In It Together by Matthew D'Ancona: The virus has proved treatable with doses of compromise and negotiation

This does not claim to be a book about class - but the theme sneaks up on the story and, by the end, threatens to usurp politics as the main subject.

In It Together: the Inside Story of the Coalition Government
Matthew d’Ancona
Viking, 432pp, £25

David Cameron is the first British prime minister in history to have enshrined in law the date when he is to seek re-election – 7 May 2015 is the day stipulated in the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011. It’s a constitutional tweak of great political consequence. Cameron understood that his coalition with the Liberal Democrats would be spoiled by mistrust from the start if parliament could be dissolved by Downing Street whim, so he surrendered that old privilege.

Instead, mistrust crept in only gradually. Even then, the virus has proved treatable with doses of compromise and negotiation. Fever has been a symptom of media speculation about relations between the governing parties much more than is justified by the underlying health of their partnership.

In It Together, Matthew d’Ancona’s fluent narration of the first three years of coalition government, explains why the project has consistently failed to fail when most onlookers predicted it would. Prompt agreement on a fixed, five-year term was not a minor detail. It was George Osborne who, in d’Ancona’s account, grasped the need for legislative nuptials to reassure the Lib Dems of Tory constancy. From the junior partners’ point of view, a fixed-term contract helped support Nick Clegg’s assertion, made at a rose-fringed Downing Street press conference shortly after the election, that Britain was witnessing the formation not just of a new government, but of a “new politics”.

Clegg was half right. There was novelty in the sight of erstwhile enemies governing as if they were friends but the whole show was also powered by an ancient energy source – the competitive affinity between two men marshalling the complaisance that is bred at top public schools.

In It Together does not claim to be a book about class but the theme sneaks up on the story and, by the end, threatens to usurp politics as the main subject. The title refers to promises made by Cameron and Osborne that the pain of Budget austerity would be inflicted equitably across society. But the sincerity of the slogan has been imperilled constantly by public perception of a government staffed by Old Etonians and other toffs. The vanity-drenched portrait of Oxford University’s tailcoated Bullingdon Club haunts the Prime Minister and his Chancellor “like criminal mugshots follow Hollywood stars”, d’Ancona writes. “As austerity bit and the economic recovery stalled, the photographs did their brutal semiotic work.”

Cameron in particular comes across as acutely conscious of the political hazard posed by his background and yet oblivious to the way that this background informs his style of government. One of the most revealing chapters in the book describes the disillusionment of Steve Hilton, the Tory leader’s friend and adviser who co-authored his strategy for the “modernisation” of the party in opposition and who moved into Downing Street fizzing with ambition to refashion the entire apparatus of the state. Hilton was thwarted partly by his unfocused and immoderate temperament and partly by a civil service that treated imagination as a threat. Above all, he was dismayed to see his old friend Dave preferring the comforts of office to the confrontations of perpetual policy revolution. Hilton is the son of Hungarian immigrants and a devotee of the US west coast cult of innovation by creative disruption. He had thought he was part of a gang of radicals storming the establishment. He somehow failed to spot that they were, in reality, the establishment. When he realised, he quit No 10 for a job in California.

D’Ancona describes a tight social circle running the Tory side of the coalition – old friends, their wives, ex-girlfriends, all joining each other for holidays and dinner parties and sharing childcare, now all ministers or Downing Street staffers. He draws the contrast with the New Labour elite who took charge of the country in 1997. Tony Blair’s clan started life as a political project and only later evolved into a governing family before splitting into mafiosi tribes. Cameron’s was a clique before it thought of running the country. That makes it more affable than the Blairites but also lacking in purpose. The Cameroons had an easy ride to power before they had thought enough about what power should be for.

Many of the chapters in the story are structured around a skirmish between coalition parties or within them – constitutional reform; Europe; the NHS; benefit cuts. The political calculations of the central players are meticulously analysed, colourfully reported and often, thanks to d’Ancona’s lavish contacts book, brought to life with direct speech. Yet it is rare for points of principle to be the focus. There is much bartering and the occasional stab to the back but not much interrogation of motive. Everything hinges on the need to keep the coalition together and, on the Tory side, the imperative of manoeuvring into a position from which a majority might be winnable in 2015.

That isn’t a failure of d’Ancona’s prose, which manages the trick of seeming effortless with discreet ornament. The problem lies more with Cameron, Clegg and Osborne, whose reasons for wanting public office, beyond the thrill of it, are opaque. In that context, In It Together is frequently generous to the government. Some readers, especially those of a leftish disposition, will be irked by the way d’Ancona lavishes the benefit of the doubt on his subjects – above all, the Chancellor. However, given that politicians are usually despised in Britain, there is a corrective merit in heeding the view of a supportive insider striving to be dispassionate.

The problem is more acute as the story approaches the present day. Sources who were candid about the early years of coalition were clearly more reticent about coalition arguments (over acceptable levels of anti-immigration rhetoric, for instance) that remain unresolved. The vital sense of intimacy with power dims towards the end of the book.

There are still 20 months to go of this fixed-term parliament, which feels somehow longer than most. It is hard, reading In It Together, not to be struck by the number of things that have happened that seemed big at the time and already feel oddly distant: students storming the Conservative Party headquarters; the riots of summer 2011; the war in Libya. It was journalism one minute, history the next. D’Ancona’s book is a valiant attempt to straddle both genres but the story isn’t over yet. As a result, the product of his labour feels provisional; the unwritten postscript – to be continued.

