Show Hide image

In Search of England

Roy Hattersley’s political career was largely a failure, but he has enjoyed a late blossoming

If one wanted to be very rude about Roy Hattersley - and why not? - one might call him the great white elephant of British politics. Heavy investment went into the construction of his political career. Born into Labour's municipal aristocracy - his mother was a lord mayor of Sheffield - he canvassed for the party from the age of 12 and, after winning a place at Leeds University to read English, switched to Hull to do economics because, his parents were advised, it would be a better basis for a life in politics.

He became chairman of the National Association of Labour Students, joined Sheffield City Council at 23, and fought a parliamentary election in Tory-held Sutton Coldfield at 26. After applying for 25 more seats, he was elected MP for a Birmingham marginal aged 31. He made no secret of his ambition to become prime minister - every centre-forward wants to play for England, he pointed out - and, after an apprenticeship as a parliamentary private secretary, was rewarded with junior ministerial office. He joined the Reform Club, took a visiting fellowship at Harvard, cultivated the press and made all the right connections. He started and remained a "modernising" Gaitskellite, but failed to support his friend, mentor and intellectual hero Anthony Crosland when Crosland stood for the leadership. David Owen called him "the acceptable face of opportunism". Others just dubbed him "Rattersley".

The result of this mighty construction project? A solitary cabinet position, lasting less than three years, as secretary of state for prices and consumer protection - a post now as remote as secretary of state for the colonies - and the deputy Labour leadership for nine bleak years of opposition. If the wilderness years were a tragedy for many of his generation (politics as a career is hardly worth it without at least a decade of red boxes and limousines), the disappointment and waste of talent were surely greatest in Hattersley's case. No wonder he now professes not to care for London very much.

Nor does he care for New Labour, at least in its Blairite form. He became Tony Blair's most coherent and persistent public critic. Because Hattersley was once firmly on the right of the party, and his criticisms were from the left, many dismissed him as an embittered failure. They were wrong. The party, not Hattersley, had changed, its leadership renouncing, for example, greater economic equality, which had been a central goal for the Croslandites. And unlike many of Blair's closest lieutenants, Hattersley was always a Labour loyalist, declining to join the Gang of Four in their 1982 defection, at the cost of many friendships.

Far from brooding on how his dreams had crumbled, Hattersley turned briskly to a new career which, he now cheerfully explains, is not politics by another means, but what, deep down, he wanted to do all along. Instead of seeking preferment in Brussels, joining the quangocracy or becoming a parliamentary elder statesman, he carved out a second career in hackery, writing about almost anything, and going almost anywhere at an editor's whim.

His output, in countless newspaper columns and essays, is awesome, and the production of books scarcely less so: political memoirs; biographies of John Wesley, William and Catherine Booth (the founders of the Salvation Army), Henry Campbell-Bannerman (the Liberal prime minister between 1905 and 1908) and, next autumn, David Lloyd George; histories of the Edwardian age, the period between the world wars, and the first 50 years after 1945; and two diaries supposedly by Buster, his dog. Two volumes of family history - one on his mother's side, one on his father's - and an account of his Yorkshire boyhood were written while he was still on Labour's front bench.

The results are uneven, as journalism always is. The biography of the Booths was well received, but one reviewer found only "spectacular laziness" in the book about the interwar years. As laziness is the quintessential journalistic quality, Hattersley was probably pleased with the criticism.

Which brings us to this book. It includes 26 of the "In Search of England" columns he wrote for the Daily Mail from 2005, plus 63 others published elsewhere. Given the title, and the author's abilities, readers might expect something like English Journey, written in 1933 by another Yorkshireman, J B Priestley. In his preface, Hattersley unwisely cites Priestley's masterwork and describes himself making a journey "in the footsteps of giants".

But Hattersley's England - and here one should bear in mind that many of these pieces were written for a newspaper that specialises
in nostalgic lamentation - is an England of bell-ringing and dog-walking, miners' galas and thriving steelworks, villages with placid rivers and seaside holidays in Skegness. All these are "essentially English", as are chivalry, stoicism and donkey sanctuaries. We are "a special people", Hattersley assures us, because Shakespeare was "born among us". (Did Beet­hoven, I wonder, make the Germans "a special people"?) The black and the poor are corralled into a single section entitled, not very inclusively, "Also England".

Priestley, though not negligent of "the cathedrals and minsters and manor houses and inns", also portrayed a new England that was developing in the 1930s, a country "of arterial and bypass roads, of filling stations and fac­tories that look like exhibition buildings, of giant cinemas and dance-halls and cafés" where "Jack and Jill are nearly as good as their master and mistress". Today, there is a newer England still, of eight-lane motorways, call centres and shopping malls, where Muhammad and Jozefina (if they are lucky) are nearly as good as Jack and Jill. But you will not find it here, nor in most other contemporary works that "search for" England.

Well, Hattersley is nearly 77 and nearing the end of a journey from the widely mocked tub of lard from Have I Got News For You to national treasure. Even Orwell, with his autumnal mists, bicycling old maids and red pillar boxes, usually fluffed it when it came to pinning down the essence of England. It is not the fault of a mere jobbing journalist that the English, more careless of their heritage than any other people in Europe, are most comfortable when contemplating what they've lost.

Besides, there are some good things here: for example, a hilarious account of the funeral of a Birmingham MP at which the distinguished parliamentary pallbearers almost crush themselves and nearby mourners with the coffin. And frankly I prefer (and largely share) Hattersley's simple and unfussy patriotism of Shakespeare, cricket, the Peak District and cosy pubs to those who make windy speeches claiming, in his words, "elevated views on liberty, democracy and tolerance which are denied to other races".

One of Margaret Thatcher's legacies is the division in all parties between those who unquestioningly accept marketisation and economic competition and those who see value in community, continuity, stability and loyalty. Hattersley belongs squarely in the latter camp and this book, for all its faults, is a testament of sorts to those beliefs. The political career crumbled, but from its ruins emerged a man of steady principles and surprising integrity.

Peter Wilby edited the New Statesman between 1998 and 2005

In Search of England
Roy Hattersley
Little, Brown, 368pp, £18.99

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 16 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Dead End