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Can political biographies ever be any good?

Political memoirs can be essential, eye-popping reading if the subject is handled in the right way

On 17 November, Barack Obama releases the first volume of his autobiography, A Promised Land. His publisher describes it as “the first part of a two-volume memoir” (translation: we think that we can get you to pay twice for the entire story), and the “extraordinarily intimate and introspective” book elicited an advance of $60 million, albeit as part of a particularly sophisticated package deal that also included Michelle Obama’s mega-bestseller Becoming. There would seem little danger of this particular title being swallowed up in the festive onslaught, but the more pertinent question remains: will it be any good?

Although the post-US election date of publication means that Obama cannot be criticised for any attempt to influence voting one way or the other (although, spoiler alert, he will be supporting Joe Biden), it also looks as if the book will primarily deal with his first term in office, rather than his less distinguished second. While this means that there will be tantalising passages such as his thoughts on the death of Osama bin Laden and America’s involvement in the global financial crisis, it is unlikely to deal with his uncensored feelings about Donald Trump, which will have to wait until A Promised Land 2: More Promise, or whatever it ends up being titled.

Obama’s memoirs will at least be commercially successful and of notable cultural significance

From a purely literary perspective, readers must hope that the book ends up being closer to Obama’s candid and genuinely interesting first memoir Dreams from My Father than the more generic The Audacity of Hope. It will also be a considerably more interesting read if it includes some of Obama’s more unexpected utterances since he left office, such as his welcome denunciation of cancel culture and its woke practitioners, or indeed his recent, uproarious description of Donald Trump’s apparent Chinese financial interests, in which he said, with some accuracy, “Can you imagine what would have happened if I’d had a secret Chinese bank account when I was running for re-election? You think Fox News might have been a little concerned about that? They would have called me Beijing Barry!”

Whether Obama is remembered as Beijing Barry or St Barack, his memoirs will at least be commercially successful and of notable cultural significance. Whatever becomes of Obamacare or any of his other innovations, he remains America’s first African-American president, and his writing about this distinction will never cease to be of interest and relevance to future generations. Yet many memoirs written by his predecessors have been far less consequential. Nobody would treasure Bill Clinton’s My Life or George W Bush’s Decision Points as anything other than lengthy, self-aggrandising accounts of their presidencies, and the fate of such titles as Ronald Reagan’s An American Life or Jimmy Carter’s Keeping Faith is to be swiftly forgotten once the initial blaze of publicity has extinguished itself.

There are countless examples of unexceptional books by unexceptional politicians

However, at least these books make a great deal of money, which is more than can be said for many of their British counterparts. There are countless examples of over-excited publishers paying far too much money for unexceptional books by unexceptional politicians, of which the example of David Blunkett’s diaries is perhaps the most egregious. His publisher, Bloomsbury, hoped that his 2006 book The Blunkett Tapes would be highly revelatory both about his involvement in the Blair administration and his much-publicised affair with the Spectator publisher Kimberley Quinn. Therefore, they paid a staggering advance of £330,000 for it, but forgot to include the newspaper serial rights in the deal. Therefore, with all the half-interesting details quickly disbursed, there was little interest in the minute details of Blunkett’s life, and it sold five thousand copies, losing its publisher hundreds of thousands of pounds. At least they had Harry Potter to cushion the blow, while JK Rowling was still acceptable to mass audiences.

At the time of writing, the most-discussed British political book is not one that has been written by a politician, but his wife. Sasha Swire’s Diary of an MP’s Wife excited much comment for its revelations about the court of David Cameron, which her husband Hugo, a close friend of Cameron’s, played a role within. Swire painted an unflattering picture of the former Prime Minister as laddish, uncomplicated and intellectually limited, in comparison to the icily brilliant tactician “Boy George” Osborne. Details such as her pheromone-heavy perfume leading an over-excited Cameron to tell her that he would like to push her into the bushes and “give her one” have seen it become a bestseller.

