Book review: Speaking Out
Ed Balls provides a Brownite version of recent Labour history and some fascinating observations about the role of civil servants.
The “Portillo moment” in the 2015 election was the film footage of Ed Balls losing his parliamentary seat. Obviously a cheery moment for Conservatives, but also one suspects, for many Labour members including some MPs.
Ed Balls has always been a “marmite” politician who was central to New Labour and as a close adviser to Gordon Brown. As Shadow Chancellor to Ed Miliband one could sense a loss of power and influence. But in the nature of his defeat Ed Balls has found grace, and has thrown himself into his love of cooking, football, music and his family, and returned to his North American academic roots. His “hinterland”, to use Denis Healey’s phrase, even includes participating in “Strictly Come Dancing”.
Speaking Out is a title that encapsulates both his robust approach to ideas and politics and his mastering of his stammer. By writing this memoir he is effectively drawing a line under his active political career so it is a natural time for reflection. Interestingly, George Osborne so ruthlessly sacked by Theresa May, is not following David Cameron in resigning his seat or writing his autobiography. Too soon and too much of a political obituary for George who believes he is young enough, still committed to parliamentary politics, and like Churchill believes that eventually his talents will come back into fashion.
Your reviewer must admit a connection with Ed Balls as his family and background are important to him. Like Ed Balls I was born in Norwich and like his mother mine also went to the Notre Dame Girls Catholic Grammar School. His uncle, John, his father’s brother, taught me English at my Grammar School.
Ed rather misses out that his father was a leading left winger in Norfolk Labour politics and passionately campaigned for the abolition of grammar schools. Moving to Nottingham he sent his children to schools he had campaigned against.
But this is nit-picking. Setting aside Ed’s natural desire to tell a positive story of his political career, the achievements of the Blair/Brown governments, and a defensive if not protective account of Gordon Brown, this memoir is an interesting and easy read – unlike many such memoirs.
He takes an original and effective approach of developing his autobiography through themes rather than a traditional time line – first part entitled “learning who you are” has “defeat”, “loyalty”, “family”, “vulnerability”, “friendships” and “flowers”.
The second part entitled “leaving what works” has “reform”, “markets”, “change”, “control” and so on through two more parts. This necessarily means some moving backwards and forwards and a little repetition.
Ed Balls can be self-depreciating and is good at anecdotes and amusing asides. So what do we learn from Speaking Out?
The importance of tribal loyalty – family, football and the Labour Party. He is concerned that all fundamental issues in politics come down to economics, as he reiterates near the end “take care of the economics and the politics will follow; get the economics wrong, and the politics will go out of control”.
He is keen to give a Brownite version of the famous leadership deal with Blair, and that the Brown/Blair relationship in government never completely collapsed. His explanation is that there were differences, but the media exaggerated them and Brown was the victim of Blairite supporters. This is a version that contrasts sharply with nearly all the published books in the Blair/Brown relationship, and indeed the claims that Ed Balls dominated Brown and was the leading Brownite thug.
There is some fascinating observations about the role of civil servants and how to use them to implement policy. He says that Brown was never good at making the civil service machine work for him. Speaking from experience he observes that there is a danger at the top of only trusting a small group of advisers. I was struck by Ed Balls comment that after 2001 the NHS and the Euro were the main focus for Brown’s Treasury not Iraq or Afghanistan.
Understandably he wants to emphasise his personal successes, including advising on the independence of the Bank of England, remaining outside the Euro and achievements when he was the Cabinet Minister responsible for Education.
Balls has a grudging respect for Osborne, hostility towards Gove and Cameron, and criticism bordering on contempt for Corbyn. His final chapters entitled “purpose” and “future” are reflective and whilst somewhat anodyne recognise a general crisis of confidence in the political and business establishment by the electorate and the challenges for traditional political parties.