references for all quotations. This format helps explain why it remains a standard work, often cited by others. But working politicians, if eagerly tempted by publishers to try their hand at this sort of thing, have to accept that it entails a great deal of sheer hard work to get it all done and get it all right.
 
In his memoirs Jenkins explains how his Asquith got written. The interstices of a day at the House of Commons did not suffice. Instead, he exploited the long summer recesses, ideally in three-week bursts of writing, with a target of a thousand words a day.
 
So that’s the trick! William Hague, evidently seeking similar part-time occupation after stepping down as leader of the Conservative Party at the age of 40 in 2001, knew where to apply for the necessary guidance. When he published his biography of Pitt the Younger in 2004, he fittingly acknowledged that Jenkins “gave me valuable advice about the writing of such a book in the highly appropriate surroundings of Brooks’s club”. Such a tribute to the lingering aura of Whiggery comes well from a Tory who lists his own membership of not only the Carlton but also the Beefsteak, Buck’s and Pratt’s.
 
Jenkins admitted that he chose Asquith partly because he was a Liberal, and one with whose cool and judicious temperament he empathised. Like Jenkins, t00, Asquith was upwardly mobile in fashioning his career and had the transforming early experience of going to Balliol College, Oxford. Balliol’s self-serving myth of effortless superiority issued a passport into the top echelon of the British political elite. This was not simple social climbing but it could certainly seem like it to others, whether among the Edwardian radicals who mistrusted Asquith as a Liberal imperialist or the class-conscious Labour MPs of the 1960s who saw Jenkins as more of a socialite than a socialist.
 
Such attitudes indicate a sort of political culture clash that in a way parallels the polarity between Peelite and Disraelian Conservatism. Do we buy in to the rhetoric that sustains the party, or do we look to the results that were achieved in government? For it was under Asquith, before the First World War, that the Liberals laid the foundations of a welfare state; it was under Jenkins, at the Home Office in the 1960s, that crucial legislation was enacted that right-wing opponents have never ceased since to decry as inaugurating a “permissive society”. It would be too much to expect a close reading of Asquith to supply an explicit key to this sort of code but surely it communicates a pervasive sense of affinity between author and subject.
 
We can likewise sense what attracted Hague in choosing how to spend his time, once his attempt to oust Labour in the 2001 general election had failed and he found himself, like Jenkins before him, on the opposition back benches for the duration of a parliament. There is a starkly obvious clue to Hague’s choice in his subject being known as William Pitt the Younger. Prime minister at the age of 24, this man was even younger than Hague had been when, aged 36, he became leader of the Conservative Party. The author plainly relishes this example and more than once points to Pitt’s commanding grasp of official business as a sufficient riposte to the contemporary gibe about “a kingdom trusted to a schoolboy’s care”.
 
The other obvious point about Pitt is whether he was a Tory. “I do not wish to call myself any Thing but an Independent Whig which in words is hardly a distinction, as every one alike pretends to it,” he wrote early in his career. Hague quotes this and fully recognises how different from our own was the sense of “party” in late-18th-century politics. Still, Pitt was posthumously coopted into a totemic role as the founder of a revived Tory party. His ethic of hard work and zeal in the national interest is held up as a model that transcends party labels.
 
Though with hindsight Jenkins’s choice of Asquith looks ideologically and culturally almost predestined, there were also practical, literary reasons for his decision to go ahead. He was offered access to a unique source: a cache of letters that Asquith had written as prime minister to a young woman, Venetia Stanley, who had been a friend of his daughter, later known as the redoubtable Violet Bonham Carter. The letters were indiscreet in every sense; not only did they give away state secrets, their publication would transform the marmoreal image of “the last of the Romans”. The book would thus have a ready market, as was obvious to its prospective publisher, Mark Bonham Carter. The obstacle was getting his own mother to give Jenkins copyright permission to quote what her father had written.
 
What enabled this to be solved was the degree of trust between the Bonham Carters, as keepers of the flame, and an author who would not abuse that trust. One result was that Jenkins possessed a fuller range of source materials for the latter years of Asquith’s premiership than any of the professional historians who had preceded him. His later biographies could not claim this sort of originality. Instead, when he came to write these, he relied substantially on the research that had been done by others.
 
There is nothing surprising or discreditable about this. To write about Gladstone was a formidable challenge in its own right. “It is like suddenly deciding,” Jenkins remarked, “at a late stage in life and after a sedate middle age, to climb the rougher face of the Matterhorn.” He knew that the relevant scholarship was not only immense but ongoing, notably in the work of the late Oxford historian Colin Matthew, editor of the Gladstone diaries. Though Jenkins sought to acknowledge his debts here, he may not have appreciated fully how much he took from Matthew. Hague faced a similar situation, acknowledging that without John Ehrman’s three-volume scholarly biography of Pitt, “which guided me to so many fruitful sources, I could not have written my own book in such a relatively short time”.
 
It would be a Matterhorn too far for an MP to attempt to replicate academic research when writing such a biography. What politicians can bring to this task is more likely to come from their insight into politics, reinforced by some sense of a common bond with their chosen subject. This was surely the case in Jenkins’s life of Churchill, and not only because he could then claim to be the only octogenarian among the numerous previous authors. He readily confessed to leaning upon the labours of Churchill’s authorised biographer, Martin Gilbert, who had amassed relevant sources in his many published volumes.
 
In writing about Churchill in one volume, Jenkins strayed beyond the Liberal pantheon and the comforting ambience of Brooks’s. He was dealing with a member of the Carlton, who had been Conservative prime minister while Jenkins was a Labour backbencher. But he was also dealing with a unique national figure in our history, “the saviour of his country”, as A J P Taylor called him.
 
Jenkins was writing about a fellow politician, whose collected works run to 34 volumes; about a fellow author whose declared target was also a thousand words a day; about a fellow biographer, not only in Churchill’s two volumes about his father, Randolph Churchill, but in the four he wrote on his ancestor the 1st Duke of Marlborough. One of Jenkins’s best chapters, dealing with the interwar years, is called “A Relentless Writer”.
 
And that is what you have to be, as Douglas Hurd and William Hague could testify, if you feel impelled to combine the demands of politics with the ambition of writing biography. It remains to be seen whether Boris Johnson has this sort of relentlessness in him. The power of words is the strand that ties together the vocations of politics and authorship. “With words we govern men,” Disraeli said. Churchill claimed that “the best way of governing states is by talking”. He might have added “and by writing”; and in this respect, at least, he has found worthy successors.
 
Peter Clarke’s “Mr Churchill’s Profession” is published by Bloomsbury (£9.99)