So many lives, so many writers

What can political biographers offer if everyone wants drugs and sex? Not a lot, argues Sean O'Grady
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The Independent Online
Just as everything about Tony Blair had to be "New" (or young), so everything around William Hague must be "Fresh" (or young). This will no doubt be true of the forthcoming fresh authorised biography (William Hague: Fresh Star/Future/Britain/Air). Not just fresh, though, but fecund: there are three or four more "treatments" of books about the Leader of the Opposition seeking suitable publishers. Nor is William alone. The list of names of those whose lives, it is rumoured, are about to be chronicled, is a distinguished one: Robin Cook, Gordon Brown, Peter Mandelson and John Hume. (Paddy Ashdown's is "on hold", apparently.) And all this on top of books about Blair (3), John Prescott, Kenneth Clarke (2), Michael Heseltine (2), Betty Boothroyd and Michael Portillo. Biog-boomtime?

Friends of the political biography would like to hope that the current wave is a healthy sign of interest in those who govern us. The news is a little disappointing. Chartbusters they ain't. In fact, sales of these works are mostly so slow that definitive sales figures are hard to find and provide a real challenge to the researcher (the very rough estimates in the table are provided by the independent Bookwatch company).

Michael Crick's critique of Jeffrey Archer's CV and John Campbell's thorough work on Edward Heath (a sort of political living fossil) vie for Oasis status in this non-pop chart. Paul Routledge's Betty Boothroyd also does well. One might have expected the volumes on the Prime Minister and his predecessor to do a bit better. But the lower reaches of the charts are occupied by precisely the kind of figures so fashionable now - the super- anticipatory biogs where writers and publishers try to back "winners". The writers, often sympathetic journalists or politicians, may succeed in adding some gilt to their own careers, although Paul Routledge (author of Madam Speaker - a project undertaken out of "straightforward admiration") admits he also does it "for the dosh". And a good newspaper serialisation can provide you with a healthy windfall and many more readers. But the books, however excellent, amusing and pacey, can be "modest" sellers.

There is a school of political punditry that takes its cue from the stock market. Observers of the political scene will congratulate themselves on having had the foresight to "buy Majors" in 1989 and sell them in 1992, or to have built up a handy holding in Blairs in the early 1990s. By these standards the political biography has an uncomfortably large number of penny shares on its hands just now. But the speculation just goes on.

The temptations are obvious andthe political biography has found it hard to resist the urge to have a flutter. The man who wrote a biography of the 26-year-old Winston Churchill, prime minister at 65, was in for the long haul. Time may have run out for these indiscretions. "At 54 what else is left for his ambitions? Perhaps, just to be the best Prime Minister Britain has ever had. Or the first President of Europe?", (Ted Heath: A Family Portrait, Marian Evans, 1970). "Steel for Prime Minister? It's not impossible", (David Steel, His Life and Politics, Peter Bartram, 1981).

"With four major offices of state under his belt, it is curious that until recently many people have tended to overlook Geoffrey Howe's potential as a candidate for the highest office," (Geoffrey Howe, A Quiet Revolutionary, Judy Hillman and Peter Clarke, 1988).

"It is a long journey from Aldercar to Downing Street, longer by far than the journey from Brixton to No 10. If Clarke's route has been smoother than John Major's, there have nonetheless been uneven times along the way... Politics will never be dull with Clarke at the helm," (Kenneth Clarke, Malcolm Balen, 1994).

Nearly right. Nothing has messed up political biography more than "events". If Michael Portillo had just hung on to Enfield Southgate, or had a go at Uxbridge, no one would be suppressing a giggle at Michael Portillo - The Future of the Right. Still, like penny shares, you never know.

The meat of a political biography has been and will continue to be politics. Sometimes the meat is a bit gristly, lots of shadow spokesmanships, the odd private member's Bill, that's about it; and sometimes nice and juicy, a long political career with plenty at the top, even a tilt at the leadership. But the biography must move with the times and now the genre has shown belated interest in sex and drugs. Historical biographers have been on to this for ages. Try Roy Jenkins' account of the "three-in-a-bed" scandal that brought down the Victorian politician Sir Charles Dilke. Contemporary political biography cannot hope to match this, hardly pornographic, account.

Michael Portillo, for example, is the subject of a good deal of poisonous and politically motivated gossip. Michael Gove could not do other than speak as he found. Of Portillo's time at the Conservative Research Department in Old Queen Street in the early 1970s he wrote of "the influence of those desk officers who were gay [which] permeated the atmosphere of the place" with "raucous talk about buggery after hours"; and of the "gamey" atmosphere at Portillo's Cambridge college. Mr Gove adds: "As an opera-goer, Peterhouse graduate and party-lover, Portillo was assumed to share other tastes with some in the department", but he was "emphatically one of the more fastidious members of the College".

Andrew Roth left us with this tantalising glimpse of Ted in his 1972 Heath and the Heathmen: "Some of his friends hint at an unsettling experience in the trying period in 1939-40, when he was waiting endlessly to be called up. Certainly, by the time he reached the 107th heavy Anti-Artillery Regiment in 1941 he was already very 'buttoned up'. He seldom drank with fellow officers and appeared to avoid the company of women."

As for drugs there is still not much. Jon Sopel enjoys the distinction of getting the dope into biography with: "Blair, unlike his Rhodes scholar Oxford predecessor Bill Clinton, not only never inhaled, he remarkably never put a spliff to his lips."

Looking at those figures on the waiting list there may well be new things to say about their political and personal lives - one day. Maybe we do not have to wait until they are dead (with this generation it would be an extremely long wait). But it's hard to write a life of someone who hasn't had a life. One is left with the verdict of Roy Jenkins that "there is a lot to be said for allowing the doors of history to slam shut before the biographer gets to work".

The writer has assisted several political biographers, including Michael Crick, Colin Brown, John Rentoul and Michael Gove.