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'We learn nothing new, gain no insights, plumb no hidden depths': Alan Johnson reviews Keir Starmer: The Unauthorised Biography

'We learn nothing new, gain no insights, plumb no hidden depths': Alan Johnson reviews Keir Starmer: The Unauthorised Biography

Labour leader, Keir Starmer | Alamy

3 min read

Keir Starmer is a rarity: a working class boy who made it to the top of his profession. The question is, with such great material, how could Nigel Cawthorne have produced such a terrible book?

The role of director of public prosecutions is more demanding than most cabinet positions. When Keir Starmer finished his five year stint he could have gone to the Lords for a rest, as some of his predecessors had. He chose instead to be an elected politician. Not many MPs enter Parliament having done a “proper job” for as long as Starmer. His five years as DPP, 13 years as a QC and 30 years as a human rights lawyer provide rich pickings for a biographer.

As an outraged editorial in The Sun said of his DPP appointment, Starmer had “BATTLED for the rights of asylum seekers to claim benefits, HELPED two terror suspects overturn control orders, QUESTIONED the legality of British forces fighting in Iraq and spoken out against the death penalty working for nothing to save brutal killers from being executed in the Caribbean.”

For most on the left this was more testimonial than damnation. The Sun could have pointed out that he had also represented the families of British soldiers killed by so-called friendly fire in the first Gulf War, helped Private Lee Clegg, a Protestant soldier imprisoned for a Belfast “shoot to kill” incident, as well as giving pro-bono assistance to two young environmental activists sued by the burger conglomerate in the famous McLibel case of 1997.

Reader, I can’t tell you how relieved I was to reach those final words

Keir Starmer is that rarity, a working class boy who made it to the top in the legal profession. His wonderful mother, Josephine, a nurse with a rare and incurable condition known as Still’s disease, and toolmaker father Rod were typically aspirational for their son. But young Keir’s life was dominated by football and music as well as study. He played in a band with Fatboy Slim; went to Reigate College with Paul Heaton; was an exhibitioner at the Guildhall School of Music and revered the conductor – pianist Daniel Barenboim – as well as Debbie Harry.

With such material how could Nigel Cawthorne have produced such a terrible book?

The first reason is that the author has seemingly bashed out just over 200 pages at break-neck speed. We learn nothing new, gain no insights, plumb no hidden depths.

The second and most significant reason is Nigel Cawthorne’s awful prose. I highlighted so many sentences to demonstrate my point including a 120 word stinker on page 112.

I’ll spare you that in favour of the very last sentence of the book, which reads: “It was not clear whether the man who throughout his life used to move in a close-knitted football formation, spending five hours on his constituency surgery of two hours, was also as good as Harold Wilson at herding cats in Parliament.”

Reader, I can’t tell you how relieved I was to reach those final words.

Keir Starmer is an intriguing man who deserves a better biography.

 

Alan Johnson is a former Labour MP and author – his new book The Late Train to Gipsy Hill will be published in September

Keir Starmer: The Unauthorised Biography by Nigel Cawthorne, is published by Gibson Square Books

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