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10 July 2024

Keir Starmer beyond the wall

He could be a great leader, if he breaks through the barrier of his own reserve

By Edward Docx

The main feeling is still a deep sense of relief. A long and hollowing sickness lifted at last. After that, though, comes hope and anticipation and curiosity. Like everybody else, I’ve been trying to understand him. How does the manner proclaim the man?

The vibe from veteran journalist friends is that they can’t quite render Keir Starmer on the page. He’s not exactly evasive, they say, but over coffee, over lunch, even in semi-private… much is reserved; he declines the interaction, his inner life is occluded. Has he got one? Must do. But when you’re with him, things can feel… well, emotionally clumsy or even cauterised. Except this can’t be true. Look at the range and scope and intelligence of his closest friends. We’re missing something. We don’t quite get him.

I speak with fellow writers – novelists, dramatists. There’s much post-election buoyancy, of course, and a rare delight in a community that habitually specialises in its opposite, but they’re also perplexed on the person and the personal. Something is impeded or withheld, they observe. Something is unavailable. His habitual public demeanour is remote-but-resolute or remote-but-resilient; there’s an immobile or monumental quality to him. He has an Easter Island face. The eyes stare back at you as if from a grainy photograph of a submarine captain cut off by the ice for the winter and now stranded in Baffin Bay. (Yes, he survived. No, nobody was eaten. Yes, he got the entire crew home. Now he runs the Navy.) He has a voice that prefers to defuse words rather than deploy them. His favourite terms of disparagement are “nonsense” and “ridiculous”. He used them often in the campaign – and you sense that he feels a great deal of the world is one or the other. His terms of engagement though, his terms of endearment… what are they?

I try Labour insiders – those now in government, others from the Blair and Brown days. Some on the further left really don’t like him at all. Some on the right really don’t warm to him. Others do. Some absolutely love the guy and tell me that when the public gets to know him, they will too. Some say the project found the man. Many champion him and are staggered – rightly – by his profound political achievement. Five years from a standing start to Prime Minister via the most trap-saturated political minefield imaginable: the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn. Nobody else in Britain could have done that. History will only amplify the achievement. But – again – very few people seem to be able to give a satisfactory account of him. Lots and lots of discipline, they agree. (The campaign: a paradigm.) Lots of focus and calculation and cool, calm competency. (His appointments: an exemplar.) But much else in terms of his actual character feels somehow approximate or withdrawn.

Photo courtesy of Keir Starmer

The biography is now widely known. Starmer is 61. He is one of four children. He was brought up in the town of Oxted on the Kent-Surrey border. His mother was a nurse. She suffered from Still’s disease – a debilitating form of arthritis. His father was a toolmaker with a reputation for surliness. After school, he became the first person in his family to go to university, studying law at Leeds University and later at Oxford. In 2008, he became director of public prosecutions, the chief prosecutor for England and Wales. He became an MP at the age of 52.

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But the biographical facts often feel more like barricades. If I had to write his lines for a biopic – and, one day, some poor bastard will have to fictionalise him – I simply wouldn’t know how to brief the actor. Play this scene with lots of lawyerly demurral. No, play it more compassionately. No, actually, play it as if you’re simmering with righteous anger. No, play it with quiet ruthlessness. Actually, play the whole speech more… indignant, maybe. Muted indignance, if you can. No, on sixth thoughts, say the lines like you have a vision for the nation but that you don’t like people who have visions for nations. Or, simply, like you don’t like showing off. No, forget that. Wrong. Maybe play the scene like you do have confidence but don’t want to appear over-confident. Actually, play the scene like you don’t like playing anything. Like you hate being an actor. (The entire cast is lost now.) So… you’re saying… (the actor brightens momentarily) I should play him naturally? Can I play him naturally? No. No. Christ, no. You’re not going to get him if you play the scene naturally. Well, what then? What?
Interestingly, it’s not easy or straightforward to find Keir Starmer in English literature either. He’s not in Chaucer beyond a few Parson-y glimpses. He’s not in Shakespeare save for some lines here and there from

Horatio, Benvolio or Duke Vincentio – but none that really resonate past a couplet or two. He’s not in Dickens except, perhaps, for the physical description of Thomas Gradgrind (teacher and, we often forget, politician): “The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s square wall of a forehead, which had his eyebrows for its base, while his eyes found commodious cellarage in two dark caves, overshadowed by the wall. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s mouth, which was wide, thin, and hard set. The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s voice, which was inflexible… The emphasis was helped by the speaker’s hair.” (You do so have to love Dickens – that “wall”; that “commodious cellarage”; we’ll come back to the hair.) He’s not in Jane Austen, either, or even George Eliot (the most likely place). Milton, Swift and Pope – no chance. Completely pointless to look in the Romantics, of course. Maybe we might glimpse him in lines of TS Eliot. Maybe Larkin. Maybe a whisper of Auden’s “Unknown Citizen”: “And all the reports on his conduct agree/That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a saint,/For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.”

