Book Review: From the Valleys to Brussels: A Boyo's Own Story ; Kinnock: The Biography by Martin Westlake (Little, Brown, Pounds 25)

Article excerpt

NEIL KINNOCK, once embalmed in premature statesmanship, is now in danger of premature burial. Martin Westlake's is the sixth biography of a man still short of his 60th birthday and in fine fettle. At 768 pages, this is semi-authorised "life and times" on the Victorian scale. The result is commendably serious, but it drains its genial subject of nearly all his fun.

A Eurocrat in Brussels, Westlake is neither Welsh nor a politician - not perhaps Kinnock's natural biographer. He tried to remedy his ignorance of Wales by "three wonderful Easter holidays", but there are gaps in understanding - misjudgement of Kinnock's school at Pengam and errors about Keir Hardie and the politics of Merthyr. But he writes well about Kinnock's roots in the Gwent valleys, a crucible of radicalism since Chartist days; his parents; his complex relationship with the miners (sorely tested in the 1984 strike); and the schizoid approach of valleys Welshmen to nationalism and devolution, complicated in Kinnock's case by his marriage to a gifted Welsh speaker from Anglesey.

Westlake uses well the vast, unsorted Kinnock archive at Churchill College, Cambridge; but his recourse to interview material is ambiguous. More uncertain still is his relationship with his subject. This is not, apparently, an official biography, but Kinnock's personality looms throughout with abundant quotations and conversational apercus. A proper citation of sources is needed, and the author's degree of independence is unclear.

Westlake is particularly good on Kinnock's lifelong internationalism, especially his abiding enthusiasm for Europe and his urge to find an alternative diagnosis to Thatcherism in work with other socialist parties. This set the tone for a long-term strategy to broaden Labour's class appeal. In a revealing final chapter, Westlake shows Kinnock's dynamism in Brussels since 1994. He has been a force for change, cleaning up Europe as he did the Labour Party. The boy has a proper job now, an outlet for his talents never found at home. …