“I had qualms, you know, because it’s a huge challenge, but I wrote four memoirs – I was tired of writing about myself. I had these ideas for novels, and although the memoirs won me many awards, and I was very proud of them, I don’t think you can really call yourself a writer until you’ve developed the plot and character and does all the stuff that I loved reading.
“You need a challenge. Some people decide to sail around the world, others
people climb Mount Kilimanjaro – for me that was writing fiction. Could I do it? Could I create this imaginary world? “. The aforementioned Disraeli, he
points out, “was a fair fiction writer as Prime Minister”.
He speaks fondly of his former English teacher, Peter Carling, to whom he dedicated the first volume of his memoirs. A writer passionate about short films
as children, Johnson was encouraged by Carling to submit them to publishers and reminded him, as they were inevitably rejected one by one, that all great writers could decorate their walls with rejection slips.
“The thing with Mr. Carling, which I found when I published This boymy first memoir is that I quickly realized that this guy who introduced me to poetry, took the children to the theater at his own expense, encouraged me to write,
made me read Dickens and Arnold Bennett – he didn’t remember anything about me.
“Why would he? He had thousands of children who went through it.
His second novel is an entertaining police procedural thriller, not without clichés (the police are “the boys in blue”, a wine-drinking character “looks at the pale gold liquid in his glass”), but a readable and satisfying page-turner. .
Although it is not (as its title suggests) a political work, there is politics. Maybe, I say, I read too much, but it shows that the
the cops in the book are all on the whole good, decent people at a time when that notion is becoming increasingly unfashionable in parts of the left.
“Basically the police, in my experience, are good, decent people,” he said. “They are basically decent. And here’s something you probably don’t hear very often, but what struck me about the police is that in all other spheres of society, if you had a privileged upbringing and if you were part of the kind of band that people love david cameron was part of – i don’t blame him for that, he had as much control over the circumstances he was born in as I did – you were always an influence, people with who you went to college, people who were in your club and all that.
“And so you always have someone to call, whether it’s in health care, or especially in business, or whether it’s in the military… they don’t have that in the police. There is no officer class in the police. It’s egalitarian. They come on the beat and they have to be on the beat and move on. And all this nonsense about “this is one of our police’s problems” – this is one of the great things about our police force.
“Peel’s original genius was to have no military warrants – no captains, no lieutenants, to make them citizens in uniform. I don’t think there’s been enough attention given to this as some sort of sociological issue, that the police, as it is in this country, is a really valuable reflection of society and that you can, from a working class background, become a copper and work your way up. You don’t need the old school tie and all that.
Elsewhere, the book’s title minister, an obviously Cameroonian-type peer with interests in the building industry, has a meeting with an elderly man from London’s East End whose refusal to sell his property is blocking a development. The minister blurts out that he voted Remain in the Brexit referendum. “I’m with Nigel now,” the man said.
It’s a shorthand way of describing the type of working class figure the minister struggles to cope with – and a fancy way to pivot the conversation to Johnson’s role as chairman of the Labor In campaign. For Britain in 2016.
Johnson rejects the idea that a Labor leader less lukewarm (or internally hostile) to the European Union than Jeremy Corbyn could have moved the dial.
“I am not a Corbynite, as you may have guessed. And he had to be dragged around kicking and screaming to do things, and other leaders would have done them,” he says. “But he realized, almost before he got into the chair as Leader of the Opposition, that we had a unanimous decision at the conference. He realized that Labour, all the unions, were 100% in favor of Remain. And so you had this little fallacy that he did. But, you know, he’s not an influential person. And this did not influence the result.
“It was David Cameron’s epitaph, if you will. I mean he’ll probably fall like Lord North [the prime minister who lost America] as making the biggest mistake of any prime minister. And in the end we had, I think, 66% Labor supporters – not Labor members, Labor supporters – who voted to stay, 66%. I think it could have been 76% with the kind of leader you’re talking about, without Corbyn. It wouldn’t have changed the dynamic, because Cameron only got, what, 30% of the Conservatives voting for him. And the big thing that happened was the net migration statistics a month before the referendum.