Which brings us to the 1950s. And now – strangely – something about Starmer does come into focus. Imagine a character from Graham Greene. Dallow maybe. You won’t remember him, but he’s the steady, dial-it-down, get-it-done number two to the gang leader, Pinkie, in Brighton Rock. Imagine Dallow is back but in a later book – Our Man in Downing Street – and now as the quietly purposeful protagonist. Or imagine some confection of all those angry young men from that period. Jim Dixon in Lucky Jim (1954); Jimmy Porter in Look Back in Anger (1956); Joe Lampton in Room at the Top (1957); Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958). All of them working class and incandescent with ambition and anger and the desire to set things right.

The 1950s lens also magnifies the Starmer shirt sleeves, the new retro-feel glasses, the hair… The hair is interesting. Certainly, Starmer came of age in the early 1980s, but the Smiths’ short back and sides is pure 1950s. (Morrissey might or might not have been going for irony. But irony is not, I suspect, Starmer’s métier.) Indeed, there was a time – when Starmer opposed Boris Johnson at the despatch box – that it might have been possible to essay the entire history of modern Britain simply by writing about the different nostalgias expressed in the two haircuts. Johnson’s confected mop: unruly, disdainful of convention, eloquent of his adopted class and the better-to-lie-than-try boarding school secluded from the public realm. But Starmer’s stiff, neat, careful quiff – also eloquent. Eloquent of a very different nostalgia. A nostalgia for the Teddy Boys and their street-roaming defiance. A nostalgia for the era’s masculinity, when the Beatles were still the Quarrymen, before they… well, before they let their hair down. A nostalgia for the rattle-and-scarf brown-leather football of Stanley Matthews and Tom Finney. (Starmer looks decidedly pre-Prem in his five-a-side kit.) A nostalgia for an era when working men proudly knew how to fix their own cars, knew how to repair their own houses; an era when working men had proper tools and knew how to use them. Even better: made the tools.

There are two cousin anxieties – charges – that stalk the interviews and the excellent biography by Tom Baldwin. The first is that Keir Starmer is dull. Recall Beth Rigby in the leadership debates: “Some people will say you are boring and stiff!” The second is that the private man is severed from the public, that there is a disconnect between the reputedly genial friend and the somewhat stand-offish, stolid, leader. In the biography, Baldwin writes: “The sense that something was missing from him as a political leader has been felt by some of Starmer’s friends too. For them, his buttoned-up image has been simultaneously a puzzle and a source of frustration because they don’t think of him as boring at all.”

And it’s partially true: Starmer can sometimes come across as much like an auditor as a lawyer. Winner of the distinguished audit practitioners award 2024 – embodying the values: integrity, accuracy and dedication. Thank you for your votes, ladies and gentlemen of the jury. And don’t worry – the sum of the parts will definitely not add up to more than the whole. No, the sum of the parts will add up exactly to the sum of the parts. As it should. And if it does not, I will find the discrepancy. You can trust me on that. The body language is only ever expressive of a man who has misgivings about body language being in any way expressive. Or even germane. The close observer might notice an odd pride in this – a pride in reserve that denies even its own subtle theatre of reservation. A pride that carries the freight of moral rebuke, too. Don’t be flippant. Don’t be frivolous. Don’t be foolish. Even in the moment of his triumph, he prefers to be triumphantly un-triumphant.

The masculinity portrayed on stage and television during the 1950s is illuminating here. Walled in. Silent where possible. “Actions not words,” as he said in the Downing Street speech. Emotionally reserved. Stoic. Strong moral compass. Quiet giants of self-reliance. Capable of handling difficult situations on their own. Dealing with the situation. A masculinity that affects understatement, declines engagement; judge me by my actions; there won’t be a show. OK, sure. But also, a masculinity that asks you to notice (and admire) its dignity; a masculinity that advertises itself by studiously not advertising itself. Because an anti-theatrical masculinity is just as theatrical in its way. Because, of course, with human beings, there is always a show.

