Alan Johnson’s chaotic and tragedy-ridden personal life, the focus of his first two volumes of his memoirs, takes a back seat in this third book as the political career of the former Home Secretary begins to take off. The Long and Winding Road follows Johnson’s move from the Post Office Union to the Houses of Parliament, though it is not without some personal moments, such the reappearance of his father, who walked out on him when he was young, or the death of his stepdaughter, Natalie, when she was pregnant with her third child in 1999.
Johnson does not reflect at great length on these sadder moments, preferring instead to discuss his successes that have characterised the last twenty-five years of his life. The book opens with a memorable one, as Johnson, now General Secretary of the Post Office Union, presides over the fight against Royal Mail’s privatisation in 1993. The success of the campaign to prevent John Major’s beleaguered government from selling off the Queen’s head is a reminder that great things can be achieved in politics with the kind of organisational skills and determination evinced by Johnson when he was General Secretary.
His actions, which prevented the Royal Mail from going the way of the gas companies and the railways, soon attracted the attention of the Labour Party, now destined for power under the slick new leadership of the young Tony Blair. Such was the party’s keenness to get Johnson on board, Blair himself arranged for him to be selected in the safe Labour set of Hull West and Hessle (Hell West and Hassle, as his constituency staff called it), over a late night phone call in early 1997. Seeing immediately the kind of change a Labour government could bring, Johnson readily agreed to become an MP.
Alan Johnson is not a polemical man, and this memoir is in no sense an apologia for the Blair era. He happily admits to believing Labour’s modernisation in the 1990s was entirely necessary (and was the leader of the only union to back ditching Clause IV), and supported Blair wholeheartedly on more controversial issues, such as the 2003 Invasion of Iraq.
Instead, the latter chapters of the memoir are an entertaining look at the true nature of day-to-day life in Whitehall, which for all the drama of British politics is often dull, or comically frustrating. By far the most amusing running gag in the book is the various names the civil service coin for new departments and organisations, without ever giving a thought to how the acronyms would read. Thus Johnson nearly winds up being Productivity, Energy and Industry Secretary (P.E.N.I.S.), and, a few years later at the Health Department, has to deal with the Sexual Health Advisory Group (S.H.A.G.).
This is amusing enough, although given Johnson’s total inability to be rude or even just brutally honest about people, the sections on Labour’s most recent spell in office are strangely bloodless, rendered here with little reference to the psychological drama, particularly the Blair-Brown rivalry, which infused them and did so much damage to the modernisation project.
To my surprise, the book does not take us up to the present day, instead ending just before the 2010 general election, at which point the hapless Gordon Brown was at the helm. This was well before the chaos over the EU vote and the rise of Jeremy Corbyn, so from these pages at least we learn nothing of what Johnson, who was director of Labour’s ‘Remain’ campaign last year, thinks of the closet Leaver now ‘leading’ the party. However, given Johnson’s obvious disdain for stubborn ideologues, and the hard-left mentality of preferring ‘glorious defeat’ to actual victory, it is easy to guess at how little he thinks of the Jezza revolution.
Labour’s continuing problems may provide material for a possible fourth book, but if that does not come about, The Long and Winding Road completes a trio of superbly written memoirs, which are both fascinating reading for anyone interested in British politics and society over the last fifty years, as well for the personal story of that rarest of rare breeds — a truly decent politician.
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