It is only a scribblers' parliament

A large number of our MPs may be writers of books, from thrillers to diaries, but, says Boyd Tonkin, there is not an original author, thinker or visionary among them
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The Independent Online
When he wasn't scouring London streets for prostitutes to rescue, William Ewart Gladstone took a break from his prime ministerial duties by reading three books a day and penning learned tomes on Homer.

A century later, PMs and ministers usually do little more than sign the odd ghosted piece in the tabloids. The written word at book length appeals less to politicians now because it matters less to voters. In fact, some sort of nadir was touched when Lady Thatcher cheerfully let on that her idea of literary fun involved re-reading the cardboard-and- clockwork thrillers of Freddy Forsyth. When she came to compile her own memoirs, a team of backroom wags - such as Oxford's convivial Professor Norman Stone - had to add those alien touches known as "jokes".

So it comes as something of a shock to discover that several dozen MPs of the 1997 vintage still care enough about long-distance print to write and edit books. One of the new intake, indeed, has proved so prolific over the past 15 years that he now has a "Selected Writings" to his credit - a volume that embraces short stories, memories of childhood and political theory. That the name on the spine (from Brandon Books) belongs to Gerry Adams only goes to show that heavy-duty authorship does not always confer infallibility. Even the ability to earn a good living between hard covers will not guarantee talent or trustworthiness. Rupert Allason, the defeated Torbay Tory who writes spy potboilers as "Nigel West", often upset the secret services as he wrung every drop of fatuous gossip from his deep throats in MI5 and MI6.

The 1 May results closed the book on other Commons authors. Edwina Currie can now spend more time with her pounds 300,000 advance as she moves from writing lubricous Westminster intrigues to soppy Scouse sagas. When the people of Chester dismissed Gyles Brandreth, they no doubt had other things on their mind apart from his recent debut novel Who is Nick Saint? - a schmaltzy Yuletide fable that makes It's a Wonderful Life look like Oedipus Rex. Up in the Other Place, of course, Lord Archer need never fear the electors' judgement as he enjoys the reputed pounds 15m that Rupert Murdoch's HarperCollins paid him for the next few doorstops of lacklustre prose and join-the-dots plotting.

Among Commons newcomers and returnees with authorial form, earnest policy wonks prevail. In his new ministerial role, Frank Field can draw on 20 years of published reflections on the function and malfunction of the welfare state, from To Him Who Hath in 1976 through to his Agenda for Britain in 1993. Field snaffles the plaudits from all sides, but his backbench colleague Malcolm Wicks, once head of the Family Policy Studies Centre, showed an equally incisive grasp of the welfare labyrinth in his 1987 Penguin special A Future for All.

Applied social studies may languish in the universities, but they flourish mightily on New Labour's crammed benches. Probably the most original take on the way we live now can be found in Patricia Hewitt's About Time, in which the new member for Leicester West tries to bridge the yawning gap between the actual rhythms of our lives and the anti-women - indeed, anti- human - time-schemes of the archaic institutions where we learn, work or even legislate. With the theory behind her, now she can try the practical.

In keeping with the modernising waves of the past decade, this is all deeply sensible and sober stuff. It's a long time since Labour aspirants rushed into print with militant manifestos such as (say) the blood-curdling Red Paper on Scotland from 1975. And which Clydeside wrecker edited that? Laddie name of Gordon Brown.

Then come the swollen ranks of Commons memoirists. (Though we should point out that Austin Mitchell's 1971 volume The Yorkshire Joke was not, in fact, an autobiography.) The heaviest ministerial apologias tend to weigh down bookshop shelves only after their authors have left the House (Norman Fowler's riveting recollections, by the way, sold around 3,000 hardback copies - even less than the average Tory vote on 1 May). So it's something of a rarity to find the boldest and funniest of all parliamentary tale-bearers - Alan Clark - back under the whip after his 1993 Diaries burnt every bridge and boat behind him.

Clark's leftist soul-brother, Ken Livingstone, offered a jovial canter through his life and thoughts in If voted changed anything, they'd abolish it. And the tea-driven archive machine in Tony Benn's Holland Park basement churns out a volume of endearingly Pooterish diaries every few years, with the help of his tireless editor Ruth Winstone. (Benn obliged his busier admirers with a one-volume abridgement in 1995.) A more waspish view of government at work comes from Gerald Kaufman's How to Be a Minister - droll advice that still reads well despite some antique beer-and-sandwiches yarns about industry policy in the 1970s. (Kaufman wears his other hat - a star-spangled Hollywood buff's model - in his charming study for the BFI Film Classics series of the Garland/Minnelli musical, Meet Me in St Louis.) For first-hand tales of worse risks than a bad-tempered Sir Humphrey, one of the class of '97 trounces every rival: Tatton's stain-free Martin Bell, with his front-line chronicle In Harm's Way.

With Roy Jenkins well and truly ermined in the Lords, the Commons now lacks a serial political biographer. Several MPs, though, have managed one-off lives. Tam Dalyell profiled Dick Crossman to good effect some years ago. In his days as a full-time (rather than a weekend) journalist, Rotherham's MP Denis MacShane traced the "political odyssey" of Francois Mitterrand in 1981 with an optimism not quite borne out by subsequent events. More recently, Huddersfield's Barry Sheerman co-authored an impressive biography of Harold Laski, the intellectual engineer who helped to design the 1945 Labour landslide.