The disjunct people feel – that Starmer sometimes seems to feel – is to do with this contradiction. Boring is the wrong character note. And buttoned-up isn’t quite right either. Rather, it’s to do with a kind of freezing up or stasis that comes about because part of him knows politics is also theatre. Part of him therefore wishes to transmit, theatrically, his favoured performance – that of an understated non-theatrical dignity. But most of him wants to hold the public off altogether and fears that to transmit anything at all is to invite reciprocation, to invite the public in.

Why? The heart of the matter (as Graham Greene might say) is something like this: the batteries of Starmer’s existence are his family, his football, his private friends. And he feels that were he to open these up to the parasitical energy of politics, they will become contaminated and no longer serve the function that he needs them to serve. He won’t be able to be himself. To do what he needs to do. He needs to keep things private in order to sustain himself in public. An inorganic persona threatens the organic person. Synthetic vision infects organic values.
In this way, he is profoundly unlike many other politicians who source their energy in the cut, thrust and pressure of the public realm. Who thrive on contention, alliances made and sundered, campaigns won and lost. Who are dull and disappointing in private and come alive in debate – in performance.

So, yes, sometimes he gets caught – flat-footed – between these contradictory impulses and requirements of the job as leader. He cracks clumsy jokes in his public interviews because good jokes might open the doors between the compartments and then everything will get flooded. He eschews emotional discourse – not because he’s boring – but because emotions might overwhelm him. (The lawyerly character in literature is often uncomfortable with introspection and prefers to seek adjudication externally. Opinion and performance are trumped by statute and ordinance. But so often with the subtext: because they’re too angry, too hurt, too in love.) The problem – the misalignment – is that he is now not just leader of the Labour Party, but Prime Minister. And you can’t step on to the world stage and govern a nation without conceding that it is indeed a stage.

To put it another way: a not insubstantial part of the politics of national leadership is theatrical. The leader must speak to the nation. Must speak for the nation. Must speak as the nation. You can’t walk out on stage and disparage the stage. Or, rather, you can but the audience will soon leave. The politics of leadership is intimately, epically and persistently to do with words. You’re delivering pledges and speeches and arguments. You’re dealing in illusion, too. You’re summoning the nation’s future. You’re interacting with an audience. And the audience wants to understand you. The audience wants to hear not just what you say but how you feel about what you say. Previously, you asked for their votes, endorsement. You sought their applause. You asked people to think about you, consider you, to hear you. They did. Now what? And it’s not just action, by the way: it’s lights, camera, action.

For all these reasons and more, a great leader must be emotionally capacious; must be emotionally sophisticated; must be emotionally communicative. Must sense and intuit not just the right thing to say, but the right thing to feel. Because they’re not just fixing things. They’re not just making tools. The COO job is not the same as the CEO job. The stage is the world of feeling and performance. The great leader has to do both, then. Sure, maybe you can reverse the order. Deeds and words. But it has to be an “and” – not a “not”. As Hamlet reminds his actors: “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.”

Why does any of this matter? First, because I share the belief that Starmer has the potential to be the great multi-term leader of renewal that we so desperately need – if he can somehow find his way out from behind the wall. Second, because the nation genuinely wishes him well in this, but will only continue to do so if he can somehow connect. (After all, politics is a popularity contest.) Tom Baldwin observes that he compartmentalises. There’s football mode; there’s family mode; there’s politics mode. The modes don’t mix or cross-inform. OK, now he needs to find leadership mode then; not phony or clumsy – no – but a mode that transmits the cordiality and warmth that he shares with his friends in private. A mode that allows at least affinity, if not affection.

And third, it matters because when the going gets difficult, Starmer will absolutely need to be able to explain what is happening and why, he will have to set out a vision, frame a narrative, talk us through the nightmares, reassure us, allay the criticism. And things will get bad before they get good.

The challenges he faces are legion, unyielding and – above all – expensive. Prison over-crowding. University funding. NHS funding. Thames Water on the brink of bankruptcy. The many difficulties of public-sector pay starting with the doctors. The local government settlements in December. Everyone expects more money. Everyone needs more money. But it’s not just that the cupboard is bare, the cupboard has been vandalised by Johnson and then ripped from the wall by Truss. There is no cupboard.

Meanwhile, Starmer has boxed himself in financially with his pledges not to raise taxes or to borrow more. The way out of all the spending shortages is growth. But he has also ruled out re-joining the single market or the customs union (an unnecessary mistake). So how is he going to generate growth and demonstrate that living standards are improving? As yet, the (not very convincing) answer is planning reform. OK, great. But even in the best of all possible worlds, the effects of reform might be – what? – three to four years away. It’s not going to impact. Or not quickly enough to offset the likely widespread public feeling that nothing is improving.

