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The Longest Love Letter in History
on 21 October 2001
Any Guardian reader will be familiar with O'Farrell's style from his Saturday column, which is quietly intelligent and simply loaded with great gags, almost literally one per sentence. A collection of those, in fact, is avaiable under the compiled title Global Village Idiot (referring I think to the esteemed President). Here, though, he reflects on - well - eighteen miserable years in the life of a Labour supporter from 1979 to 1997.
It's superbly entertaining and also instructive for anyone like me who was born in the early 70s and wasn't much interested in politics until post-Thatcher. Brought up in a home where the only source of political punditry was the Daily Express (now a New Labour cheerleader, but then the paramilitary wing of the Daily Mail), I really believed all those stories about Loony Left Councils and the disasters of the Callaghan government. O'Farrell provides a refreshing alternative view, albeit 20 years too late.
He's not blindly vain for the Labour cause, though, and readily accepts the terrible suicidal state the party found itself in during the early 1980s, and the 1983 manifesto later described as "longest suicide note in history". On the election of Michael Foot as leader, he recalls: "When his ascension was confirmed in a second ballot, my fellow students and I drank a happy toast to this victory for socialism. I looked across to the Tory students on the other side of the university bar and they seemed to be celebrating something too." This has two parallels for today's reader: first it reminds us of the terrible suicidal state that the Conservative party finds itself in today, and secondly in the dismissal of a new leader we recall (as O'Farrell reminds us elsewhere) how Margaret Thatcher was ridiculed by the left when she was elected leader, and how wrong they were to do so. "Tory leaders always seem to come out of nowhere," says O'Farrell.
The most refreshing thing about the book though is that occasionally he pauses the jokes and, more or less involuntarily one suspects, wails about how anyone could possibly consider the Tories a force for good, and reminds us of how all the positive social changes of the 20th century came from the liberal left. This passion for the third way may seem mediocre at times - and he's certainly no radical compared to the Guardian columnist he replaced, Jeremy Hardy, who regularly made me feel like a swivel-eyed fascist bigot - but it's honest and, tempered with his keen wit, it makes me say: John O'Farrell for next Labour Leader but one!