by David Torrance

Political Biographers Wanted: Thick Skins Required

May 12, 2011 | by David Torrance

A colleague of mine used to have, pinned to her computer monitor, the following rules for good political writing:

Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Never use the passive where you can use the active.

Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

They are, of course, from George Orwell’s 1946 essay, ‘Politics and the English Language’, and in more than a decade of political ‘writing’ of one sort or another, I have probably broken – and continue to break – all five. Orwell did add a caveat, ‘Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous’, but even that does not absolve me of guilt.

Orwell was, generally speaking, gloomy about the genre, a sentiment unconsciously echoed by Gerry Hassan in the Scotsman last month. ‘Mainstream Scotland, in our politics, academia, policy and public discussion,’ he wrote, ‘seems incapable of having serious, reflective conversations about ideas which move beyond managerial jargon and the kind of clichés beloved of consultants. He went on to lament the ‘profound lack of books on politics, ideas and policy which have been original, brave or that marked out and identified a new area or direction’.

Hassan has a point. The devolution of power, we were told ad nauseam more than a decade ago, would change all that. Well, it has not. ‘One of the unfortunate effects of devolution’, noted Paul Hutcheon in 2004, ‘has been the splurge of bad books on the parliament.’ Far from elevating political writing, devolution has had the same stultifying effect on that as on public policy in general. Yet Hutcheon and Hassan ignore two related, but crucial, factors: the market (I know, how terribly un-Scottish of me) and, perhaps more importantly, capacity.

The sad truth is that political books simply do not sell in Scotland; if a non-academic tome shifts more than 1,000 copies then it is doing well. Publishers are therefore naturally cautious about taking on political projects, however worthy. On the second point I depart from Hassan’s optimistic conclusion that ‘Scots have not lost their invention and imagination’. On the contrary, I simply do not believe the capacity (or rather audience) for good political writing exists in Scotland.

This is especially so with my chosen medium of biography, a field so barren that I am practically the only person attempting it. I make no claim to any great talent in this but it says something significant about Scot-land that it took until 2010 for anyone to produce a biography of Alex Salmond, arguably the country’s most important post-war political figure. Unlike literary biography, political biography as a discipline simply is not taken seriously.

In a perceptive 1989 lecture, the late Ben Pimlott mused that biographers generally got a rough ride, their ‘aims, style, methods and ethics’ almost never being examined. ‘Reviews of biography generally do little more then summarize the life in question,’ he added, ‘with a pat or a kick for the author.’ Indeed it is tough, slaving over a book for a year or two only for it to be dismissed in a sentence or two by reviewers. But then biographers need thick skins, much like their subjects.

The main purpose of the genre, as Pimlott observed, is ‘to tell a story that will make the reader happier, sadder, even a bit wiser’. A couple of critics pulled me up for not revealing much that was ‘new’ about Salmond, which surely confused the role of a biographer with that of a journalist. The aim, again in the words of Pimlott, ‘should be to understand an individual life, the forces that shape it and the motives that drive it, in the context in which it is placed’. Indeed, Roy Jenkins’ masterful 2001 life of Churchill managed to be the best single-volume biography of the great man without containing any original material.

My forte (I like to think) is diligent research and a straightforward narrative style augmented with the minimum necessary analysis. I am not a prose stylist. I prefer, in short, to play a straight bat. My first book, The Scottish Secretaries provided a series of pen portraits of the holders of that office (although there was a subtext, that the ancien regime had not been as bad as all that), while my second, an authorized biography of George Younger, was, I admit, a rather old-fashioned effort drawing heavily on people, places and papers. Only with my third book, ‘We in Scotland’ – Thatcherism in a Cold Climate, did I attempt an argument, but then that was not really a biography at all, more a revisionist account of an important period in contemporary Scottish history.

I reverted to the straight bat for last year’s Salmond: Against the Odds. Now I could, had I been so inclined, have used this as a vehicle for Nat-bashing, or indeed for Nat-praising, but that, given it concerned a serving politician, would have been both counter-productive and self-serving, not to mention a biographical sin. A measure of success could be gauged by the mixed response to the book; some people told me they thought more of Salmond having read it, others less. Meanwhile, SNP reviewers, conscious that I was responsible for a number of Tory-leaning titles, searched for Unionist bias in vain. With a divisive figure like Alex Salmond, the case for a dispassionate reading of his life was overwhelming.

