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11th July 2024

Review: Theresa May’s Abuse of Power: “One of the best of prime ministerial memoirs”

Christopher Jackson

 

The memoir by the departed leader has evolved a little since Winston Churchill’s confident predictions regarding his own six volume account of his own premiership, “History shall be kind to me, as I intend to write it.” No PM today would expect to have the field to themselves quite as Churchill did.

Nevertheless, we expect to hear from our prime ministers once they leave office – nowadays, this usually occurs just after Sir Anthony Seldon has told us, with his usual authority, what really happened – warts and all. In terms of UK Prime Ministers, the worst for my money is Tony Blair’s A Journey which could certainly have done with a proper edit, and the best is arguably by the man whom he defeated in 1997, Sir John Major. The biggest difficulty with the genre is that what one has to say will usually in some way impact the current incumbent, and most people who have been PM have such a vivid memory of the difficulty of the job that they have no wish to make daily life any harder on their successor than it is already likely to be.

But there are other problems: one is practical, and the other moral. Practically, the writer needs to be discreet about many decisions, often leading to a banal narrative as happened in the case of Bill Clinton who may well be accused of having written the most boring book of all time in the shape of My Life.

Morally speaking, one must justify one’s tenure while also avoid looking too self-serving. Typically the man – or woman – of action won’t have the literary experience to walk such a tightrope.

Theresa May has bypassed all this and written one of the best of prime ministerial memoirs. She has done so largely by taking herself out of the equation. The quality and originality of this book is somewhat unexpected: May was never known when prime minister for her fluency as a speaker. In fact, the office seems often to have constricted her powers of expression, and the reader will sometimes wish that if she could think and write like this, that she should have done so more freely when she was the nation’s leader. At a recent Finito event she gave a brilliant exposition of her social care policy – the very same policy which she had once struggled to elucidate on the campaign trail in 2017.

The point about May is that she was the most moral prime minister since Gladstone. Had things gone a little differently – especially had she not called that disastrous Snap General Election in 2017 – I think she had the work ethic, the quiet vision, and the character to be a great prime minister. Her grasp of detail was second to none. Brexit wouldn’t have been done without her hard work, and I don’t know of anybody on any side of the political divide who doesn’t admire her stance on modern slavery. Which politician since Wilberforce has found an issue of such importance and done so much to raise it in the public awareness?

This memoir then, which is both brilliantly written and full of a central truth which we need to heed, is partly a reminder of what might have been. But it’s more than that – because it tells us what we have become. The book begins with May leaving office and adjusting to life outside Number 10:

Having more time to think about my experience enabled me to consider the themes that underpinned the issues I encountered. Because, although in some sense every problem or opportunity I dealt with was different, over time I started to understand the similarities between them and to recognise more clearly what had driven behaviours and hence outcomes.

 

And what was this? It was, writes May, a fundamental misunderstanding about the very nature of power and politics. She argues powerfully throughout this book that we have lost our sense of service in relation to others; further, she states that this is especially the case when it comes to decision-makers. This insight becomes a sort of skeleton key which unlocks a huge amount of what we have seen over the past 14 years, and it is certainly not confined to the Conservatives, though I note in passing that I think Sir Keir Starmer would surely agree with its central thesis.

What May is describing is exactly the sort of immorality pandemic which Starmer made the centre of his first speech outside 10 Downing Street on 5th June. May explains the problem in its entirety in her excellent introduction:

By personal interest, I don’t mean personal financial interest. This is much wider than that. It is about seeking to further your own interests, protecting your position, ensuring you can’t be blamed, making yourself look good, protecting your power and in so doing keeping yourself in power.

 

May has placed her finger on the problem, and she is also the right person to be sending out this message. Whatever was said about her when Prime Minister, I don’t recall anyone saying that she was out for herself.

This is partly due to her upbringing. I have always felt a sense of sympathy towards May because of what happened to her parents, and also often wondered at her quiet strength regarding it. Her father’s death in a car accident and her mother’s death from Multiple Sclerosis at a time when there were far fewer treatments than there are today cannot help but be central biographical facts. Not only has she navigated them, but she has done so without trying to gain popularity by her having done so. This dignity is extremely rare – and was mistaken for froideur when she held the highest office in the land.

But in Abuse of Power she writes elegantly about what growing up as the daughter of a vicar means to her:

 

Perhaps the background of growing up as a vicar’s daughter is not so far removed from the requirements of being a senior politician as it might at first seem. As a child of the vicarage, you are not just yourself, and you are not just seen as representing your parents (although when your father is the local vicar, that is more significant than it is for most children). Like it or not, you are also a representative of a wider body – the Church.

This observation enables May to make an admission that wouldn’t be so powerful had it not just been shored up with her understanding of how the world works: “There were times [when a senior politician] when I stopped myself from making a funny aside or what I thought was a humorous quip because it could have been taken out of context,” she writes.

She did play it safe this respect – and she did so too much. I’m sure she sometimes reflects that she might have been braver in showing the electorate who she really was.

But though it is too late for that, it’s not too late for this book. If we accept that this form of naked individualism has become a problem, then by applying that insight to the problems of the day, we can begin to see that problem’s scale. Whether she is looking at Hillsborough or Primodos, at Putin and Ukraine or at Grenfell, the idea that power has been abused is an effective microscope by which to see what has really been going on. The effect is of a light shone on public life – and therefore on us for allowing the perpetrators to be there.

Nor is this book without answers. Towards the end of it she writes:

 

I referred earlier to there being too many careerist politicians in Parliament today. I was reminded of this in a conversation I had recently with a young woman who showed an interest in politics. I said we needed more good women in Parliament, and asked if she was interested in becoming an MP. She had indeed given it some thought and was not dismissing the possibility, but she wanted to know how to become a Cabinet minister. This misses the point. The core of an MP’s job is providing service for their constituents. Anyone who doesn’t see that as good enough in itself is failing to understand the essence of our democracy.

‘Dismissing the possibility’ is very good – it amounts to a very telling character sketch in three words. It’s one of many insights in an important book which I hope the huge number of new MPs will read. May’s premiership has some of the hallmarks of a missed opportunity, but this book doesn’t repeat that error. It’s both a powerful indictment of our core motives as a society and, in its implications, a call to arms for us to do better. And when it comes to that, as I’m sure Sir Keir Starmer would agree, there’s no time like the present.

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