Double feature: political biographies

Hello there, been a while since I either had enough thoughts to warrant opening this window or felt obliged to, so you’ll have to forgive me for being a little out of practice. I am about to do a thing I’ve seen other bloggers do, but not something I’ve ever done myself. Apart from refer to myself as a blogger of course. Do people actually do that or is that like a thing that grown ups say? Anyway, I see on my subs that people like to take two similar books and do mini reviews in one, so I’m going to do that. Because originality.

*edit* mini review? lol.

Anyway, if you’ve been here before (hello! thanks for sticking around) you’ll know that I kind of set myself a goal to read more non fiction because I was in a bit of a fiction rut and well, the most accessible form of non fiction is biographies, so I’ve decided to start with those. And then I thought I’d make it difficult for myself by reading biographies of a political nature and, if you’ve been keeping up with my goodreads, I read two recently from two politicians that belong to the same party, but had very different political ideologies, so I thought I’d do a little discussion. Because why not.

Firstly, for any non Brits who might be reading or just anyone with a social life, who are these people?

In the Red corner we have Tony Benn, aka Anthony Neil Wedgeworth Benn, a titled gentleman who joined the Labour party as a socialist and was one of the countries longest serving MPs who tried to renounce his title so he could continue to fight for worker’s rights. He became a bit problematic for the Labour party at times because he was very sceptical about the direction of New Labour and wanted the party to continue to work with unions and stay firmly on the left. He also claimed the basement of the House of Commons as his own and would hang dedications to some of his favourite people there. As you do. He was an influential public figure who, while never making it to the front benches, did an awful lot of work during his time in parliament and wrote a number of books, one of which, Free At Last, a collection of his diaries from ’91 to ’01, I read recently.

In the slightly less Red corner, we have Ed Balls. Aka… erm… Ed Balls. Though not aristocratic, he was a fairly middle class, left leaning chap who came from a Labour supporting family and after going to Oxford and Harvard, joined the Labour party and worked in the civil service before working alongside Gordon Brown in the Treasury and then head of the Children’s Department and Shadow Chancellor. I also recently read a book by him, the newer version of his autobiography, which has added bits about his time on a reality TV show. He is also one half of the countries first ever MP marriage, his wife is also a prominent Labour politician. Unlike Benn, who survived many a general election, Balls served two terms and lost his seat in 2015  and has since become more famous for his rendition of Gangnam Style on Strictly Come Dancing and for the creation of Ed Balls Day, where we in Britain spend a day celebrating the fact that he once accidentally tweeted his own name.

Yes. If you’d ever gotten the notion that Brits are a bit daft, you’re absolutely right, we are.

It is also worth noting that Ed Balls served as part of the New Labour government that Tony Benn disliked so much and was around for much more of the modern stuff that was going on. His political career was working alongside Ed Milliband (yes he of bacon sandwich and then radio 2 fame), Gordon Brown (Scottish prime minister with a glass eye)  and Tony Blair (the long serving prime minister who kicked off the Iraq war), whereas Tony Benn’s dealings with Ed Milliband was because he was friendly with his dad and had Ed come in and do some work experience with him. (He refers to him as one of his original TEABAGS which is an acronym for the kids who would come in and work in the Benn archive, not whatever you were thinking.)

So, two very different people, but members of the same party and books of a similar subject. Let the discussions commence.

Out of the two people, Ed Balls is the one I remember most in parliament, as I was actually old enough to do politics when he was hanging around the commons, but Benn is the one that I knew (prior to reading these)  the most about because my grandad was also doing stuff with the unions, so it was a name that I’d heard a lot, but this is the first book of his I’ve read.

Both political memoirs were interesting, Benn’s historically as there was also mention of the Irish troubles and the Iraq war and a whole manner of other things that I am too young to remember and Balls’ because of the amount of anecdotes set during his time in the civil service or just generally while working in the Treasury or as an adviser to higher party members. To me being a massive nerd, both were fascinating glimpses at life in the House of Commons. Though we all know that the civil servants are the ones really running the country, I had no idea just how much is going on in those offices, I would say though, somewhere that Balls’ book slipped for me was the fact that I am not particularly numerically fluent and he spends a lot of time in the Treasury and talking about working for the Financial Times and other such stuff that went right over my head. Tony Benn’s book I found to be more warm and chatty and a more intimate picture of his day to day life, though it is worth mentioning that the book was a collection of his diary entries, he eventually published about sixty years worth of diary entries. Ed Balls’ book was more like structured essays around the themes of lessons he’d learned during his time in the public eye, so although anecdotal and revealing, the chapters didn’t feel as open as they did reading Tony Benn’s book, though certainly if you wanted to read something without having any prior knowledge, Ed Balls’ book would be a better place to start because stuff is actually explained as part of the text.

What is particularly interesting was learning about other political figures from these two men’s perspectives.
From Tony Benn you see Ed Milliband painted as the son of his friend who did a bit of work experience for him and was always seen as a nice young chap, who had ever so slightly disappointed him by choosing to work for someone Benn had little time for. From Ed Balls, you see him first as a close friend and then at very best, a work colleague. From Tony Benn, you see Jeremy Corbyn as being a upstanding member of the community, from Ed Balls you see him as the destroyer of the Labour Party. Both of them had similar complex thoughts about Tony Blair. But then Benn hated the idea of New Labour and Balls worked with Gordon Brown, so not much surprise there. What was surprising and quite nice to see was that while in PMQs and on TV, Labour and Tory were at each other’s throats, when it came to working for the country and generally getting stuff done, there as a bit of camaraderie. Benn had a civil, bordering on friendly relationship with both John Major and Ted Heath, whereas Balls actually entrusted George Osborne to look after his children. I doubt this is interesting to anyone but me, but the level of differences in opinion between these two people who have given their lives to one political party is just super fascinating to me. The idea that one party can hold so many different factions of people who, although having fundamentally opposing views, can still commit to the same ends. Both of them want the party to succeed, both of them care about the people who put them in that position, both of them care about the continuation of the health service and education, Benn wants these things achieved by socialist means and Balls by centralist. SO INTERESTING.

It was also interesting to see how much politics has changed over the course of these two people’s lives and how things like social media have influenced both voters and politicians. Twitter didn’t even really exist through most of Tony Benn’s time in parliament, yet Ed Balls is arguably more well known for being viral on social media than he was for his time in politics. I certainly knew of him more for Ed Balls Day and being on TV than for his work in government. Sorry about that Ed, but I feel more informed now I’ve read your book!

So there we are, some rambly thoughts about two different political biographies in an overlapping time frame, but by members of the same party. I think I’d like to read about more political figures, I did spot Ken Clarke’s book when I was at the library, so maybe I’ll venture into the Blue Corner next time I’m perusing the shelf and of course, I am always open to recommendations from you guys!

Like I was going to leave this post without linking you to an actual man that actually served in government doing a rendition of Gangnam Style on live TV.

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