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?

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)
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.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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Britain's diversity crisis starts with its writers. Here's why

What happens on the casting couch draws the headline, but the problem starts on the page, says James Graham. 

I’m a playwright and screenwriter, which – pertinent to the issues we’ll be discussing in this enquiry – still feels weird to say. I get embarrassed, still, saying that, in a taxi or hairdressers. I don’t know why I still carry that insecurity about saying I’m a writer, but I do, because it sounds like I’m lying, even in my own head.

Obviously I’m completely biased, and probably overstating the influence and importance of my own profession, but I think so many of the problems surrounding lack of representation in the performing arts start with writers.

If we aren’t encouraging and generating writers from certain communities, classes or backgrounds to tell their stories, to write those roles, then there’s not going to be a demand for actors from those communities to play them. For casting agents or drama schools to prioritise getting diverse actors on stage. We need to create those plays and TV dramas –like the ones that I grew up with. I didn’t have any access to much theatre until I was fifteen, but I did have Boys From the Black Stuff, and I did have Cracker, and I did have Band of Gold. I think the loss of those regional producing bodies – Central, Granada – now all completely centralised into London, means that we just tell less of those stories. I remember a TV show called Boon – anyone? – which was set in Nottingham, and I would see on the TV streets I’d walked down, and think, Oh my God, that actor is walking down a street I’ve walked down. That sounds like it’s insignificant. If you’re from a town that is deprived, that feels ignored, it isn’t.

I was very lucky that at my school (which was, at the time, the largest comprehensive school in the country), from the headmaster down to the drama teachers, everyone just believed that working class kids should do plays. Be in plays, read plays, perform plays to the community. Both inside the curriculum of the school day, and outside it – drama teachers dedicating their time to staying behind. Our head of drama identified a group of us who clearly had a passion for it. We weren’t likely thesps. One lad’s entire family were made unemployed when the pit closed. Many lived on the big council estate. My parents and step-parents worked respectively in warehouses, the local council, or as the local window cleaner (incidentally, my first real job. Which I was terrible at).

Our drama teacher was encouraged and determined enough to launch the first ever Drama A-Level in our school. Based on that, about 10 or 12 of us got the confidence – or arrogance – to take our own show to the Edinburgh Festival. We were 16 or 17, and the first people in our community to ever go to visit the festival. We did a play up there, and after that, a psychological unlocking happened, where I thought: maybe I could do a degree in drama (it was the first time I had ever thought to do so) at university (the first in my family to go. Well, joint-first. My twin sister went on the same day, but I walked into my digs first).

I enrolled in drama at Hull University. A high proportion of my peers were middle class. A higher proportion from London or the South East. They talked often about institutions I had never heard of. They were talking about the National Theatre: I didn’t know we had a national theatre that my parents had been paying tax for that I had never been to. Many had performed with the (again, apparently) ‘National’ Youth Theatre, also in London. Paul Roseby, also on this panel, has made such leaps forward in getting the NYT producing in regional venues, and making auditions possible for people across the UK, but unfortunately, at the time, that wasn’t the case for me – and I was the ideal candidate to be in the National Youth Theatre.

I started writing because I had the confidence after I read texts by people like Jim Cartwright, Alan Bennett, John Godber, Alan Ayckbourn: Northern writers, working class writers that made me think it wasn’t just something that other people do.

After returning home, and working at local theatres, I moved down to London. I had to. The major new writing producers are there. All the TV companies are there. The agents are there. I was lucky to find support in a pub fringe theatre – though the economics meant there was no money to commission, so I wrote plays for free for about four years, that would get produced, and reviewed in the national press, while I worked various jobs in the day and slept for a time on a mate's floor. The first person to ever pay to commission me to write a play was Paul Roseby of the National Youth Theatre. I’m now very lucky to be earning a living doing something I love. In a way, compared to actors, or directors, it’s easier for writers who don’t come from a background that can sustain them, financially, in those early years. Your hours can be more flexible. Yes, it was annoying to miss rehearsals because I had a shift in a call centre, but it was still possible to do it. If you’re an actor or director, you’re fully committed. And if you’re doing that for nothing, there starts to be cut-off point for those from backgrounds who can’t.

I’m sure that local and regional theatres are the key to drawing in talent from less privileged backgrounds. But the range of national arts journalism that cover work outside London has been so significantly reduced. In our little echo chamber a few weeks ago, we theatre types talked about Lyn Gardner at the Guardian. Her coverage has been cut, which is very directly going to affect her ability to cover theatre shows outside of London – and so the self-fulfilling cycle of artists leaving their communities to work exclusively in London takes another, inevitable, turn.

I am culpable in this cycle. I have never done a play at the Nottingham Playhouse, my local producing house growing up – why? Because I’ve never submitted one, because I know that it will get less national press attention. So I just open it in London instead. That’s terrible of me. And I should just bite the bullet and say it doesn’t matter about the attention it gets, I should just go and do a story for my community. And if I, and others, started doing that more, maybe they will come.

I also want to blame myself for not contributing back to the state schools that I come from. I really really enjoy going to do writing workshops with kids in schools, but I would say 90 per cent of those that I get invited to are private schools, or boarding schools, or in the South of England. Either because they’re the ones that ask me, because they’re the ones who come and see my shows in London and see me afterwards backstage, or because they have the confidence to email my agent, or they have the budget to pay for my train ticket. Either way, I should do more. It would have helped the younger me so much to meet a real person, from my background, doing what I wanted to do.

I don’t know how to facilitate that. I take inspiration from Act for Change, creating a grassroots organisation. I know that there is a wealth of industry professionals like me who would, if there was a joined-up structure in place that got us out there into less privileged communities, we would on a regular basis go to schools who don’t get to meet industry professionals and don’t unlock that cultural and psychological block that working class kids have that says, that is not for me, that is something that other people do, I would dedicate so much of my time to it. That’s just one idea of hopefully better ones from other people that might come out of this enquiry.

James Graham is a playwright and screenwriter. This piece is adapted from evidence given by James Graham at an inquiry, Acting Up – Breaking the Class Ceiling in the Performing Arts, looking into the problem of a lack of diversity and a class divide in acting in the UK, led by MPs Gloria De Piero and Tracy Brabin.