There have been whispers – denied by Swire – that the book is either a front for Hugo to publish his own eyewitness account of being at the centre of the government, or alternatively that her diaries have been heavily edited retrospectively in order to lend her an authority and foresight that they would not otherwise have possessed. Yet even if one takes her at her word, there is one central problem with Diary of an MP’s Wife, one shared by David Cameron’s recent autobiography For The Record: the Cameron administration now seems to have taken place in another world, and one that has had remarkably little lasting impact on everyday life today, even pre-pandemic.

Cameron will be remembered, if he is remembered at all, for failing to prevent Brexit

Cameron will be remembered, if he is remembered at all, for failing to prevent Brexit, for legalising gay marriage and for successfully forming the only lasting post-wartime coalition government. All the gossip and self-promotion in the world cannot alter those essential facts, meaning that stories of Cameron, Osborne and the rest now seem entirely inconsequential. It is worth remembering that, half a decade after the so-called “Quad” of those two, Nick Clegg and Danny Alexander was considered all powerful when it came to this country’s government, not a single one of its members are in politics any longer. Two received knighthoods, one is a Companion of Honour and the last has a very nice shepherd’s hut.

This represents a cautionary tale for any publisher seeking to invest in a politician’s memoir or diaries, because obsolescence beckons so fast. At least the likes of Clegg and David Laws got their books out while there was still some interest in the government that they were part of, because there would now be as little enthusiasm from a publisher for their stories as there might be for the collected after-dinner anecdotes of Jeremy Corbyn.

Even seasoned political biographers and editors face similar difficulties when it comes to topicality. The Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman wrote two bestselling accounts of Brexit-related ructions in the Conservative party, All Out War and Fall Out. The third, tentatively entitled Out, was to have explored the final twists in the saga, but this year’s pandemic has rendered such a story all but irrelevant in comparison, meaning that it has been delayed until May 2021. As with the similarly postponed James Bond film, the suspicion remains that its moment may well have passed by the time that it does eventually appear.

Political memoirs can still be eye-popping reading if the subject is handled in the right way

Yet political memoirs can still be essential, eye-popping reading, if the subject is handled in the right way. Charles Moore’s rightly praised trilogy of biographies of Margaret Thatcher benefitted from a decent period of hindsight and reflection, and the Alan Clark diaries managed to come across as simultaneously a snapshot of Thatcher’s premiership and a regime de vivre of a man so roguish and decadent that he once mused “I can only enjoy church services if I am having an illicit affair with someone in the congregation”. Talking of vicars and their flock, we may still be a decade or so away from the definitive account of the Blair era, but Peter Mandelson’s hugely enjoyable The Third Man is far more readable than Tony’s soapy (and cringe-making Cherie sex scene-boasting) A Journey, especially given that virtually every page seems to beg the phrase “You might think that, I can’t possibly comment”, a la Francis Urquhart.

Whether Obama’s new memoir is any good or not remains to be seen, but it is something of an inevitability that most political biographies date so quickly and so unforgivingly. As recent events have shown, the world of Westminster, and beyond, is one febrile with scandal, betrayal and reversal, and a gifted writer who is able to put it all into some kind of perspective can produce a truly excellent book. There is a reason why the disparate likes of Alan Johnson, Chris Mullin, Matthew Parris and Gyles Brandreth have all written bestsellers long after their times in office, and that is because they have managed to encapsulate the madness and skulduggery of politics while remaining accessible to the general reader.

And, of course, this year has seen a number of bestselling books all revolving around the current, rather than former, inhabitant of the White House. If the election next week does indeed go Joe Biden’s way, rather than Donald Trump’s, he can at least take one small piece of comfort from the certain knowledge that his next autobiography will be a cast-iron, guaranteed bestseller. And, who knows, it might even surpass The Art of the Deal in Donald’s own personal mythology as “a very good, no, excellent, no, brilliant read”.

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