Honourable Friends? Parliament and the Fight for Change
Portobello Books, 281pp, £14.99
The Purple Revolution: the Year That Changed Everything
Biteback, 305pp, £9.99
I always get a kick out of the way that politicians love to brand themselves as “outsiders”. Hating the Westminster bubble is almost a professional qualification now and this year, with two-party politics in crisis, anyone who can get away with being an outsider has declared themselves to be one. This includes the authors of these books, Caroline Lucas and Nigel Farage, who rarely appear in a sentence together, much less a review.
But they asked for it. It seems that memoirs are the new mini-manifestos, providing personality politics with a bit of policy (or, in Caroline’s case, rather too much) thrown in. First, let me burst their bubble. They are not outsiders. Lucas has been a member of one parliament or another since 1999. Farage has been an MEP since the same year. They are, for all their claims of maverick status, institutionalised politicians. They just think they are not.
Let’s also be frank about why these books were written. They want your votes. If there wasn’t an election this year and they weren’t candidates, they wouldn’t have decided to over-share with us. Their books are, in essence, leaflets, just with more pages. Both contain direct pleas. “It would be a privilege to achieve one more ‘first’,” writes Lucas, “to be the first Green MP to be re-elected.” The last sentence in The Purple Revolution is: “So over to you, dear voter. It is all down to you now.”
It’s a strange reason to write a book about yourself – to get elected. I’m not sure that they have thought this through. By the end, inevitably, we know too much. In terms of how they want to be seen, they divide quite neatly. Lucas, for all her protestations and humble boasts, comes across as something of a saint: principled, fighting for truth and justice, arrested in her quest against big energy, earnestly trying to reform everything in parliament that is not nailed down. Farage is thrilled to be cast as the sinner.
Here, then, we have the devil and the deep, blue-green sea. There is no doubt which book is the easiest to get through. The Purple Revolution would be an absolute hoot, if only it were parody – and I do think that it should be filed in the “humour” section of bookshops. Farage gives us a potted history, telling us nothing we did not know about his early years in Kent and at Dulwich College. He is rhapsodic about his days in the City, eulogising the smoke-filled rooms where he bought and sold metals, only to go to lunch and, sometimes, stay there. He claims a “typical Farage lunch” went from 12 noon to 12 midnight. “I would get up at the crack of dawn and work flat-out until lunchtime and lunch would just, well, carry on.”
He is very funny about a recent trip to the US (he loves Rand Paul, whom he describes as his “political doppelgänger”), where he had meetings all morning. “Steve suggested that we break for lunch – a comment that really perked us up,” he writes, “until Steve followed the suggestion with the horrific phrase: ‘I’ve ordered some sandwiches.’”
In general, this is politics as food and drink. It overflows with pints, glasses of wine, dinners and lunches. There’s an amazing chapter entitled “Car Crash, Plane Crash and Cancer: Seeing Both Sides of the NHS”. This starts on Boxing Day in 1986 when he went to work (the US markets were open) and was desperate to get home to the village of Downe in Kent before closing time:
I walked into the Queen’s Head and ordered a pint. All of a sudden, an indescribable pain shot through my
left-hand side. It was so acute I nearly collapsed. It seemed to go from somewhere near my left kidney, through my abdomen and into my groin. I was in absolute agony. But I tried to grin and bear it and ordered another pint.
As you do. Thus begins a tale that leads to the eventual diagnosis of testicular cancer. By the end of this chapter, we know rather a lot about Nigel’s left testicle. We then are told about his car crash the previous year: he’d been drinking steadily throughout the afternoon and went home. “I did not see the car that hit me,” he notes.
Then, in 2010, on the day of the general election, he was in a plane crash as he attempted to fly a Ukip banner above Buckinghamshire, where he was standing against the Speaker, John Bercow. The chapter continues with details of his back surgery and the sad story of the plane’s pilot who, after threatening to kill Farage, ended up committing suicide.
It’s too much, this chapter, in every way. But what Farage does is take these personal and random events and turn them into a political philosophy. “I have now had three near-death experiences and I’ve seen the best and the worst of the NHS. As such, I am better qualified to criticise and defend the NHS than most politicians,” he announces, adding: “The real elephant in the room on health is the effect of an expanding population in Britain . . . No one from the three main parties will talk about how the NHS is so overstretched due to the massive increase in the number of people arriving at our shores.” Here is the difficulty of writing a memoir as a political manifesto. The National Health Service is more complicated, in every way, than this. Anecdotes do not make for good policy.
The Purple Revolution lurches on. One of his favourite words is “surreal”. His book is certainly that. By the end, Farage seems a touch paranoid. He believes that he and some other Kippers have had their phones tapped. “The Tories were getting very scared,” he writes, “and with it very, very nasty indeed.” It’s like a bizarre spy story with candidates adopting disguises and everyone buying pay-as-you-go mobiles.
The apt word for Caroline Lucas’s book is a dread one: “worthy”. This is the story of her time as an MP and she invites the reader to marvel at the outdated ways of Westminster (where MPs get a pink ribbon to hang their sword on in the cloakroom). She is the Green revolutionary, tunnelling out from the inside. Honourable Friends? is stuffed with good intentions and very little drama.
Thank God for her arrest, protesting against fracking, at Balcombe in Sussex. On the night after her release, she was met by her family, including her son Isaac. “He had thoughtfully brought me what he knew I would want most of all at that moment: a small bottle of tonic water, thoughtfully diluted with gin.” I think this may be her only personal reference to drink in the book (although there are some disparaging remarks about the “moral myopia” of champagne sales at Westminster rising as austerity cuts were voted in). It’s about as far from the bibulous Nigel as can be.
There is no love lost between these two. Indeed, Farage takes the trouble to predict that Lucas will lose her seat. However, the reality is that both politicians, in writing these books, are relying on the idea that the more we know about them, the more we will want to vote for them and their parties. I, for one, am not convinced.
Ann Treneman is the parliamentary sketchwriter for the Times