So, did my account of Salmond’s life and career ‘extract the treasures and seal up the tombs,’ as Roy Jenkins once wrote, ‘never to be opened again’? Probably not, and nor could it have striven for such finality. That said I doubt I will read another effort in my lifetime. Academics are, well, too busy with academia, and journalists too preoccupied with their next deadline. Besides ‘the market’, such as it is, simply would not be able to cope with two unauthorized biographies of Mr Salmond, no matter how well written or researched. This is odd. Cast an eye south of the border and bookshops heave with competing portraits of Blair and Brown.

Over the Irish Sea, the contrast is also striking. For an independent nation with two million fewer inhabitants than Scot-land, Ireland has a remarkable audience for political writing. Informed polemics, such as Fintan O’Toole’s recent Enough is Enough: How to Build a New Republic, regularly make the Irish Times’ bestseller list, shifting units that ought to have Scottish writers of non-fiction reaching for the Guinness. The historian Tom Devine has observed that whereas Ireland has produced a plethora of books on the 2008 economic crash, Scotland hasn’t managed a single study. It comes back to my earlier point about capacity. Scots, curiously, are not prone to self-analysis; we simply wouldn’t attempt such books and no one would buy them. Perhaps, and here’s an uncomfortable thought, it takes a catastrophe (whether economic or historical) before a nation develops the capacity for critical, penetrating political prose.

It is, therefore, difficult to see the situation in Scotland changing soon, while the future of publishing offers little comfort for authors who specialize in politics. Already sales of e-books are reaching market-altering levels in Scotland, the U.K. and around the world. If this is viable for high-selling novels by the likes of Alexander McCall Smith, then it may well be the only way forward for volumes such as Gerry Hassan’s recent Radical Scotland: Arguments for Self-Determination, with their modest print runs and equally modest profits.

What would Orwell make of political writing such as that contained within Radical Scotland? I suspect he’d object to the use of the word ‘radical’ for a start, so often posited as a good thing in its own right. Fiscal autonomy and even independence – both explored in the book – are not, I would argue, in themselves ‘radical’, although both would certainly allow for ‘radical’ policy making. Too often constitutional change is posited as a radical act in itself. Although there are fine ideas in Hassan’s collection, few essays make genuinely ‘radical’ arguments, while the absence of any right-of-centre perspectives speaks for itself (whatever happened to the radical right?) Dear Mr Harper: The Autobiography of Robin Harper, meanwhile, is a curious mixture of memoir and manifesto which I’m sure would have intrigued Orwell, to whom environmental politics would have been another world.

Perhaps the Harpers of Scottish publishing are more likely to survive than the Hassans (and Torrances) in the digital era. Indeed, with printing and binding costs removed, Scotland could return to Orwell’s vision of plentiful, if not necessarily high-quality, political writing. That said, I cannot imagine enjoying reading, a book whose pages I cannot physically turn. Especially so with biography, for part of the pleasure in reading a good single-volume biography comes from the impression that you are, in a way, holding that person’s ‘life’ in your hands.

That feeling will be lost once e-books replace the traditional format. But I suppose something has to give. In his 1989 ‘manifesto for political biography’ Ben Pimlott implored future biographers to think outside the box, to develop new methods of charting the lives of the great, the good, and perhaps even the not so good. I claim no innovation in that respect, yet cannot help concurring with his warning that ‘our work, unless we do something urgently about it, is in danger of ending high on the shelves of secondhand bookshops – magisterial, dusty and forgotten’.


DEAR MR HARPER: THE AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF ROBIN HARPER
Robin Harper
BIRLINN, £16.99 224PP ISBN 978-1841589343

RADICAL SCOTLAND: ARGUMENTS FOR SELF-DETERMINATION
Gerry Hassan
LUATH PRESS, £12.99 288PP ISBN 978-1906817947

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