Books

BOOK REVIEW: Speaking Out by Ed Balls - Best Political Book I've Read This Year

18 Sep 2016 at 15:44

Very few political books stand the test of time. Three months after they come out they’re forgotten. Ed Balls can be proud that his book will be different. It’s not a conventional political memoir in that it’s not chronological and doesn’t pretend to be a learned, intellectually based book, which sets out the author’s massive contribution to political history. Instead, it’s set out in a series of themed chapters, each containing many lessons to anyone who is involved in politics at whatever level. There’s a certain therapeutic nature as Balls unburdens himself. It’s almost as if when he got to the end he breathed a massive sigh of relief and muttered to himself in the direction of the reader: “do your worst”.

There is little self-justification contained in this book. In fact, it really is warts and all. Ed Balls is open and honest about a myriad of things he now believes he got wrong, as well as the odd thing he got right. He reckons in retrospect that he knew the financial crash at the time was coming. He and others spotted the fault lines, but somehow failed to join up the dots. Six months before it happened, the Treasury ‘wargamed’ a financial crash in which a northern building society got into financial trouble having over-extended itself. Who’d have thought?

In some ways may of the chapters provide rock hard evidence that most political failures are cock-ups rather than conspiracy. They also show that Ed Balls is very far from the bullying political bruiser he is often portrayed as. He is very far away from the shadowy figure who was Gordon Brown’s enforcer. This book is full of wonderfully human anecdotes, often involving the chaos of the Balls-Cooper family like, and proves that politicians are actually just the same as the rest of us – with the same foibles, aims, ambitions and experiences.

The only place I thought Ed Balls wasn’t quite on top of the actualite, was when he was talking about the TeeBeeGeeBees, which he downplays to the point of unbelievability. Compare his version with the version in Alastair Campbell’s diaries, and I think I know which is the more accurate. He acknowledges that the running battles between Blair and Brown got in the way of the Blair government achieving what it could have, but fails to give the reader the depth of the split between them that clearly existed.

Where Balls is strongest is where he goes into events in which he was intimately involved. The inner contortions he went through over whether to sack Sharon Shoesmith in the Baby P case, is a good example. Damned if he did, damned if he didn’t. Welcome the life of a Secretary of State, where making decisions is often a lonely experience.

We complain loudly nowadays that we have elected a generation of politicians with no hinterland. On the face of it Ed Balls was one of them. Oxford, special adviser, MP, Minister. That’s the career path taken by so many politicians nowadays, a career path barely interrupted by any kind of life outside politics. Ed Balls doesn’t shrink from this. His only job outside politics was as a journalist at the Financial Times. Yet the pages of his book brim with real life experience and many interests outside politics.

Ten years ago I loathed Ed Balls. To me he represented all that was dreadful about politics under New Labour. That was because I failed to look beneath the surface and believed the conventional wisdom.

I now think it’s very sad that he is, for the moment at least, lost to the political world. In fact, I would go so far as to say that losing his seat may well be the best thing that ever happened to him. Serving as a Labour MP under Jeremy Corbyn would have been torture for him.

It’s sad that he’s no longer a leading Labour MP because I think that his experiences over the last few years would have prepared him well for the leadership of his party. Sadly, because of a past from which he could never escape, it was never going to happen. He’s got the intellect, the self-knowledge, the communicative ability and presence to have made a very good prime minister. Never say never, but it’s difficult to imagine the circumstances in which it will now happen, but we certainly haven’t heard the last of Ed Balls.

In fact, I suspect he is having the time of his life – lecturing at Harvard, chairing the board of Norwich City Football Club, Strictly Come Dancing contestant. But all these roles are transient.

Alastair Campbell left Downing Street in August 2003. Thirteen years later he has yet to take on a big role, concentrating instead on writing books, taking on various short term roles and earning money from public speaking. I’ve always thought he yearns for one more big role.

Ed Balls must avoid the danger of being seduced by short term enjoyment. He has a big role left in him, even if neither he nor I have a clue what it might be.

I usually only read political and football biographies. Some time ago I compiled a list of my favourite political books. Were I to compile such a list today I have no doubt that SPEAKING OUT would make the top twenty. It deserves to sell well, and if you are at all interest in the body politic, you should read it. I can almost guarantee you will both enjoy it and learn from it. It’s a book which should be read not only by current cabinet ministers, but everyone involved in politics at whatever level. I can’t recommend it too highly.

Buy can buy SPEAKING OUT from Politicos.co.uk HERE

UPDATE: I interviewed Ed Balls on the day his book was published. Well worth a watch IMHO!

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