From a successful and charismatic individual’s autobiographical account of how he came to the cusp of a possibly great political career (Obama’s Dreams From My Father), to the autobiographical account of a successful and charismatic individual looking back on a great, if flawed, political career: Tony Blair’s A Journey. Like Obama’s book, Blair wrote the whole thing himself, with a fountain pen on paper. This, in itself, is a great achievement, bearing in mind that most modern political autobiographies are written with the help of researchers and draftsmen, if not ghostwriters. Also as with Obama, this book, although obviously written with the benefit of hindsight, is authentic. Many reviewers derided Blair for his almost folksy and at times gauche writing style, but it makes for a fascinating read, full of insights (‘I got over the onslaught and became used to the derision, began to develop the carapace of near indifference to dispute that is so dangerous in a leader yet so necessary for survival’) and an at times aphoristic style (‘the first rule of politics is that there are no rules’; voters have two votes: ‘the one they cast in the booth, the other they cast in their mind’). I read all the reviews I could find but none picked up on his very early revelation that his ambition hardened when his mother died tragically young just after he had completed his finals at Oxford; ‘that was when the urgency took hold… the recognition grasped that life was finite and had to be lived in that knowledge.’ And nor did they really pick up on his honest admission that he came into office full of deep-seated fear and apprehension. For, whilst ‘the country is on a high and you are up there with them’, at a deeper level ‘you quickly realise that though you are the repository of that hope and have in part been the author of it, it now has a life of its own… soaring far beyond your control.’ Whilst Blair was waving to those 1997 South Bank crowds, he was inwardly recognising that the power that lay beyond that victory was not a continuum of what had gone before. It is easy to forget that the Prime Ministership was the first and last government job he had. Under those circumstances, just how do you step into such a job and make a success of it? This book cannot tell us exactly how but it does provide a fascinating account and I am not surprised that David Cameron’s front bench are rumoured to have read it as a primer for government. I have just got beyond the first one hundred days. Things, we know, got messy and difficult in the longer run and, at times, wrong decisions were taken. Many of the reviews I read accuse Blair of finessing the ugly bits. I shall see and maybe report in due course. but his book, like his first administration in 1997, certainly makes a strong start.
I provoked an interesting flurry of academic exchanges on my Facebook account today. I posted on my ‘status’ that ‘Martin Westlake has just finished reading (yet) another management theory book and increasingly wonders why he bothers…’ The one that tipped me over the edge, so to speak, was Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, which I have indeed just finished. My point is not that Senge didn’t have something interesting to say, applying systems thinking to develop the concept of the learning organisation. And, to be fair to him, he said it a long time ago – in 1990, to be precise, so if a lot of what I read felt old hat it could be argued that this is because his thinking has had so much influence on business theory in the intervening two decades. Cyril Connolly once famously observed that imprisoned in every fat man, a thin one is wildly signalling to be let out. Well, echoing Connolly, my theory is that inside every fat business theory book there is a thin article wildly signalling to be let out. This is not the first time I have made this observation. But I suppose the books are a response to a perceived need for businessmen to sport these sorts of titles on their shelves, rather than actually to read them. I have started reading another, very different, sort of management theory primer, but that will have to wait until my next post…
Today I had lunch with Derk-Jan Eppink, a former Eurocrat and journalist and currently a Dutch MEP elected to represent Flanders. He was, like me, one of John Fitzmaurice’s trainees in the European Commission, and he kindly came along to my 29 November memorial lecture. The lunch was a follow-on from that. Derk-Jan has two books to his name. Life of a European Mandarin is a wonderful romp. Many of the characters in it were/are colleagues and friends and it is all the more enjoyable for that. Bonfire of Bureaucracy in Europe, which I just finished reading yesterday, is a more consistently Eurosceptical ‘plea for a United Europe of States’, to quote the blurb. In my lecture, I argued that it is time to take Euroscepticism seriously, and Derk-Jan is a good place to start. He is neither anti-integration (he favours the euro, for example) nor anti-European and whilst he argues that European politicians should think about issues such as integration of ethnic minorities, he is neither anti-immigration nor still less xenophobic. In addition, he has lived in the States and until recently was writing about American politics and commuting regularly back and forth to New York. Anyway, we reminisced about John and, like the two political anoraks we are (a characteristic of John’s stagiaires) discussed Belgian, Dutch, British, American and European politics. Like me, Derk-Jan remained in touch with John until the end and we agreed that he would have enjoyed the conversation!
