BUILDING A LIBRARY: Post-War Political Biography by Andy McSmith

By McSmith, Andy | The Independent on Sunday (London, England), May 4, 2003 | Go to article overview
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BUILDING A LIBRARY: Post-War Political Biography by Andy McSmith


McSmith, Andy, The Independent on Sunday (London, England)


Most political biographies, to be frank, are books for instruction rather than entertainment. You will not be gripped by revelations on every page, but you may learn something useful about the country and the times in which we live. The first biography of a practising politician is usually the work of a political journalist. Some are hack jobs, cobbled together in a rush mostly from press cuttings; some are the product of serious and strenuous research. Academics and professional writers usually wait until their subject has retired, or been in public life for a good long time before making a study of them. Their books are written to stay on the shelves for a many years; those by journalists are usually not.

There is market pressure out there for new insights which show the subject in a wholly new light, preferably destroying his reputation. Such revelations are promised more often than delivered, because politicians' lives have so much exposure while they are in office that the biographer's job is to sift out what matters and gives an insight into the times rather than to bring sensational new facts into the open. Harold Macmillan was probably the last great public figure whose private life was astonishly different from what the public believed it to be. See Alistair Horne's two-volume Macmillan.

If the market cannot be offered sensation, then what it wants are biographies which treat their subjects sympathetically, because people are readier to read about the lives of politicians they like than those they despise. If you admire Tony Blair, John Rentoul's widely available biography is for you. If you prefer Gordon Brown, there is Paul Routledge's volume. Crossing the divide, if you adulated the late Enoch Powell, there is an authorised biography by Simon Heffer. Thatcher's admirers will have to wait a few years for the authorised book by the Editor of The Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore, but there is a recent "balanced" life by Brenda Maddox, Maggie: the First Lady, and Hugo Young managed to write One of Us, a biography of almost academic standards in 1989, while she was at the height of her power.

Someone writing a life of a practising politician has an interest in their political success.

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