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From the coal house to the White House: Mary Kelly Foy reviews Fiona Hill’s 'There is Nothing for You Here'

From the coal house to the White House: Mary Kelly Foy reviews Fiona Hill’s 'There is Nothing for You Here'

Washington 2019: Fiona Hill testifies at an impeachment hearing of then-president Donald Trump | Alamy

3 min read

Former US presidential advisor Fiona Hill’s highly enjoyable memoir charting her remarkable journey from the economic decline of a former mining village to becoming a renowned Russia specialist in her adoptive homeland could not be more timely

Fiona Hill’s memoir recounts her personal rise from the coal house to the White House. However, her own success has been juxtaposed by the decline of the area of her birth (County Durham), the “rust belt” of her adoptive homeland (the United States) and the country of her policy expertise (Russia) which have during her lifetime fallen victim to “the disease of economic and social malaise”. 

While unquestionably autobiographical, unlike many other former staffers, Hill does not provide a one-dimensional retelling of the psychodrama of the Donald Trump presidency where she served as national security advisor. Rather – aware of the extraordinary nature of her personal journey – Hill looks back on her roots and provides a remarkably clear-headed and sobering critique of the disastrous policies of rapid deindustrialisation, the social ills they have spawned and in the absence of opportunity, the populism that has emerged in “left behind areas”.

Hill’s book – by accident or design – could not be timelier. In the United Kingdom, the government’s domestic agenda is dominated by levelling up – a tacit admission that the economic policies of the past 40 years have failed areas away from the capital.

Hill provides a remarkably sobering critique of the disastrous policies of rapid deindustrialisation

Hill’s memoir presents plainly the dangers of allowing former industrial areas to be stripped of dignified work and opportunity while also providing her personal account of her own accomplishments against the odds. Hill makes no effort to mask her frustrations that as a working-class woman, born into the poverty of a soon to be ex-mining village in the North East, she faced barriers to progress her career that are for many often insurmountable. In Hill’s case – after being told by her father that “there was nothing for her” in Co Durham – she was forced to leave the country of her birth and, in doing so, the UK lost the service of a bright mind. She doesn’t cast this as just a consequence of a glass ceiling but rather that many communities have been left as prisoners of geography and social class – unable to seek a decent career in their place of birth. 

Rising to be the United States’ leading national security advisor on Russia and Vladimir Putin’s regime, many will be drawn to her autobiography at this time when such chaos is being unleashed in Ukraine. Hill certainly does provide her view on the motivations of Trumpian foreign policy towards Russia and the former US president’s warped assessment of Putin – but that is just part of this story. 

Having identified, in her view, the root causes of populist politics, such as Trump in the 21st century, Hill’s closing chapters are manifesto-like. Unapologetic in making a clear moral case for the radical economic regeneration of “forgotten places,” not just because this is desirable for those of us who live “up North,” but that such intervention is a vital measure to protect democracy from the corrosive effects of harmful populism and the politics of hate. The Chancellor should heed Hill’s story and analysis before watering down the levelling up agenda.

However, the book should not be reserved for policy wonks alone. It is accessible and highly enjoyable, whether you grew up in the 1970s North East like me, or simply want to learn more about the life of an extraordinary working-class woman exported to America.

Mary Kelly Foy is Labour MP for City of Durham

There is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century
Written by: Fiona Hill
Publisher: Mariner Books

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