I stayed up last night to listen to a gem of a broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Great Lives is a series where for each broadcast a guest gets to nominate a great life and a studio panel then analyses that life together with the guest. On this occasion the guest was Lord Kinnock of Bedwellty, a former leader of the Labour Party, and the great life he chose was that of Aneurin Bevan, commonly dubbed the founding father of the British National Health Service. The presenter was Matthew Parris, a political journalist and former Conservative MP, and the other panel member was John Campbell, who has written a biography of Nye Bevan. To Kinnock, Bevan was a local hero, for both men grew up in the Welsh mining town of Tredegar and Kinnock, as a boy and youth, met the great man on several occasions. Kinnock and Campbell have ‘form’; the latter once accused the former of inappropriately donning Bevan’s mantle. To be fair, I am sure that Campbell would now agree that, mantles aside, by the end of his period of leadership of the party Kinnock had become a sort of hero in his own right. There were hints of the old needle: when Campbell likened Bevan to Kinnock’s old enemies, Tony Benn and Arthur Scargill, Kinnock was quick to point out that, unlike Benn and Scargill, Bevan had played a constructive role. But what came across wonderfully well, I felt, were Kinnock’s atmospheric reminiscences and anecdotes about Bevan in the valleys (and he tells them well). These included an account of how he and his fellow under-aged drinkers had scarpered out of the back door of a pub as their demi-god walked in the front door after one of his characteristic walks on the mountains. When I wrote my biography of Kinnock, the part of the research I most enjoyed was when I went to Tredegar and met all sorts of wonderful and lovable characters who simply adored Nye and Neil and a third man, the greatest keeper of Bevan’s flame, Michael Foot, who passed away last March at the ripe old age of 96 (Foot’s majestic two-volume biography of Bevan has pride of place on my bookshelves). Neil adored ‘Footie’, as he called him, to the end and he has now taken his place as the keeper of the flame – and quite right, too.
I made a quick dash to Paris and back this evening to be present at the ceremony at la Maison de l’Europe where one of our most active French members, Béatrice Ouin, was awarded the rank of chevalier of the Légion d’honneur. I was much struck, in Béatrice’s characteristically humble speech, by her observation that members of her generation (which is also, more-or-less, mine) have been among the luckiest individuals in mankind’s history: no war, no poverty, no discomfort, potable water on tap, food on shelves, healthy children and grandchildren, long life expectancy, good health care, and so on. What, she asked implicitly, are we giving back, we who have had the great good fortune to be born in ‘the West’ in the late 1950s or early 1960s? What, indeed?
Oh yes; continuing in the series of great classics, this evening we watched The Magnificent Seven (1960). Did those men do cool! Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, Brad Dexter and, of course, Horst Buchholz as the kid (not to mention Eli Wallach as the bandit leader, Calvera). If I may brag pathetically, I actually saw Kurosawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai, thanks to my sixth form’s film society, before I did this film, which is closely modelled on it. In my opinion, both are still well worthwhile seeing. The Magnificent Seven has an excellent script. In addition to some great one-liners (‘In Texas, only the banks can rob the banks.’) and exchanges, it gets across the essential dilemma for the villagers – do they fight the parasitic, but intelligent, bandits or continue in a frustrating, but symbiotic, relationship? – and the essential paradox for the hired guns: ‘Only the farmers won. They are like the land. You are like the strong wind that rids the land of the locusts.’ Calvera’s puzzlement at the apparently altruistic behaviour of the gunmen is entirely credible. Some of the seven are seeking deliverance or redemption in one way or another, but their leader, Chris, is never able to explain why he decides to help the villagers. But we know, nevertheless, for this is what samurai do; ‘the path of the warrior is one of honour’.
Mmm... could be interesting....
In one of his final newsletter essays as retiring Executive Director of the European Centre for Public Affairs, former MEP Tom Spencer made one of his characteristically perceptive throw-away observations which is, once you think about it, so blindingly obvious that I’d like to elaborate on it here briefly, as a sort-of New Year think piece. He wrote that: ‘This month’s (November’s) scrabblings about the Budget are small beer when compared with the huge fight which looms over the next ‘budget envelope’, which is due to run for seven years from 2013. That exercise is shaping up to be a major review of what the EU actually does, more fundamental in its own way than the prolonged haggling over the Treaty of Lisbon. This will be the first occasion that the overall shape of the budget is discussed with the East and Central European member states as full participants rather than applicants. It is this process which will define the ambitions of the European Union for a generation.’ I discussed this with a friend in a permanent representation who heartily agreed. ‘Imagine the potential divisions!’ he said; ‘North against South, East against West, old member states against new member states, small against large, net contributors against the rest, and so on. Things could get very interesting.’ If you add into this mix forthcoming discussions about the future of the Common Agricultural Policy (a major budgetary outgoing) and forthoming discussions about the future mechanism for adjusting European civil servants’ salaries (which risks becoming a proxy for a fight about the future of the European public service), then it looks indeed as though the European Union could live up to the ancient Chinese curse about living in interesting times! Two thoughts should console us. The first is that it is precisely because the European Union is an organic evolutionary process that it is able to live up to the challenges of such new environments. The second is Jean Monnet’s prediction that “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.” In the meantime, let us welcome the seventeenth member of the eurozone for, as from midnight last night, the Estonian kroon was no more.