History itself has also fallen from the favour of literate MPs since the days when Lord Acton (before he decided that all power corrupts) sat behind Gladstone as an Irish Whig. But it still has a few elected practitioners. Before he declined into satellite chat-shows, a young political scientist called Austin Mitchell analysed The Whigs in Opposition 1815-1830. And, when John Redwood inhabited the distant planet of All Souls, he investigated belief and unbelief in Restoration culture under the title Reason, Ridicule and Religion. The versatile Denis MacShane converted his doctoral thesis into a challenging study of International Labour and the Origins of the Cold War. However, the garland of Best Historian MP must fall on the unfairly advantaged shoulders of the Best Diarist. Alan Clark's four elegant volumes on campaigns of the First and Second World Wars (The Donkeys, Barbarossa, Aces High and The Fall of Crete) prove that his economical way with the actualite does not apply to the past.

Since 1979, scribbling MPs have tried in large numbers to re-define their party's "project" as the Tories triumphed and Labour re-grouped. On the left, Austin Mitchell promptly asked Can Labour Win Again? in 1979. Later, Giles Radice sought Labour's Path to Power - and events have shown that, by and large, he found it. Peter Hain made the revisionist case sound radical in Ayes to the Left as Tony Wright brought his academic background to bear on Socialisms, Theories and Practices. Most effectively, Peter Mandelson (with Roger Liddle) famously wrote his own job description in The Blair Revolution, to emerge barely a year later as the Minister Without Limits.

In the blue corner, David "Two-Brains" Willetts made the case for Modern Conservatism while - when all already seemed lost - Alan Duncan could still excoriate the state in a High Thatcherite vein with Saturn's Children. The lady's high noon saw John Redwood bang the privatisation drum in Popular Capitalism. Given voters' reactions to that nostrum as applied to taps, trains and tubes, the next edition's title should surely be prefixed with an "Un".

Most intriguing among the writing members are the handful of parliamentary novelists. Fiction failed to save Currie and Brandreth, but the electors of Shoreditch evidently do not hold Brian Sedgemore's trio of political romps against him (Mr Secretary of State, Power Failure, Pitiless Pursuit). Sunderland's Chris Mullin imagined A Very British Coup at a time when left-wingers such as him sincerely believed that he secret state would never allow such a thing as a 179-seat Labour majority to happen again. Yet it stands up well as fiction (and looked great on TV). However, the Government will not be hoping for a swift re-run of Mullin's 1981 pamphlet "How to Select or Reselect your MP". Mullin later used the political thriller to explore his Asian interests in The Year of the Fire Monkey; and Peter Hain hitched a ride on this post-Graham Greene bandwagon with The Peking Connection.

None of these tales is less than competent, although Douglas Hurd in his pre-FO days wrote this brand of thriller rather better. They certainly leave Disraeli's mantle as statesman-novelist unoccupied. The current batch of MP-novelists can spin a diverting yarn around politics at home or abroad, but their skill or sympathy does not seem to stretch much further. And that, of course, sums up the limits of our system as a whole. Politics in Britain can turn out effective historians, diarists and even theorists by the score. But literary talent as such fails to thrive in the House.

That absence marks a more general estrangement of Westminster from the creative arts. In this climate, a figure of world-class distinction such as Glenda Jackson has to play down her achievements in order to get ahead. Yet the arts have contributed almost everything to the feel-good factor in British culture now, which besuited plodders of all parties are so keen to exploit.

Will things change? The omens do not look that promising. One of Labour's noisiest first steps has been to channel proceeds from the mid-week lottery away from the arts and into keep-fit classes: a "populist" measure that shows some contempt for the old left-liberal mission to make the best culture popular. The House still gives a safe, congenial home to analysts and reporters of all types - the kind of mind that synthesises and interprets, rather than creates anew. Bards, visionaries and artists had better stay away. A slogan on Parisian walls in 1968 demanded "All power to the imagination". Not here, not now, and probably not ever.

The writer is Literary Editor of 'The Independent'.

Ayes down: ten surprisingly good reads by current MPs:

Martin Bell In Harm's Way (1995)

Gerry Adams Falls Memories (1982)

Chris Mullin A Very British Coup (1982)

Gerald Kaufman How to be a Minister (1980; revised 1997)

Alan Clark The Donkeys (1961)

Alan Clark Dairies (1993)

Patricia Hewitt About Time (1993)

Tony Benn The Benn Diaries 1940-1990 (1995)

Peter Hain The Peking Connection (1995)

Gordon Brown and Tony Wright (eds) Values, Visions and Voices (1995)

No-Noes: ten tomes that their authors might prefer to forget:

Peter Lilley Do You Sincerely Want to Win? (1972)

Gordon Brown (ed) The Red Paper on Scotland (1975)

Peter Hain Political Strikes (1986)

Austin Mitchell New Zealand Politics in Action (1962)

Austin Mitchell Teach Thissen Tyke (1988)

Patricia Hewitt Your Rights at Work (1978)

Tony Benn The Regeneration of Britain (1964)

John Redwood Value-for-Money Audits (1981)

Brian Sedgemore Pitiless Pursuit (1994)

Chris Mullin How to Select or Reselect your MP (1981)