Tuesday, February 04, 2020

Haven't You Heard?, by Marie le Conte

Subtitled, "Gossip, Power and How Politics Really Works", this is an insightful and often funny insider's account of the informal processes of Parliament, written by a political journalist. She's read widely and spoken to a lot of people involved - many of them off the record - and the result feels comprehensive and right. The informal processes are what make the formal bits of Parliament work; often what happens in the Chamber is rubber-stamping officially the deals done in the corridors and over dinner or drinks, what's called the "usual channels".

There's loads that made me laugh out loud, such as Francis Wheen's anecdote about a Christmas party held by the Special Branch protection people where they invited those they protected. That included an odd assortment of people: Salman Rushdie, Enoch Powell, various former and some largely forgotten Ministers. One old hand in protection who was about to retire took the opportunity to say something to the man he'd been protecting for years:
"When it was the harvesting season [on this guest's farm], when the pigs were giving birth, they [the protection people] would all get raked in to do basically farm labouring jobs, and it turned out that he was by far the most unpopular person they'd ever protected. They all compared notes among themselves, and he said, 'I have spoken to my colleagues about this, we have taken a vote, and you are definitely the most unpleasant person we've guarded over the years.' This is very revealing, that only the protection officers would have realised quite how awful Tom King was." (p. 78)
I'm fascinated, too, by the changing culture described here - the way gossip and exposure has made people behave better out of fear. The authorities got noticeably better in the years I worked there on issues of harassment, on wandering hands, on intimidating behaviour - though there was clearly still more to be done. At the same time, rumours of an MP being gay could until recently end a political career.
"The late nineties were a point where the wind was still just about turning on the question of homosexuality. Section 28 was still in place, and when the Guardian commissioned a poll to try and shut the Sun up, it found that 52% of people thought being openly gay was compatible with holding a Cabinet position; though 52% is a majority, it can hardly be called a landslide." (p. 250)
There's some excellent side-eye in that last clause. But Le Conte also says the day after this report was published, the Sun announced it would no longer out gay politicians without overwhelming public interest.

There's lots more, but I might use it elsewhere - once I've compared notes with some former colleagues in politics. This book is an excellent excuse to go out for drinks with them...

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