Monday, March 24, 2008

Book Review: Ming Campbell's Memoirs

With all the things I have said about Ming Campbell's leadership of the LibDems in the past you might well expect me to pan his memoirs. Not a bit of it. I much enjoyed the book, which was, as one might expect, and elegant and well written read. One of my tests for a political memoir is whether I learned anything about the author I didn't know before. I have to be slightly equivocal in my answer in that I learned very little about his leadership of the LibDems I hadn't known previously. However, the chapters on his athletics career, his early years growing up in Glasgow and his legal career all told me a lot I never knew - and made me think it was a mistake by his advisers not to play this up and tell us more about Ming the Man.

The undoubted heroine of the book is Lady Elspeth. If I was organising a dinner party for twelve people I'd certainly want her as one of the guests. She combines a delightful penchant for indiscretion with a lioness-like protective instinct towards her husband.

Perhaps the most memorable chapter in the book is the one on Ming's recover from cancer. It's intensely moving and at times make for very difficult reading. I found myself with tears running down my face (not an unusual occurrence, as regular readers will know!) when he described the intense pain following chemo sessions. Although there was very much of the 'not wanting to make a fuss' approach and the adoption of a stiff upper lip, it is clear that the six months following the diagnosis were incredibly difficult both physically and emotionally.

This is very much a personal book, rather than a conventional political memoir. It outlines the authors feelings, perceptions and views of others. There is barely a mention of policy or political strategy. Everything is written through the prism of personality. It is the antithesis of Nigel Lawson's memoirs. I'm not saying this is necessarily a bad thing, but at times I did feel the need for a little more political analysis about why he or the LibDems found themselves in a particular quandary.

Ming is undoubtedly a man of personal courage, as evidenced by his approach to his illness. Politically, however, he castigates himself for not speaking up at one or two important political points - especially related to Charles Kennedy. As well he might, some would say. He was, after all, deputy leader. However, he and his colleagues were in uncharted waters. There was no guide book which mapped out a strategy for dealing with an alcoholic leader, a leader who they all liked and respected.

Perhaps the chapter on Ming's ill-fated leadership is the weakest in the book. It is full of the delusion that everything was really going quite well, and what was all the fuss about? There's no doubt that Ming's main achievement was to professionalise various aspects of the LibDems'party operations, but he never came to terms (still hasn't) that his public perception was nowhere near his perception of himself. He blames the issue of age for his downfall, and to an extent he is right. Could it have been different? I think so, but by the time he and his colleagues decided to confront the issue head on it was too late. The public, led by a visceral media, had already made up its mind. I look back at some of my own blog postings on this issue and have to admit to feeling a sense of shame. Age can be an asset. It can be a hindrance but I think we all went OTT in our comments on Ming's age. It's something I now regret.

I have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone. I very much enjoyed it and hope you will too. Buy it HERE.

18 comments:

The Remittance Man said...

Age and experience can indeed be an asset, especially when confronted by far younger opponents. Sir Ming and his advisors failed to capitalise on this, leaving him looking like a rather nice, but doddery old gent completely lost in today's Wesminster.

Politics s a cruel and nasty game and Sir Ming and the LibDems suffered for forgetting that.

Anonymous said...

Iain, why would you pan it when you can recommend it and get commission from anyone buying it through your amazon affiliate links? ;)

Iain Dale said...

If you really think I would praise I book I loathe just to get about 20p commission then I wonder why you ever read this blog!

neil craig said...

"There was no guide book which mapped out a strategy for dealing with an alcoholic leader, a leader who they all liked and respected."0

Ghurchill?
I think you mean that our modern PC age makes no allowance for what might be called human weakness or might just be called being a human being rather than a cardboard cutout.

I think Lincoln's reply when told that Grant should be fired because he drank - that they find out what brand & give it to his other generals - is appropriate.

Anonymous said...

No doubt, at your dinner party, one of your other guests would be that other failed politician.
Steele.....that would be interesting!!!

Why on earth you give so much space to the Lib Dems is beyond me.

mutleythedog said...

I'm not buying it so pfffft to you!

man in a council flat said...

Mick Jagger is two years younger than Ming, but is 64 going on 30 not 66 going on 80.

That was his problem.

captain cupcake said...

If you get such poor commission, then why do you sell books through this site at all?

The observation that you have a vested interest in the book is clearly valid from the fact that you end the review with an attempt to sell it.

You protest too much.

Anonymous said...

A good review Iain..I agree with you...Ming was undervalued...His track record and that of his wife's father takes some beating. Martin

stuart said...

Anon at 1.47pm: more than a fifth of the electorate back the LibDems to run the country, so it's not a surprise that Iain gives the party some coverage on his blog, be it positive, negative or indifferent coverage.

Anonymous said...

captain cupcake said...

If you get such poor commission, then why do you sell books through this site at all?

The observation that you have a vested interest in the book is clearly valid from the fact that you end the review with an attempt to sell it.

You protest too much.

Most of us who write blogs offer items for sale which are relevant to what we write - however tiny the return. There are items in my own recommendations which are out of print and offered through amazon sellers for £0.01 (plus their £2.75 postage, whatever the weight!) Not much commission for me there but I believe them to be good and want my readers to know about them.

Iain will do better than most due to the sheer volume of readers he attracts but the commission is small, political biographies are seldom big sellers and this book is competing with all the others he offers at a time when a lot of people seem to be cutting back on their spending anyway.

Me may endorse - and even sell - Ming's memoirs but I doubt if he'll be taking early retirement on the strength of them.

neil craig said...

Even in purely commercial terms Iain would be a fool to reccomend a bad book since it would reduce sails on future books he reccomends.

I do not believe he is a fool.

Anonymous said...

"If I was organising a dinner party for twelve people I'd certainly want her as one of the guests."

Faint praise. You draw the line at 12? Too dull for an 11-person dinner party?

Philip said...

The delusional bit about thinking his leadership was going swimmingly while everyone else could see a car crash in slow motion is v. reminiscent of IDS, another decent bloke who couldn't cut it as a party leader.

Anonymous said...

So nice to hear, Iain, that you now regret the unpleasant remarks you and others made about Ming. What a shame that when it mattered, this sense of fair play or decency never got in your way.

Anonymous said...

Pssssst, Mr Dale, I make it over £1 commission per sale (at the Amazon direct link base rate of 7.5%) rather than the paltry 20p you mentioned.

It is valid to point out that you do make money on such reviews.

Anonymous said...

Given the average age in the House of Lords is nearly 68, and they seem to do a grand job on very detailed work, I think we should all be ashamed of being ageist.

But in the culture of the 24 hour media there is also a bias in favour of good looking and tall leaders - and the fact that there is a woman and a black man in the running for the presidency is so newsworthy tells us that in running for leadership, image matters.

Like some of the other posters I do think you should be declaring your interest about the book commission - it is rather tawdry not to on the basis that you think it is 'not a large amount'. Let us be the judge of that, sunshine, or you will be just like those other 'log-rollers' you read about in Private Eye..

SBS said...

"IDS, another decent bloke who couldn't cut it as a party leader."

Rubbish! IDS was an utter bastard during the Major years. He asked his party for loyalty to him as leader, which was utterly hypocritical.

Decent? A man who lied about his degree and his job history in Who's Who?

And I haven't even started on IDS's rather right wing political views...