Rafael Behr is the political editor of the New Statesman

David Cameron and Nick Clegg: an unholy alliance? Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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Why the class of '94 still rules British poetry

The message of the 1990s generation - that seeing clearly is not as simple as we think - comes across powerfully in four new collections.

In 1994, the “New Generation” of poets was intent on bringing about one of those shifts that periodically redefine a culture. Twenty-odd years later, we can see that, imperfect though the project may have been, the baby boomers did change the face of British poetry. The class of ’94 still dominates the field, as this quartet of fine books demonstrates.

Of the four poets under review – one each from the remaining big trade poetry publishers – it is Kathleen Jamie who has arguably shifted ground the most over the decades. She is now equally well known for her insightful, evocative prose about the Scottish environment, in Findings and Sightlines. Like her prize-winning previous collection, The Overhaul, The Bonniest Companie is alive to every detail of plant and creature. Though they also capture skies, stones and animals, its (mostly short) poems work a little like a herbarium, storing these details for us to examine “a rock-pipit’s seed-small notes”, or “every fairmer’s fenceposts/splashed with gold”.

But the excitement of The Bonniest Companie comes in the concentration of its language and the way that concentration reveals its author’s fierce focus. The inclusion by anglophone Scots of entirely Scots poems in English-language books is a contemporary cliché and can be rebarbative. By contrast, Jamie reinvigorates poetic language, using dialect and loanwords alongside standard English to create vivid, springy textures. Colloquial compressions add to the bouncing, tight rhythms. Stepped lines compress the springs yet further.

None of this is drily technical: this joyous book re-creates the livingness it observes. A poem such as “Migratory III” feels tossed and slung between the line ends:

Those swans out there at the centre

of the loch

a dozen or thirteen

moored close together, none adrift –

they’ve only just arrived

an arrow-true, close-flocked,

ocean-crossing skein . . .

If Jamie has broken through to a new and distinct form of northern lyric, her compatriot Don Paterson deepens a long-term project in his 40 Sonnets. In recent books, he has variously translated, written about and anthologised the form. He is a master of strict formal verse, and his virtuoso touch has always embraced both humour and moving metaphysical reflection, as it does again here. The collection includes comic monologue, an onomatopoeic record of white noise, homage, love poetry and elegy.

Most of the 40 poems are in iambic pentameter. This is no longer the automatic choice for the sonnet form, as Paterson knows better than most. Elsewhere, beyond the sonnet, pentameter seems a natural fit for the diction of certain contemporary poets (such as Tony Harrison or Sean O’Brien) who have a particular kind of lapidary authority. For Paterson’s quicksilver intelligence, iambic pentameter provides a less “natural”, more audible music: the form adds to and changes the poem, not only as it is being written but for the reader. We hear and rehear its effects and the well-known sonnets of history echo in Paterson’s poems:

The body is at home in time and space

and loves things, how they come and go,

and such

distances as it might cross or place

between the things it loves and its

own touch.

Characteristically criss-crossed with a metaphysical thought that is also a spatial metaphor, this is an extract from “Souls”, one of several sonnets here that will surely soon enter the anthologies.

Sarah Maguire’s Almost the Equinox is itself an anthology. This generous volume, at almost 150 pages long, interleaves work from her four collections, eschewing the conventional chronological treatment. In its new and satisfying whole, we trace recurring themes. Each of three consecutive poems called “Psoriasis” is taken from a different collection. Connections are often tonal and emotional: a Tunisian migrant’s story juxtaposed with a Warsaw childhood juxtaposed with Ramallah create what Maguire calls “the soft cry of crossed songs”.

She observes the physical world and the definitive failure of human choices with equal clarity. Her tone can be wry: “Your abandoned bottle of Russkaya vodka lies in my icebox,/Cold as a gun . . .” After a while, though, it becomes apparent that wryness is a veil. These are love poems to the world. The “you” that they repeatedly address is not necessarily a lover but the poet’s self; even, perhaps, us. Maguire’s world knits together even when it seems not to: the Middle East and London, the lost birth mother with the adoptive one, absent lover and speaker. As she writes in her title poem, “The tide has turned, the Thames comes inching back,/drowning everything it will reveal again.”

If Maguire’s poetic world is densely furnished, Neil Rollinson’s seems to have had everything unnecessary removed. ­Talking Dead, his fourth collection, is as lucid and direct as anything being written today. Partly that is because he has moved beyond contrivance. Every word is subordinated to its purpose: not the display but a mastery of the writing self.

Rollinson was not part of the “New Generation” promotion but made his debut two years later. Though his poems read with the ease of apparent artlessness, they are absolutely wrought. This book’s title sequence turns the “little death” convention about orgasm inside out: the recently dead speak of the rapture of violent demise. That could be appalling in both taste and tone. But these lyrics are perfectly judged, as when “Talking Dead – The Bed” turns drowning into a dream sequence:

I opened my mouth to breathe,

like I do in dreams,

and the water flowed into me.

The point is not reportage but the resolving logic of a beauty that is found in unexpected places: death, the smell of urine, a child kicking a toadstool.

Rollinson has an impeccable ear. His eye is impeccable, too. And possibly that is the lesson of the 1990s generation: seeing clearly is not so simple as we once thought. 

Fiona Sampson’s collection “The Catch” is newly published by Chatto & Windus

The Bonniest Companie by Kathleen Jamie is published by Picador (62pp, £9.99)

Almost the Equinox: Selected Poems by Sarah Maguire is published by Chatto & Windus (149pp, £15.99)

40 Sonnets by Don Paterson is published by Faber & Faber (44pp, £14.99)

Talking Dead by Neil Rollinson is published by Jonathan Cape (51pp, £10)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war