Then there’s the boats. Again, sure, the processing system can and will be sped up and the gangs can be prosecuted. (Nobody will do this better than Starmer.) But neither job is easy or quick and you’re simply not going to stop thousands of people crossing the Channel in the meantime. And, on this subject, the haters are really going to hate, hate, hate. He will need to explain and unpack and sell his plans in order to buy the time he needs for those self-same plans to work.

Abroad, there are some easier near-term wins. The week after the election he was in Washington with the heads of government at Nato. He will host the fourth European Political Community meeting in Oxfordshire on 18 July. There’s the 2024 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in October. The 2024 United Nations Climate Change Conference (Cop29) is in Baku in November. These are big moments of pageantry on the world stage. All good. But our two most important relationships are with the US and France.

And they both look bleak. In the short term, there is a much-depleted US president whose infirmity we respectfully do not call dotage. In the medium and longer term, it could be much worse. Much worse. The midwinter may well usher in the return of the Great Orange Ogre whose coming rampage is entirely ungovernable by anyone – his own advisers, his party, his country, let alone a British Labour leader whose every cell will recoil with aversion. You don’t have to be a dramatist to see that these two men are the precise human opposites of one another; indeed, it is hard to imagine two leaders in human history with less in common unless you put them on opposing sides in a war.

The second most important UK relationship is probably with France – and here Starmer might have been hoping for some new Entente Cordiale. But that’s now very unlikely. The French are having a nervous breakdown of their own and it’s not clear – at the time of writing – that they are going to be able to have the bandwidth to bother with the agreements to tackle the boats that have already been signed, let alone fashion a new common purpose.

Our own future, meanwhile, may well evolve into similar political battles as those of America and France. Some ragged alliance of the progressives fighting some unholy
alliance of the populist hard right. Nigel Farage’s arrival in parliament matters – and matters more than the number of seats for Reform. Those who know their Chaucer will recognise the Pardoner – a cunning man, unashamed of his hypocrisy, who boasts about his ability to swindle people out of their money by selling them fake relics and indulgences. “For certainly, many a sermon/ Comes often from an evil intention/Some for the pleasure of people and flattery/To be advanced by hypocrisy/And some for vain glory, and some for hate.”

But here I return to where I came in. For now, the overwhelming emotion is relief. Relief and, if not 1990s optimism, at least respite from the feelings of anger, shame, pessimism, horror, weariness, despair, consternation. The last ten years have been so bad for so many people that there can seldom have been a peace-time decade in our history of more precipitous and pointless national diminishment. But it’s over. No more Conservative iniquity, inadequacy, idiocy, incoherence.

And it’s important that Starmer saw off his main opponent easily. Rishi Sunak – narrow, jejune, inexpressive – was never a man of the people (or even of politics), but a perplexing figure of hedge funds and currencies and the analyst’s arguments therein. He’s a minor character from Trollope who believes himself to represent the sensible deployment of transaction as it is the only trustworthy human philosophy, but whom the author has deftly designed to illustrate the precise opposite every time he speaks.

Like everybody else, I enjoyed the Liberal Democrat campaign. I had lobbied for more emphasis on caring at a round table New Statesman lunch with Ed Davey last year because it was something I thought the Liberal Democrats could properly and genuinely own. In Davey’s case – the caring is explicit, every day, moving and deeply, personally meaningful. He said at that lunch he hoped to get seats numbering in the high 30s. The Lib Dems more or less doubled that number. Which speaks volumes for making the private and the public congruent. Yes, there were a few stunts. But large numbers of the public like Davey. And they like him more now. Why? Because they feel they know him.

The relief is not just ours. Perhaps Starmer’s great win might be what allows him to let us get to know him, too. You could see outside 10 Downing Street on 5 July that he was not just happy – but mightily relieved. Not just in the straightforward sense of having won, either: but relieved that he no longer has to campaign (constant theatre). Relieved that the most ridiculous part of the performance – the nonsense – is now over. Relieved that the wretched and tiresome vase he has been carrying can now be set down back on its basement plinth and he can, instead, pick up his “mission delivery boards”.

The smiles were natural. Maybe that’s because Keir Starmer was greeting a lot of old friends and family. But for the first time, we could see him as approachable, human. Gone the distancing stiffness and uneasy reserve. There was a new balance there, I thought. Keep the children out of it, of course. But step forward as a man. Step out from behind the wall.

Edward Docx is a novelist and screenwriter

Photo by David Vintiner

[See also: The Tory centre will not hold]

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This article appears in the 10 Jul 2024 issue of the New Statesman, All Change