Julian Glover is the Guardian’s assistant news editor (politics). He edited the Guardian Companion to the General Election 2001 and the Guardian Guide to Parliament.
1. My Early Life by Winston Churchill
The man who was probably Britain’s greatest prime minister (he certainly saw himself as such) was also writer of a great many books. Most have failed to stand the test of time: critics who once acclaimed him as an impartial historian now point out how he used a series of memoirs about the second world war to enhance his own reputation and undermine the work of people he disliked. But My Early Life, the book that made his reputation as a writer, is different. It’s sensational stuff, taking the author from the mountains of Afghanistan via the last great cavalry charge of the British army to a Boer prison and being hunted with a reward on his head. A pacy return to the days when Britain really did rule the waves.
2. Diaries: In Power by Alan Clark
Alan Clark’s diaries were so good that Edwina Currie attempted to copy them. The result, in her case, was less than impressive but his book will be read in a century’s time thanks to its stylish writing, acute observation and dashes of insanity. The author’s political judgement was terrible and his vanity seemingly endless but he caused a stir and not only because of his fixation on sex. The first volume of his diaries, published later as Diaries: Into Politics, are much less interesting because the author has less to describe, even though they are just as well written. The third volume, just published, is made painful by the author’s description of his slow death from brain cancer.
3. The Downing Street Years and The Path to Power by Margaret Thatcher
Alan Clark suggested to Lady Thatcher that he write her memoirs for her. Sadly she turned him down. As a result the two fat volumes that record the rise and fall of Britain’s only female prime minister lack the excitement of her premiership. They read like they were produced by committee – effectively they were, with the bulk of the writing done by two assistants. Some cynics doubt she has even read parts of her books. Nonetheless they were both political sensations when they were published, with criticism in the second volume playing a large part in John Major’s extraordinary decision to resign and fight his own party for the leadership in 1995.
4. Glimmers of Twilight by Joe Haines (not yet published)
Joe Haines was the Alastair Campbell of the 1960s and 70s: a pushy prime ministerial press secretary who became a political figure in his own right. His name has faded since and his memoirs have yet to find a publisher – “too libellous,” according to one – but the Daily Mail has just serialised the most sensational passages. In them, Haines said that Harold Wilson’s doctor offered to “dispose” of the prime minister’s secretary, Marcia Williams, to avoid news of her affair with the prime minister reaching the public. Haines also revealed an alleged plot to out the supposed homosexuality of the Liberal leader, Jeremy Thorpe, in order to scupper Thorpe’s plans to form a coalition government with Ted Heath. But the best line – recently dismissed by Lady Falkender (as she is now) as “beyond belief” – comes from Lady Falkender herself. She is said to have marched into the opposition leader’s office in the House of Commons and walked up to the prime minister’s wife. “I have only one thing to say to you. I went to bed with your husband six times and it wasn’t satisfactory.” Bet Edwina never said that to Norma.
5. The Autobiography by John Major
I helped write this book and in so doing got to see the memoir business from the inside. In the year before publication journalists speculated constantly and at length about the shocking book Major was supposedly writing. When it was published all the stories in advance were proved wrong but the book shocked in another way: it was readable, human and interesting. As a result the myth of the grey prime minister stared to crumble but it took another book, Edwina Currie’s diaries, to smash it completely.
6. Chips: the Diaries of Sir Henry Channon (ed Robert Rhodes James)
Chips Channon was a minor, rightwing politician of the late 1930s who moved in gilded circles, but his diaries – heavily edited and published after his death – have made him one of the best-remembered politicians of the period. He captures ambition perfectly – his own and that of others – and records the style of a pre-war London that was about to be changed completely by the second world war. The abdication crisis, the war and the early postwar years are all described beautifully. But there is a major omission. When the diaries were being edited, by a Conservative MP and would-be historian, Sir Robert Rhodes James, Chips’s son Paul was building a political career of his own. As a result a central part of Chips was deleted from the published edition: his homosexuality. His bittersweet affair with a Yugoslavian prince is only hinted at. The full diaries still exist. One day they will be honestly edited and Chips can cause scandal all over again.
7. Breaking the Code: Westminster Diaries by Gyles Brandreth
A comic-turned-MP, Brandreth’s diaries record his time as a junior whip in John Major’s failing government. The book never quite got the attention it deserved. Badly-edited, overlong and printed with a cover that puts all but dedicated readers off, the book is worth a second look. The author reveals in better detail than anyone else how parliament worked in the 1990s and along the way rakes up plenty of gossip about the Tory figures who fell from grace at the time.
8. Diaries 1940-2002 (The Benn Diaries and Free At Last!) by Tony Benn
Not every front-rank politician writes an autobiography but Tony Benn has more than made up for the omission with the multivolume edition of his diaries. Covering his entire active life, the books record a changing Britain, a changing Labour party and a changing man. The Anthony Wedgwood-Benn of the early pages becomes first Viscount Stansgate and then plain Tony Benn. Along the way he exposes both his own weaknesses and those of the Labour party; never more so than when he was a cabinet minister in the 1970s.
9. Journals of the Reigns of George IV, William IV and Queen Victoria by Charles Greville
The first modern political diarist, Charles Greville was a clerk to the privy council who told all in 1865. Queen Victoria was said to have complained that he had shown “disloyalty towards his sovereign”, while Disraeli called the book “a social outrage”. A century and a bit later and he would have received a fat fee from the Daily Mail.
10. The Time of My Life by Denis Healey
Healey was such a bruiser in real life that nothing he said in retrospect could really shock but this autobiography, one of the most readable by a postwar politician, grabbed the headlines nonetheless. In part this was because of the uncompromising picture the author painted of a period in which Labour went from being the natural party of government to a party near death, and in part because of the way Healey treated his former colleagues. By describing George Brown, foreign secretary under Wilson between 1966 and 1968, like this – “the strain of acting as psychiatric nurse to a patient who was often violent became intolerable” – he set the tone for books to come, creating a whole new genre of political revenge writing.