Pot-Boiling Wonkery? Review of Andrew Adonis, Chris Mullin, and Alan Johnson at Durham Book Festival


diariesAndrew Adonis, Chris Mullin, and Alan Johnson are three grandees of the New Labour generation. Michael Shallcross reviews their recent appearance at Durham Book Festival, where they were promoting three very different forms of memoir.

Edward Short, the former Labour Deputy Leader who died last year, was said to have run the parliamentary party like the Durham Light Infantry, with whom he served in World War Two. The DLI is commemorated in a stunningly lovely piece of stained glass in Durham Town Hall, the venue in which three successors to Short’s Labour grandee status – Andrew Adonis, Chris Mullin, and Alan Johnson – came together, over the weekend of 12-13 October, to promote three very different forms of memoir at Durham Book Festival.

Short (later Lord Glenamara) titled the first volume of his own memoirs, I Knew My Place, both as an ironic gesture towards the unprecedented social mobility of mid-twentieth-century Britain, and an earnest expression of his belief in loyalty to the party whip and fidelity to one’s geographic roots. Each of these elements finds an echo in the speakers under consideration, perhaps most strikingly in the case of Lord Adonis, whose biography has pursued a veritably Dickensian trajectory, taking him from powerless social outsider to omnipresent political insider in the space of a half-century. The son of a poor first-generation immigrant, Adonis was raised in a care home, before going on to complete a doctorate in modern history at Oxford, thereafter pursuing a career in broadsheet journalism. He finally found a place at the forefront of politics under the guiding hand of Tony Blair, becoming an influential minister of state in two government departments, without ever having been elected to public office. This fascinating modern political narrative forms no part of Adonis’s strictly time-specific memoir, 5 Days in May, a first-hand account of the events that led to the formation of the present coalition government, but it does provide an instructive context through which to understand his choice of memoir form.

Adonis has the air of a man who, like his former boss, feels the hand of history on his shoulder. In narrating the political events of May 2010 to the festival audience, he casts himself somewhere between innocent abroad and disinterested documentarian, twice reminding us that he is “a historian” by education, and positing his account as a ”yardstick” that might usefully instruct future architects of coalition. Nonetheless, he is also constructing a storyline—one that was recently commissioned to be made into a television drama. He begins 5 Days in May by labelling the key players the ”dramatis personae,” and sets the tone for his Q&A session by enthusiastically comparing events to The West Wing, in a manner which implies that their resemblance to a television programme might lend them greater ontological clout. His vision of the five days as a “siege,” with media helicopters whirring around Westminster, tips a knowing wink to the hostage drama format, a conceit which situates Nick Clegg as the figure waving the metaphorical gun around.

“If Adonis is the fallible, innocently bungling everyman in this narrative, then Clegg is unquestionably the Villain”

With this pseudo-fictional context in mind, Adonis makes a compelling, if perhaps unreliable narrator. As a historian, he is aware of the authority conferred by his status as a primary source, and as a politician he understands the value of exploiting that authority in order to mould the tenor of future narratives. To this end, he exhibits a mastery of narratorial self-deprecation, peppering his verbal account with a series of confessions of misjudgement, to strategically instil a sense of his more fundamental trustworthiness in the audience. If Adonis is the fallible, innocently bungling everyman in this narrative, then Clegg is unquestionably the Villain. Every projection of faux-naiveté and confession of “misreading” on Adonis’s part has the calculated effect of emphasising Clegg’s duplicity. We are invited to believe that Clegg’s “socially”-grounded affinity with Cameron and ideological sympathy with Osbournomics came as a complete surprise to Adonis, a former member of the Liberal Democrats, whose longstanding journalistic and political acquaintanceship with Chris Huhne informs another of his mock-modest asides: Huhne is “more sure of everything than I am of anything.”

To measure one’s self-belief against that of Chris Huhne is not, perhaps, to make an audacious case for one’s store of humility. Adonis’s book is both the pede claudo of a man who hates losing, and the opening salvo of a bid to win the longer-term war. His verbal flow occasionally resembles the frenetic gabble of an auctioneer, words pouring forth in a vertiginous clamour, like bodies tumbling through the sliding doors on the first day of the sales. One way or another, Adonis seems impatient to secure a bargain. The nature of his current ambition is disclosed in his jocular observation that if Clegg had only done the right thing, he—Adonis—would ”still have been in charge of the national train set.” Adonis is the architect of HS2, which the editor of the Financial Times recently dubbed the ”Andrew Adonis Memorial Railway.” In a city with much to win or lose economically from the relative regenerative efficacy of the project, the cloying turn of phrase – “national train set” — strikes a particularly tin-eared note, conjuring the image of a hyperactive five-year-old charging around the dinner table in an oversized Brunel top-hat. When the question of HS2 is raised in the Q&A, Adonis proves evasive, to say the least, about the wider economic benefits that the project might bring to the North East, instead focusing on the equivalent cost of renovating the current, outmoded Victorian lines. As 5 Days in May attests, Adonis’s fascination is with the tactical high-wire of Westminster power politics, rather than the mundane business of local economic administration. It is somehow impossible to picture him holding surgery, lending a sympathetic ear to his constituents’ run-of-the-mill financial woes.

