Political biographies: We've never had it so good

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The Independent Culture

It is tricky when giving political books as presents to calibrate the precise level of insult implied. Should you give The Oona King diaries: House music (Bloomsbury 12.99) to a George Galloway supporter? Or David Morley's biography of Galloway, Gorgeous George (Politico's 19.99), to a Labour person? Both choices, as it happens, would be fitting ones. King, who lost her seat to Galloway, comes across as a patently decent person in her account of her surprise selection as the Labour candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow, and her equally surprising ejection as the constituency's MP eight years later. You would have to have a heart of stone and a Galloway adulation complex not to feel for her.

People with hearts of stone and Galloway adulation complexes formerly known as the Respect Coalition are, of course, fewer in number than they once were. Respect has split in two, now that half of its members have had their complexes treated by a course of aversion therapy. This consisted of prolonged exposure to the source of the problem. Morley's book about Galloway is, in this sense, a medical textbook. It illustrates the process by which Galloway has driven away many of his former supporters and divided the party that sprang up to exploit his gifts as a communicator. Morley was sympathetic to Galloway's politics and agrees with him about the Middle East, but he is also a perceptive journalist and a fine writer. The opening sentence a good test this is a corker: "The George Galloway we see before us now is a creature assembled on the factory floor of Dundee's left-wing politics." This capacity for acute observation leads Morley to the conclusion that his subject is an egotist of fixed opinions and a tenuous grip on the truth. It is a conclusion all the more damning coming from an initially sympathetic quarter, and because Morley allows the facts of the many investigations of Galloway's personal and political finances to speak for themselves.

As I say, it is tricky. If you want a book that will not challenge a closed mind, try Tony Benn's More Time for Politics: Diaries 2001-2007 (Hutchinson 20) or Peter Oborne's anti-politics tract The Triumph of the Political Class (Simon & Schuster 18.99). It has been the fashion for about a quarter of a century to regard Benn indulgently as a dignified and valuable part of Britain's political furniture. Those who hold this view, who are considerably more numerous than those who share Benn's politics, will find nothing here to upset them. Those who regard Benn as a malign force in British politics, and who were alarmed and amused by his declaration that he wanted to return to the House of Commons, will also be reassured.

Oborne makes more of an intellectual effort in his tirade against the "political class". This is a broader target than that in his last book, The Rise of Political Lying, but he manages to miss it all the same. Last time he tried to persuade us that New Labour was uniquely deceitful, but he was simply too good a journalist to make the charge stick. This time, he spreads his attack across the parties, suggesting that they have all been taken over by clones of a breed apart from the solid yeopersons of the ruddy shires. Oborne makes the fair point that many members of the Cabinet and shadow cabinet, including the Conservative leader and his shadow chancellor, have never had "real" jobs. But it is a point already made with more wit and learning by Professor Peter Hennessy, when he hailed David Cameron's election to the Tory leadership as the triumph of special adviserdom.

Harder going, but more insightful, is Anthony Seldon's second volume of his Blair biography, Blair Unbound (Simon & Schuster 25). If you want to know why the Blairites thought Gordon Brown would be "an effing disaster as prime minister", it is spelt out here in unnecessary but, with the benefit of a mere six months' hindsight, believable detail. Meanwhile, Brian Brivati's short gem of a book, The End of Decline: Blair and Brown in power (Politico's 20), propounds a thesis of such alarming originality that many will be tempted to dismiss it outright. He argues that Blair (with a subsidiary role allotted to Brown in the title, possibly to persuade the marketing department that the book is "current") has ended the dominant cringe of British culture since the war that bemoaned the nation's decline. Margaret Thatcher may have played an important part in ending the perception of Britain as in economic decline, but partly because her whole politics was a response to the decline debate she never shook our conviction that our social fabric was fraying. The idea of Britain as a nation in relative decline has simply not featured in the national conversation since 1997. Outlandish? Persevere, and you will be rewarded. A bit of a risk as a present, though. Better get it for yourself.

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