Postwar prime-ministerial memoirs are a mixed bag. The news that David Cameron has signed a contract to write his and is already hard at work on them prompts me, presumptuously, to offer him some advice from an historian’s perspective.
Churchill was explicit. ‘This is not history,’ he told Bill Deakin, the ghostwriter for his six-volume history of the Second World War. ‘This is my case.’ In his superb five-volume history of the First World War Churchill had established a precedent in the 1920s for writing thinly veiled autobiography and presenting it as history. ‘Winston has written an enormous book about himself’, joked Arthur Balfour, ‘and called it The World Crisis.’ Many people think The World Crisis (1923–31) the best of all his books, although for sheer literary brilliance nothing can beat the book of memoirs he was next to write, My Early Life (1930), which took him from his birth in 1874 to his first years in Parliament in the early 1900s. Yet whereas Churchill’s literary talents – he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1953 – meant that he could get away with it, far too many premiers who have followed him have merely presented their cases without bothering to make their books readable.
Readability was evidently not the first thing on the mind of Harold Macmillan, whose six large volumes of memoirs represent autobiographical overkill. He was an important prime minister who led a full and fascinating life, but he wasn’t Churchill and to impose six volumes on the public betrays the vanity of the professional publisher. At the other end of the spectrum, Clement Attlee’s memoirs, As It Happened (1954), were, perhaps in deliberate contrast with his predecessor Churchill’s, very short, in keeping with his taciturn character. ‘I am afraid they are not very good,’ he told his brother Tom. Alec Douglas-Home’s one-volume autobiography, The Way the Wind Blows (1976), was similarly brief. It was also extraordinarily light on politics: ‘It tells you a lot,’ joked Rab Butler, ‘about fishing.’
When it comes to political memoirs, timing is everything. Prime ministers should not put pen to paper until they retire. Harold Wilson’s The Labour Government 1964–70: A Personal Record was published as early as 1971, when Wilson was still leader of the opposition and hoping to become prime minister again. This meant that he was unable to present an objective view of his career. The result was the first of the modern blight of premiers’ memoirs that seek to prove the author was right about everything. Prime ministers who claim infallibility totally undermine their own cases.
If memoirs should not be written when the politician is still in the midst of battle, neither should they be composed once the sound and fury have completely died away. The problem with Edward Heath’s memoirs, The Course of My Life, was that they were not written until 1998, nearly a quarter of a century after his premiership had ended in ignominy and failure. They were well ghosted and not as bitter and ill-tempered as many were expecting. There was even an occasional and unexpected rueful tone of self-knowledge. But the passage of time seems to have hardened his conviction that he too was right about everything.
Another prime minister with a particular agenda was Anthony Eden. His three volumes of memoirs, Facing the Dictators, The Reckoning and Full Circle, are by and large highly readable. However, the final volume is fatally weakened by the failure in his account of the Suez Crisis to mention the all-important fact of Britain and France’s secret collusion with Israel before the attack on Egypt. This omission casts doubt on the credibility of the whole enterprise. (On the other hand, his charming memoir of his early life, Another World, about his pre-Great War upbringing in County Durham and especially his eccentric baronet father, is a forgotten gem.)
What readers really want is an insight into the character of the person who has held the highest political office in the land. They can get the details about his or her legislative achievements from official biographers or political historians. Prime ministerial memoirs ought to provide insights into what the occupant of Number 10 was thinking, hoping and fearing, rather than the details of their prices and incomes policies.
From this perspective, Margaret Thatcher’s two volumes of autobiography, The Path to Power and The Downing Street Years, were not altogether successful. While they were well edited and infused with good jokes (thought up by such wits as John O’Sullivan and Norman Stone), there was much more on the public sector borrowing requirement than on the private thoughts of the first woman premier.
Other prime-ministerial memoirs have offered more of an insight into the personality of the leader. James Callaghan’s memoirs, Time and Chance (1987), found the correct balance between the author’s childhood (which readers are interested in, even if authors often aren’t), his life before politics as an able seaman, and his holding of all four of the great offices of state, invariably in times of crisis. They were a tour de force. Tony Blair’s memoirs were likewise very revealing, despite their corny title, A Journey. (The titles of political memoirs are almost always boring: John Major’s autobiography was called John Major: The Autobiography, a title as interesting and exciting as the man.) Blair’s memoirs were a rollicking read and were full of the inner life of the man. This was because he wrote the whole book himself, with a fountain pen, and didn’t leave the job to a team of researchers and ghostwriters, as some other prime ministers have done. The book has an immediacy and it will last.
If David Cameron admits to mistakes and failures, his memoirs will carry far more credibility than those of prime ministers who refuse to do so. If he writes them as though he were a normal person who happened to be so successful at his chosen profession that he got to the top of it, rather than as a politician who has to try to win every battle, his book will be read long after the issues and debates that dominated his leadership (even Brexit) have been forgotten. Sales, advances and reviews don’t matter in prime-ministerial memoirs; the only thing that counts is whether they are still read fifty or a hundred years hence. They have to have a literary and personal quality far removed from the sometimes rather banal subjects discussed. Too often, prime ministers come across like Mr Pooter in their memoirs: Harold Wilson boasted about setting up the Open University and installing Catseyes in the middle of road; John Major pointed to his cones hotline for motorways.
It’s a tall order to defeat what I call the Curse of the Premoirs.