“As a simultaneous inside/outside figure, Chris Mullin’s parliamentary diaries may well be of equal, if not greater, interest to future historians than Adonis’s pot-boiling wonkery.”

Of course, this theory has yet to be tested by electoral mandate, a lacuna in the Adonis CV which stands in marked contrast to the résumé of Chris Mullin, who served for twenty-three years as the MP for Sunderland South, before retiring in 2010. Mullin spoke on the following day of the book festival, on the subject of ”The Thatcher Legacy.” As he would be the first to concede, Mullin’s social progress has been considerably less remarkable than that of Adonis. A member of the radical left in the academic mould of Miliband père, he is a self-avowed product of the “middle-class,” though he shares Adonis’s professional background in journalism. Mullin spent much of the late ‘80s incurring the wrath of his former journalistic associates—The Sun demonstrated its enduring propensity to pitch up on the wrong side of history when it ran a front page mocking his efforts to secure justice for the Birmingham Six: ”Loony MP backs bomb gang.” The latter campaign, with its bold challenge to received opinion, forms a gauge of Mullin’s character. He could not be said to have ever “known his place” in the manner of well-drilled party men such as Short and Adonis, perhaps owing to that intangible sense of security enjoyed by those for whom a relatively privileged background ensures that they would never be admonished to know their place in any other sense. Nonetheless, despite his radicalism, Mullin also retained sufficient loyalty to the party line during the Blair years to ensure that his voice was never lost in the extremes. As a simultaneous inside/outside figure, his parliamentary diaries may well be of equal, if not greater, interest to future historians than Adonis’s pot-boiling wonkery.

While technically here to promote the diaries, Mullin uses his floor time to engage in a socio-political analysis of that most contentious representative of modern social mobility, Margaret Thatcher. If Adonis is writing recent history with an eye on the near future, Mullin is going a little further back so as to understand the present. In the Q&A that follows his lecture, Mullin notes that Adonis was ”a very capable minister,” while shying away from endorsing the latter’s flagship academies programme. Despite his admiration for Adonis’s talents, one can’t help but contrast the preoccupations of the pair in the light of Mullin’s view that the Thatcher era represented a ”turning point in British political history,” following which ”the whole background has changed.” Adonis and Mullin stand a generation apart, and the latter retains a rather old-fashioned concern with analysing the consequences of big ideas on little communities, rather than dreaming of big ideas himself. The growth of the north/south divide in the last quarter-century, which HS2 is ostensibly conceived to ameliorate, is, for Mullin, the clearest manifestation of Thatcher’s ”legacy of division.” The most moving section of his discussion comes when he focuses on the impact of Thatcherism upon the communities that he represented, in which “chronically depressed men in their forties who knew they would never work again” became guinea pigs for the programmatic expansion of ”benefit culture” which followed the dismantling of the mining industry. When Mullin concedes that Thatcher was unquestionably brave, the listener reflects that bravery is, in itself, a morally neutral value: it’s what you do with it that counts.

Despite the impassioned resentment that Mullin displays in recounting the consequences of this social experiment, which he considers to have been motivated by ”ideology, not pragmatism,” he is cautious to infuse his polemical flights with a historian’s willed disinterest, noting that Arthur Scargill was equally “raring for confrontation,” and that “those of us on the left have a case to answer” for the failure to offer a cogent alternative to an ideology that has subsequently swept all before it. This capacity for self-questioning helps to explain Mullin’s particular success in establishing an ethical balance between the consensual and the scrupulous in his public service. A dialogic temperament consistently underwrites his polemical turn of mind. Such is his enthusiasm for the cut and thrust of the Q&A format, he eventually has to be asked to wrap things up by the floor manager, before leaving with a flourish of ironic self-aggrandisement when he invites the audience to join him in the next room, where he will be signing copies of his ”three scintillating volumes of autobiography.”

