Why our politicians need to get a life

The audience for political biography has shrunk for reasons deeper than stiff competition from studies of Posh Spice or the footballer David Beckham

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When, a few years ago, Bloomsbury published the schmaltzy tittle- tattle that Anna Pasternak ghosted for James Hewitt about his romance with the then Princess of Wales, the publisher had to decide how to hide this torrid tome from tabloid eyes. According to one credible tale, its staff stuffed copies of the book in cartons that identified it as a work about the "future of socialism". They reckoned that no one would want to pilfer that.

Well, the future of socialism (after a fashion) now commands a 179-seat majority, while Hewitt - and Pasternak - have sunk into a well-deserved obscurity. But the story says a lot about how mainstream publishers view writing about politics and politicians. Only biography, it used to be argued, could rescue political books from the remainder shelves on its raft of drama and anecdote. "Read nothing but biography, for that is life without theory," exhorts a character in one of Disraeli's novels. Yet we now know that, even without the theory, the life of William Hague has failed to attract any takers. His Notting Hill Carnival revelation about enjoying steel-band music will hardly turn the prematurely grave Tory leader into a hot property. Now, if he had said drum-and-bass ...

Publishers' unwillingness to sign up for a Hagueography accords with the recent message from the bottom line. It's the same story with political memoirs. Many firms lost tidy sums in Thatcher's aftermath as one minister after another bailed out to spend more time with their word-processors. (Only 3,000 or so takers could be found for Norman Fowler's tedious apologia.) Boosted by genuine inside knowledge, and a rumoured team of backstage gag-writers, Baroness Thatcher's own memoirs fared much better, if not quite well enough to recoup Rupert Murdoch's vast outlay on them. Only Alan Clark's maverick diaries - with sex, style and cynicism oozing from every patrician page - really hit the jackpot. But then a political author with Clark's fund of sulphurous gossip comes along once in a true-blue moon.

You might imagine that the fate of Hague's unwanted life shows that publishers have at last learned their lesson. Far from it. Defying the market and the age, this autumn's catalogues still bulge with parliamentary pot-boilers. In the blue corner, Douglas Hurd defends his Foreign Office record, and Alan Clark himself - wearing his respectable historian's hat - will excavate his party's past. Out of the Wetlands spring Ian Gilmour and Julian Critchley, each peddling a fine old gloat about the Tories' electoral downfall. Meanwhile, John Major can fill those empty hours by reading a full-dress portrait of himself from a serious contemporary historian, Anthony Seldon.

On the other side, New Labour's triumph coincides with a surprising comeback for the giants of the old movement. In his epic authorised life of James Callaghan, Kenneth O Morgan will try to explain how the wily fixer drove his party straight into a brick wall 18 years thick. Francis Beckett's biography of Clem Attlee, and Chris Bryant's of Stafford Cripps, will prompt endless compare-and-contrast exercises making links with the Blair- Brown axis. Disgruntled leftists can curl up on autumn evenings with Michael Foot's one-volume abridgement of his classic life of Nye Bevan.

All these ventures deserve to thrive. Yet it's hard to dodge the fact that the audience for heavy-duty political biography has shrunk for reasons deeper than stiff competition from studies of Posh Spice or the footballer David Beckham. When Gladstone's cabinet colleague John Morley published his four volumes on the Grand Old Man in 1903 - or Moneypenny and Buckle weighed in with six on Disraeli a few years later - statesmen's lives in person and in print conformed to a model of heroic individualism. Log cabin to White House, went the US version, after Lincoln patented the route. You can witness a parallel progress, from Welsh cottage to Downing Street, in the remarkable rediscovered 1916 film of the Life of Lloyd George. Doorstop biographies - often composed by colleagues and disciples - likewise told of noble striving crowned by august maturity and a venerable old age.

Then the wheels fell off this pompous vehicle. First the heroism vanished from political lives; then the individualism. After Lytton Strachey skewered his Eminent Victorians (in 1918), biographers increasingly felt that every idol must have feet of clay. Soon they sought for clues in the bedroom as often as in the Cabinet room. More significant, perhaps, the liberal confidence in great men (and only men) as masters of destiny suffered one knock after another. From the well-drilled chaos of the First World War to the hi-tech anonymity of today's data networks, the century's vast, impersonal forces trumped the individual will time and again.

And politics entered a machine age of its own. Joe Klein's novel Primary Colors comes closer to the heart of a presidential campaign than any interim biography of Bill Clinton because it exposes the process as much as the product. It opens the engine room and lets us feel the sweat behind the smile. Our obsession with the shadow world of spin doctors - those ghosts in the machine - fits in with a hunch that well-scrubbed leaders are now playthings of a system that runs them, instead of vice versa.

So William Hague, even with a denim shirt and hollow coconut, may have rather more than a slight charisma shortage working against him as a biographical subject. Remember that, under Margaret Thatcher, both the Tory vote and the public-sector share of GDP stood miraculously still through 11 years of personalised worship and loathing. To find figures who truly change their nation's course, biographers now need to look beyond the spin-doctored, media-driven scene of First World politics.

Nelson Mandela's memoirs (Long Road to Freedom) rode high in the bestseller charts for many months. Martin Meredith's imminent life of the South African president should do almost as well. And Mandela's path from prison to power recalls the national liberators - the Bolivars and Garibaldis - whose lives sold by the cartload to Victorian liberals. It also goes to show that any political career really worth reading about may have a downside of suffering and persecution. "Unhappy the land that has no heroes," runs an exchange in Brecht's play Galileo. "No," the astronomer replies. "Unhappy the land that has a need of heroes."

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