“Here is Cameron, who promised to reduce net migration to tens of thousands, leading the campaign to stay in Europe and suddenly hit with a gift for Farage, you know? Towns the size of Newcastle, all that bullshit. In the end, I was surprised that it was only 52-48. Because they had it all. Try standing in the doorway explaining the importance of [Robert] Schuman and the great vision of Europe when the guy behind you just says “take back control”.
“And this idea that Europe was running everything – I mean, I was a minister in five departments and I always say, there was not a single day when an official said to me ‘you can’t do that because of European legislation’ ‘. But that myth had taken root. And ‘taking back control’, with the net migration figures and a bit around Turkey and all that, it was a gift. The decision of Cameron to organize this referendum was simply politically incomprehensible.
Labour’s position under Sir Keir Starmer – a position much debated on the letters pages of this newspaper – is, according to Johnson, still
influenced by the fact that “that feeling that the Labor Party had let people down hasn’t gone away”.
“It’s still there, still hanging,” he said. “The idea of a popular vote was just ridiculous, as if the first vote was organized by robots. I mean, it still wasn’t going anywhere. And that’s why we refused to support Theresa May’s deal. Got business up there, by the way.
He points to a large book on the shelf to his right. “It was a good deal. It was a 52-48 referendum result. We stayed in the customs union, no problem with Northern Ireland, we stayed in many EU institutions, apart from free movement, which was the big deal…we should have supported that. Brave people like Caroline Flint were the only ones to stick their heads above the parapet.
“And just imagine the turmoil we would have caused – if you really are that kind of tribal – the turmoil we would have caused the Conservative Party by Theresa May’s deal because of Labour’s support. I mean, it would have been glorious for us. But it was the right thing to do, because good people in Europe sat down with us to negotiate this. Therese May,
despite all his other faults, realized that it was a reasonable compromise… the country would have been better off if we had had this agreement. And now we find ourselves in the worst of all worlds and [a] People’s Vote is about as far as I go from Pluto.
We speak as Starmer struggles to walk a tightrope on another issue – party support or otherwise for striking workers. The Labor leader had urged shadow ministers to stay away from picket lines, sacking one, Sam Tarry (later clarifying it was for giving unauthorized media interviews). Everything seems to point to a potentially difficult party conference in Liverpool later this month.
Johnson, a former general secretary of the Communications Workers Union, has some sympathy.
“You have to look at the point of view of the leader of a political party who
wants to win the next election, not some kind of little fringe cabal,”
he says. “A real political party that seeks to please the general public. And looking to gain places in, you know, Gloucestershire as well as East Yorkshire.
“Of course you have to walk a fine line. Because people are going to be more and more upset about railway strikes and so on. You can never win that kind of public argument. Where Labor leaders usually say ‘the right to strike is important, it needs to be resolved through bargaining, we’re not taking sides on that, but we’re urging the government to, you know, fix it, send it back to Acas, whatever, and that’s where Keir should be.
“Where I am is absolutely 100 per cent behind the strikers. I think there’s a generation of people now who realize that actually they don’t have to put up with
with 10 years of austerity, hardly any pay rises, our wages lagging behind, our defined benefit pension plans gone. And how do you defend yourself? You don’t fight alone, the union has to.
“So I’m thinking particularly of the RMT position, particularly with Mick Lynch, who I wouldn’t agree with on anything, certainly not on Europe, but he posed that as ‘well what are we supposed to do something else? And so I am absolutely behind the unions, but I can say that. Keir Starmer is probably in the same position but can’t tell.
Because Alan Johnson, in the second act of his life, is now a writer, not a politician. What’s next, I wonder? I say I could see One of our ministers is
Faded away on ITV on Sunday nights, Gina McKee as the Met’s glamorous assistant commissioner.
“Me too,” he smiles. “Absolutely. If Hollywood wants to call me, I’m available.
One of our ministers has disappeared by Alan Johnson is published by Hachette, £20