I’ve been reading Michael Foot’s entertaining 1980 book ‘Debts of Honour,’ which contains brief biographical sketches of an eclectic mix of people Foot admired and indeed, as the title suggests, felt some debt to. They range from Disraeli to Paine, Beaverbrook to Defoe. The range and scale of Foot’s interests and his wit and intelligence illuminate these mostly long departed characters’ lives. The year of publication is interesting, or perhaps just coincidence. It came out shortly before his election as Labour Party leader, so for those of an enquiring mind, they would have been able to discern more intimately perhaps what kind of leader they were going to get.
Foot was not the first politician to write in this fairly rare genre. In 1957, in a career enhancing move, JFK wrote ‘Profiles in Courage’ (although some suggest it was ghost written for him by Arthur Schlesinger, his speechwriter) which looked at the lives of eight Americans and won a Pulitzer Prize. Long after Foot, and perhaps seeking to replicate the JFK magic, our very own Gordon Brown wrote ‘Courage: Eight Portraits’, published in 2007, just as Brown was becoming Labour Party leader. The multi-biographical format lends itself to self-promotion, the author very prominently identifying him or herself with the heroes written about. Perhaps some of the magic is intended to rub off – ‘these great people have influenced me more than I can say (but I’ll say it anyway).' I don’t apply the last cynical comment to Foot of course – he was a genuinely good writer, worth reading for his own sake. Other much less substantial figures have employed the broader biographical genre to promote themselves. Boris Johnson, for example penned ‘The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History.’ (‘It reads at times like a mixture of Monty Python and the Horrible Histories’ – D. Telegraph) In Johnson’s case, to paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bentsen’s put down of Dan Quayle in the 1988 U.S. presidential campaign: ‘Mr Johnson – I knew Winston Churchill, and you’re no Winston Churchill.’
But for a serious politician, I can’t see it would do any harm to pen an admiring book about one’s heroes. It is now clearly Corbyn’s turn to switch his word processor on and get to it. Who made him who he is today? This would be an opportunity to counter-act the impression that the only people he hangs out with are murderous terrorists who believe the state of Israel should be destroyed. There are risks of course: the book would probably be peer reviewed in the Daily Mail by ‘Lord’ Jonathan Sacks, seeking hints of irony. It would be panned in the D. Telegraph as a Marxist tract. The National Allotments Association, whilst broadly welcoming it would nevertheless question whether in 1978 the winner of the biggest marrow competition (OAP Section) was indeed a Czech spy.
Don’t be deterred Jeremy. Get the book written.