Tom Baldwin’s biography of Keir Starmer

Tom Baldwin, Keir Starmer: the biography, (William Collins 2024)

Tom Baldwin’s biography of the current leader of the British Labour opposition party, Sir Keir Starmer, follows a fairly conventional chronological pattern. It starts with his upbringing in a small Surrey town.

His father was a skilled toolmaker. This would have positioned him, in our British class-conscious social system, as working class, not meriting the esteem accorded to the privileged beneficiaries of inherited wealth and a private school education. A stern, undemonstrative man, his father’s patriarchal approach to family life led to Starmer becoming ostensibly an emotionally reticent person – except with the rest of his family and his close friends (including fellow footballers – a sport he is genuinely passionate about), who are all still very important to him.

His mother suffered from a serious illness which rendered her more or less an invalid for most of her adult life. Starmer was deeply influenced by her fortitude and her resilient response to her disability, and her refusal to wallow in self-pity or curtail those physical activities of which she was capable, such as hill walking in the family’s beloved Lake District, where they spent most of their holidays. He grew up with a deeply ingrained set of moral values, as well as a sense of decency, probity and integrity.

After reading law at the universities of Leeds and then Oxford, he became a top human rights lawyer who worked on some famous high-profile cases. When he became Director of Public Prosecutions, he was often accused of betraying those principles by which he had previously lived and worked: he was seen by some to have changed sides by turning prosecutor. Having vigorously upheld the right of all, even those accused of serious crimes, to a proper legal defence, he was portrayed by some as demonstrating double standards and shifting his moral position – an accusation also levelled at him frequently in his more recent political career.

Baldwin carefully shows that the truth is more complex than this black-and-white view. Starmer is obsessed with the nature of justice: it involves treating everyone caught up in the legal process with fairness and even-handed decency. That means that just as all accused of crime have the right to a proper defence, all victims have the right to a legal system that operates without prejudice or bias in its prosecution of perpetrators of crime.

This deeply principled foundation has continued to serve him in his subsequent career as a politician and member of parliament. When he became leader of the Labour party, he worked immediately to eradicate the antisemitism that had become endemic in parts of the membership. His determination to do the right thing, having carefully weighed – as a good lawyer should – all evidence, resulted in his removing many Labour members from the party. This included dealing with his outspoken and controversial predecessor, the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn; Starmer had him barred from active involvement in parliamentary politics. These were moves that provoked outrage in some quarters, and the left of his party turned on him aggressively.

So far he has ridden the storm and managed to demonstrate to all but his most blinkered critics that his political positions are determined by the deeply-felt convictions and principles mentioned earlier – not by the factionalism, posturing and grandstanding that tend to characterise the performance of most of our recent politicians.

This is largely a ‘warts and all’ portrait: it is not a hagiography. Baldwin acknowledges that Starmer can seem when in the media spotlight to be lacking in charisma, and overly lawyerly in his style of politics. Many doubt, as a consequence, that he is prime minister material. But Baldwin, in my view, successfully dispels such doubts.

Starmer is not the stereotypical showman politician, the charlatan, the boosterish prankster who takes nothing seriously, least of all the laws and standards they profess to uphold (certain recent populist Tory PMs come to mind). It’s maybe a strength in his demeanour that he doesn’t indulge in showy rhetoric or soundbites that conceal a lack of substance or political or moral rigour. If he is at times over-cautious, and is capable of changing his mind in the light of new developments or information, that’s maybe no bad thing – not a sign of weakness or infirmity of purpose.

Some biographies, especially those featuring politicians, can be stodgy, plodding reads. Baldwin’s portrait of Starmer is well-evidenced, balanced and highly readable. No matter what your politics, I’d recommend this biography for its depiction of a serious, thoughtful politician.

Rory Stewart, Politics on the Edge

Rory Stewart, Politics on the Edge: A memoir from within. Jonathan Cape, 2023

Mrs TD and I have been keenly following the hit podcast The Rest is Politics, fronted by Rory Stewart and Alastair Campbell, since it started 18 months ago. Campbell is the man who was Tony Blair’s media and comms guru, depicted in a grossly exaggerated way as the foul-mouthed bullying Malcolm Tucker (the name rhymes with a swear word he’s overfond of using) in the BBC political satire ‘The Thick of It’. Stewart is an alumnus of Eton and Balliol, Oxford. He is a former soldier, diplomat, author, academic and Tory MP.

