Advent is here, and with it being the season of book-buying, so on Tuesday I shall be recording a BBC Parliament Christmas special on this year’s political books. Perhaps oddly for a Labour MP, my book is a biography of Mrs Thatcher, something I couldn’t have faced this summer when every Tory boy was salivating with unction about her and even sane people were pretending that she was the greatest political titan since Churchill.
Not for me Charles Moore’s “official” authorised version – I couldn’t face two whole volumes on Mrs T – but the slightly authorised one by Robin Harris, Not For Turning. He liked the woman. He wrote speeches for her. And he puts a gentle gloss on some of the less pleasant elements of her character. But so far I have enjoyed having all my prejudices confirmed. She seems a charmless, cold, calculating and utterly humourless person with little of the milk of humankindness.
One thing that comes across forcefully, though, is quite how lucky she was. Lucky to get in to Somerville College, Oxford, when another student dropped out at the last moment. Lucky to marry a man with wealth enough to support her in the early expensive years of her career, before he frittered much of his money away. Lucky to get selected in Finchley thanks to a rigged party ballot (a fact revealed by Moore). Lucky that Sir Keith Joseph spontaneously combusted with a speech of illiterate racism in late 1974. Lucky that she won the vote of confidence against Jim Callaghan in 1979 by a single vote. And lucky in her enemies, Galtieri preposterously taking the Falklands, Arthur Scargill refusing to hold a ballot of National Union of Miners members, and Michael Foot declining into a shadow of his former self when he became leader of the Labour Party. Interestingly, she always thought herself lucky, too.
So, as I have read, I have railed at Thatcher, resented her election victories, wondered at her prodigious capacity for work, and felt for her as her mind diminished. And that’s the undeniable power of a book. Newspapers and magazines can tell stories of great emotional depth, but by definition they are short, ephemeral tales, and it is only a book that really delivers an emotional or intellectual punch. It demands that you commit to seeing it through. Often that is a challenge. But the experience of sitting alongside a character, whether real or imaginary, for hundreds of pages is far more rewarding than any number of newspaper column inches. It’s only by sticking with it that you get the reassurance of a tale that comes to a perfect ending or the utter desolation of a distressing death. No wonder Dickens’ motto was “make em cry, make em laugh, make em wait”.
Last year saw a rise of about 5 per cent in the total number of printed and digital books bought in the UK, with book-buying one of the most common forms of online shopping. This year may see the same pattern as Britain remains one of the three strongest publishing countries in the world. My hope is that if you’re giving a book this Christmas, you’ll buy it from a store that pays something back into Britain.
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