Michael Talbot considers political memoirs and ideas
One of the strange delights of lockdown has been the ability to almost simultaneously attend multiple book launches and gallery ‘openings’ from the comfort of one’s home. I say delights, but what of course I really mean, is a delightful break in the monotony of the daily grind that has occurred, particularly in the latest lockdown. Whilst there is no replacement for a slightly warm glass of white wine and a tray of indistinguishable nibbles or the rubbing of shoulders with fellow enthusiasts, the boon in online arts events has at least allowed us to keep our interest piqued. Let us hope the popularity of such online events will mean that when we can again gather we will do so with gusto! It was on a rather unpromising evening that I found myself directed by a friend to the launch of Sir David Amess MP’s memoirs entitled ‘Ayes and Ears: A Survivor’s Guide to Westminster’. Sir David is indeed a survivor, he has been in the House of Commons since 1983, and what is also clear is that he has a love for the institution that is Parliament and he wants to see that survive as well. Whilst, I wasn’t initially quite sure why my friend had directed me to launch, all soon became clear. Sir David is a doughty defender of the Pro-Life cause and was joined at the launch by Lord Alton and Ann Widdecombe. Was I wondered my secret out? Had my friend discovered I was an avid fan of Strictly? I need not have worried, as it became clear I was going to enjoy the conversation and indeed be drawn deeper into understanding the important role our politicians can still have – perhaps especially those who are willing to take on ‘issues’ and fight for them.
The conversation was wide ranging and fascinating, there was no way that Alton and Widdecombe were going to let Sir David off with half answers or indeed half-truths. He was put through the ringer as the discussion moved from married priests (all 3 in favour having seen the impact convert Anglican clergy have had on the Roman Catholic Church), through issues of life, and on to what makes a good politician, and how the Palace of Westminster could be refurbished without the Commons moving out. It would be easy to characterise these three politicians as reactionary and old fashioned (and many people have done so) however I don’t think that is particularly justified or fair. What was presented to us were people who care for the world, who have lives of faith, and who see that their faith must have an impact on how they conduct their public discourse. Would that other politicians would do the same, and would it be that more might be elected to defend the rights not only of Christians but also of those who are vulnerable. The conversation lasted for over an hour and there were moments of real pragmatism. Widdecombe for example admitted that she did not have a problem with assisted dying in the case of those in great pain or who were terminally ill. She went on to say that, however, it would be impossible to stop the ‘runaway bus’ with no way of containing the provision. As Alton went on to comment simply put when this power is put into the hands of the doctor: the defender of life becomes the destroyer of life.
And what of the book? Well when I started watching despite having a room full of political biographies and memoirs I wasn’t sure I was going to add this one to the collection. However the discussion was so lively I wanted to learn more. The memoir is frank and honest and you can really hear Sir David’s voice in what he describes. There continues to be an enthusiasm for politics and particularly British parliamentary politics with is rather infectious. Whatever you make of his politics Sir David comes across as someone who has devoted his life’s work to public service as part of an institution which he, growing up could never have imagined he would a part. Sir David fearlessly speaks about his views and is not afraid to criticise colleagues, the historian (or should that be gossip columnist) in me does wonder whether locked in a vault is a version that names more of those with whom he has disagreed. Of course did have to wait until this year to read the full versions of his predecessor Chips Channon’s diaries.
As a way to pass an hour during lockdown watching the online book launch was entertaining and amusing, it also reminded me of the fragile nature of our political system and how we must continue to fight for the right of free speech. It also made me hope that younger politicians waiting in the wings had watched it; and might even read Sir David’s memoirs. They might not think they have much to learn from 3 veteran politicians but the truth us, if they don’t learn and we don’t listen, there may be rocky times ahead.
Michael Talbot writes on politics and reads political memoirs as a hobby. You can watch the virtual book launch at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_B2ZZcDDJyg