This is Stewart’s account of his colourful career up to the point when he quit the Conservative Party in 2019, having been effectively sacked for opposing the hard-line no-deal Brexit bill that was being passed acrimoniously through Parliament. This was the final development in what he describes as the party’s transformation into a ‘populist party of the right’. This was a scarily predictable shift; his book traces this growing movement across the world, which led in the UK to the disastrous premierships of Johnson, Truss and, a less extremely inept example, Sunak:

On four continents provocative, anarchic, charismatic leaders were gaining, spitting out half-invented facts, presenting themselves as the people in revolt against an unrepresentative elite. The age of populism had begun.

This memoir begins with a brief account of the early part of Stewart’s career. He took leave from his diplomatic post in 2000 to walk across a large part of Asia – walking plays an important part in his life and working practice. It’s his way of meeting the people he serves, and reflects his principled approach (rarely shared by his colleagues) to representing them in his professional posts. For a man with a patrician heritage, he’s always determined to find out what people are really thinking and wanting from him, and then trying to bring about change for the better for them.

He served as a provincial governor in Iraq after the ill-fated 2003 war. His experience as a diplomat during these early years exposed him to what was to become familiar to him in political life: an over-fondness among his colleagues for ‘abstract jargon and optimistic platitudes…Most striking was not the failure, but the failure to acknowledge our failure.’

After a spell running an NGO in Afghanistan and as an academic at Harvard, and disillusioned by his chances of improving people’s lives as a diplomat, he decided to try entering what seemed the source of political power, and applied under David Cameron’s 2009 initiative to encourage a more diverse group of people in parliament to become a Conservative MP.

It’s always seemed to me (and Alastair C often teases him about this on the podcast) that he’s far too liberal in his political views to be a Tory. But his riposte there, and in this memoir, is that he dislikes what he sees as the Labour party’s ‘technocratic fantasies’ and predilection for ‘big government’. He’s an advocate, in general terms, of the military, the monarchy, tradition (whatever that means) and love of one’s country. More specifically, he favours limited government, individual rights, ‘prudence at home and strength abroad’. But he’s the old-fashioned, one nation kind of Tory that’s now pretty much been supplanted by the opportunist, xenophobic ultras of the hard right.

Elected in 2010 as the MP for Penrith and the Border, a rural constituency in the far NW of England, he went on to become first a junior minister, held various other posts of increasing responsibility, and peaked as minister at the department for international development from 2017.

His account of his career as a politician is vivid, highly readable and entertaining, but also deeply depressing. His colleagues were often rude to the point of viciousness; most of them, and all of his bosses, were hardly representative of selfless integrity, decency and honesty.

As a new MP he was dismayed to be told by the chief whip – the parliamentary enforcer for his party – that

We should not regard debates [in parliament] as opportunities for open discussion; we might be called legislators but we were not intended to overly scrutinise legislation; we might become members of independent committees, but we were expected to be loyal to the party; and votes would rarely entail a free exercise of judgement. To vote too often on your conscience was to be a fool, and ensure you were never promoted to become a minister. In short, politics was a ‘team sport’.

When first summoned by his new boss Liz Truss at the department for rural affairs, he was horrified by her loftily dismissive attitude to their area of concern. She was to become typical of politicians being appointed to positions for which they showed little enthusiasm or in which they had no experience. Anyone like Stewart, who had vast knowledge of areas like Afghanistan, would be overlooked for posts that cried out for such expertise, and instead injected into positions for which they were unsuited. This reflects the atrophied and ineffective nature of our parliamentary political system with which he gradually fell out of love.Her cavalier attitude to their roles caused him to question whether

these ministerial roles were anything more than symbolic gifts in exchange for loyalty.

At times his account makes him sound priggish and pious, but he’s disarmingly honest about his shortcomings and self-doubt, his tendency to be ‘over-earnest’ and obsessed with details. He admits committing several gaffes, like the one when he was minister in charge of dealing with floods: after one particularly serious flood had happened, and many houses and streets were inundated, he told the BBC that his department had spent millions on flood defences, but this fifteen-foot rise in river levels was unprecedented: “The flood defences are working”, he asserted, “the problem is that the water came over the top”. This admission of one of his ‘screw-ups’ he concedes was a fine example of ‘political idiocy’.

But he also had some successes, like introducing charges for the plastic carrier bags that used to be given out free in supermarkets and shops; this reduced plastic waste by 85%. When prisons minister he managed to improve the previously appalling conditions. There were other small gains. It was the madness of the divisive Brexit campaign and its aftermath that finally did for him, and he realised that the selfishness of his party’s leaders, their disregard for the public good and habit of prioritising their own careers and grip on power, had become too egregious for him to stomach any longer.

We need more people in parliament and politics in general with his kind of integrity, decency and probity – all qualities that our current PM has bragged about restoring, but shown zero capacity for deploying.

Whatever your politics, I’d recommend this book for its insight into the dysfunctional nature of Britain’s political (and electoral) system.