This book by Peter Riddell of the Times, late of the Financial Times, sets out to ask some questions about the new breed of British politicians: men and women who spend their whole adult lives in politics, training as researchers or councillors, becoming experts at the art of manoeuvre, but devoid of worldly experience and largely untroubled by conviction. One thinks of Virginia Bottomley, for instance, whose passionless committee-ism would pass without comment in a government of any colour. In an engaging introduction, Riddell raises a number of serious doubts about the new opportunists, based on the fears that we are not well served by such narrow people and that they have contributed to a dangerous public disenchantment with political life.
But then, far from showing how things have changed, he gives a detailed, careful and well- footnoted history of how politicians have operated this century and before. It is good that his historical perspective is long, but it is disappointing that his excessive caution prevents him from answering the interesting questions he raises. Instead, what he offers is something like an expanded chapter from an Anatomy of Britain, but without Anthony Sampson's verve or wit.
The style is plain and the syntax is sometimes so informal that the results are hard to understand: 'Tory sceptics about the role of government, like, for instance, John Biffen became and Nicholas Budgen, are out of fashion in the modern Commons.' Much of the earlier part of the book has the air of an overdue and grudgingly completed thesis. And surely when anatomising the childhood warning signs of a career politician in the making, Riddell must have felt his heart sink to find that he had written: 'Among the
signs to watch out for are an unusual interest at a
young age . . . in politics and current affairs.'
However, once you have swallowed your disappointment that this is not the book you expected, Riddell's merits become clear. He is impressively well informed and well read. He speaks of boxes full of cuttings in his study, and he has put them to good use: some of the later chapters, though still plain in style, are remarkably fluent digests of huge quantities of information. The judgements, while few and unsurprising, have the authority of that weight of knowledge behind them.
Many of the small ironies, little plots and obiter dicta that lie along the career paths of the politically famous have been recorded here. And, in a largely humour-free book, there is a nice illustration of how the party vultures gather. In the early 1980s the SDP geared itself for a by-election in Dundee West, where the sitting Labour MP Ernie Ross was dangerously ill. 'Party officials were almost monitoring his temperature. Ten years later he was still a vigorous member for the seat, long after the SDP had died.'
He does at last come back to the main question, but not until the final chapter. This is what he says: 'Has the career politician become more ideological or, alternatively, more opportunistic? A good case can be made for either view.' Well, really. A proper caution, such as Riddell displays throughout, is one thing, but this is downright timidity. It is a real pity that he has not found the daring to match his considerable research.
Timidity is not something that troubles Tony Banks MP, or his co-author Jo-Ann Goodwin. Their book offers a curiously close parallel to Riddell's, but from a radically less serious point of view. Although too dependent on phrases such as 'complete twat' and 'utter wanker', it succeeds in being amusing in a vaguely informative way. His 'Too Sexy for Their Seats? The Top Ten'
list of MPs includes the Nick Faldo-lookalike Michael Portillo, Gordon Brown (though Banks is twice critical of Brown's aversion to the shampoo bottle) and Sebastian Coe, for whom Banks has a surprising soft spot. Riddell is the one to keep on your reference shelf, but you wouldn't chuck out Banks without a qualm.