While the final Labour speaker of the weekend, Alan Johnson, has achieved a social ascent to Westminster almost as dramatic as that of Adonis, his recently published memoir, This Boy, demonstrates the strikingly divergent route through which he arrived at the same location. Johnson is joined for his appearance by Mullin as chair, and the latter begins by offering the implied compliment that Johnson’s memoir is ”not a political book.” Certainly, it is not explicitly political in the manner of Adonis’s book, but its elaboration of a key strand of British twentieth century social history is profoundly political nonetheless. The book charts the first eighteen years of Johnson’s life amid the ”squalor” of post-war Notting Hill, highlighting a range of cultural issues that extends from the racism endemic in 1950s policing to the existential necessity of the welfare state for those living in conditions of genuine poverty. Johnson’s route out of this trap was not through academic excellence, as with the case of Adonis, but through a more quotidian early working life in the post office. Social security, in the fullest sense of the phrase, is the communitarian ethos that drives this narrative. When asked by an audience member whether his grammar school education played a significant role in propelling him beyond his humble beginnings, Johnson demurs that ”social mobility is the untold story of the trade union movement” rather than the formal education system, attributing his success to the correspondence courses and libraries that his union membership gave him access to.

“Johnson possesses a winning modesty”

Johnson possesses a winning modesty, which Mullin draws out by identifying the publication of This Boy as the circuitous means through which Johnson has smuggled a tender biography of his mother and sister onto the bestseller list. While Adonis’s self-deprecatory gestures feel rehearsed, it would take a fine actor indeed to fake the blush that rises to Johnson’s cheeks when Mullin praises the success of this biographical conceit. Mullin and Johnson clearly like each other very much, and have fun chiding one another along socio-political fault-lines. Mullin, the staunch socialist, teases Johnson for having been ”part of the Notting Hill set,” to which the latter puckishly retorts that his stamping ground was ”not the posh end where Tony Benn lived.” Mullin observes that Johnson’s upbringing might easily have left him ”a fire-breathing radical,” yet he emerged as a steady cabinet hand, implicitly relied upon to know his place. Like Adonis, Johnson was personally invited to join Labour’s ’97 intake by Tony Blair, though as an MP rather than an advisor, and was sufficiently successful in office to be approached as a candidate for the top job during those much-vaunted five days in May, when Gordon Brown’s departure became a deal-breaker. At the moment of decision, Johnson once more knew his place, rather peevishly objecting that it would be an act of ”treachery” to usurp a beleaguered colleague at such a time. Short would have approved.

“As their session draws to a close, Mullin moots the possibility of Alan Johnson standing for London Mayor”

As their session draws to a close, Mullin moots the possibility of Johnson standing for London Mayor, on the grounds that he would have a strong hand to play, as a true son of the soil. The window of opportunity presented by Boris Johnson’s likely return to Westminster is evidently much on the Labour mass-mind at present—in Adonis’s Q&A we are offered a strong hint that he is also considering standing for the mayoralty next time around. It is difficult to say which of the two men would be most likely to succeed. The languid tap room bonhomie of the exchange between Mullin and Johnson stands in sharp contrast to the superabundant dynamism of Adonis, whose personal affability, and infectious, if slightly febrile energy is such that he might just out-lobby the more intuitive choice of Johnson. While Adonis expresses impatience with the demagogic “bluster” of Alex Salmond, he is savvy enough to soften his naturally technocratic temperament with those touches of matey self-deprecation that have recently served Boris so well—“we go on about ‘one nation’ all the time” nowadays, he observes, with demotic Blairishness, having threaded the same two words through the final chapter of 5 Days in May like beads on a rosary. No time for book signing, he is out of the door and on to the next engagement before the audience have left their seats. The Durham Light Infantry gaze down, nonplussed.

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Durham Book Festival continues until 20th October.

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5 responses to “Pot-Boiling Wonkery? Review of Andrew Adonis, Chris Mullin, and Alan Johnson at Durham Book Festival

  1. This is a pretty silly piece. I can’t decide which of ignorance or animus is the more responsible for a tendentiousness which will be manifest to any more informed reader; or, perhaps, a desire to appear more authoritative than is warranted. Is this where deriving your worldview more or less exclusively from The Guardian gets you? Ineluctably, it seems.

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  2. This is a very balanced, insightful & well-researched piece of writing. I wish I’d attended the signings but couldn’t make it unfortunately. Thanks for providing us with this.

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  3. In the interests of even-handedness, I’d like to note that Lord Adonis has replied separately to the piece. While expressing a considerably more favourable view of the article than that of Mr Jordan, he does draw attention to a couple of points that should be clarified: between 1987 and ’91 he worked as a local councillor, and he left the festival hurriedly to attend to a personal commitment.

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  4. Thanks to Mr Shallcross for an entertaining and intelligent report on this political trio and their memoirs. Brings the sessions and authors to vivid life: an enjoyable and thought provoking piece.

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