on 28 September 2003
Why do we have such high expectations of politicians as a class yet such low expectations of the individuals? We enjoy the small change of political scandal – the revelations of unorthodox private lives or unsavoury business practice, while at the same time tuttutting that politicians are just as stupid, venal and corrupt as any of us. Paxman’s book makes an important contribution to a debate that’s just gaining currency – how can we re-engage people with politics when the so-called Westminster Village – parliament and the media circus that surrounds it – seems so self obsessed and distant from everyday life. His thesis is that this is essential, if civil society is to be maintained, and argues that our double standards do ourselves a disservice – politicians in the UK at least are less corrupt and sleazy than we might think, and certainly less so than in many other European democracies. But his main point is that politicians won’t exactly make this easy – for they’re a decidedly odd lot, an extension I suppose of the old adage that anyone who wants the job probably is unsuited to it by that very desire. In an episodic look at the politician’s life – the early years as a hack, candidacy, and the new MP through to the close of political life whether by election defeat, resignation or retirement – he aims to uncover just what it is that makes them tick. Paxman’s approach will be familiar to Newsnight viewers and here, he’s on home turf – feline, deceptively humorous yet with a menacing undercurrent. If you like his style you’ll find parts of The Political Animal laugh out loud funny, the odd irritating factual error notwithstanding - and not only for his Jeffrey Archer gags.
on 4 November 2003
Well written and engaging but ultimately not as insightful as you might hope. For anyone interested in politics and the political process Paxman's latest is an entertaining source of anecdotes and a useful introduction to the way democratic politics has developed in Britain. Despite this the book always feels a bit limited and falls down on two fronts. Firstly, the existence of other, better books on this subject (e.g. Gerald Kaufman's "How to be a Minister", Andrew Rawnsley's "Servants of the People"). Secondly (and possibly this is just me) the expectation that a commentator of Paxman's stature might have just a few more new ideas to throw into the melting pot. Ultimately an enjoyable read, just don't expect a great deal more.
on 19 December 2002
This is a rare tome - a book about politics that will entertain and instruct both political junkies and the common reader.
That means, of course, that it's not a work of academic political science. Rather it's a work of inspired journalism by a master feature-writer.
Feature writers commonly weave together three things - facts, quotes and anecdotes - and they hang them on a theme. Usually they provide plenty of facts and quotes but good anecdotes are normally in short supply (or badly written) even though they are the ingredients that build readability.
Jeremy Paxman not only provides plenty of facts and striking quotes in his analysis of British politicians and their wayward habits but also gives us a text fairly bristling with pertinent anecdotes drawn from the politics of the past century or so.
It's important to make this point because the questions he sets out to answer may seem dull to the common reader: "Where do politicians come from? Why do they do it? Why do we seem so disenchanted with them? And why does the experience of politics nearly always end in disillusion?"
With admirable impartiality and in a sparkling prose style, Paxman hangs his diverting collection of facts, quotes and anecdotes on the theme that politicians are generally untrustworthy, power-hungry, hypocritical, naive or disillusioned. Certainly almost all of them end with their ideals or illusions badly battered by the experience of an adversary system which is corrupted by competition, connivance, secrecy and rivalry. Privately few of them ever have a good word to say about a colleague or competitor.
Almost all of them end disillusioned and the most disillusioned of all are those who climb highest. If these high-flyers don't end in defeat or disgrace, they fade (thank goodness!) into obscurity.
Sounds dull, but it ain't. This book is a buzz from beginning to end. Even if you've never read another book on politics - and even if you aren't British - you can read this one with immense enjoyment and learn much as you laugh and curse your way through its sparkling text. This is a rare case in which the word "brilliant" is completely apposite.
There are very few slouches, if any, among the political interviewers that I have seen in Britain and the USA. Paxman is not perfect by any means, but I have never quite seen his equal. He has two besetting sins. One is in overdoing questions of the 'Why are you beating your wife?' variety and the other is a propensity to naff debating points, trying to manoeuvre ministers who admit to the slightest change of mind into saying that they should be considering resignation on that account. He is quick-witted, forceful and tenacious, and he is guiltless of the mindset known in America as 'respect', something that can disconcert his American interviewees who consider respect to be their right.
The tone he adopts in this book does not surprise me, but it may have surprised some of his victims. It is analytic, the wit and perception is often acerbic, but in general it is far from unsympathetic to politicians. Paxman muses on what the job is, what it is perceived to be both by those who do it and by the general public, and what persuades people to go in for it. He sees the whole political circus as a combination of the inspiring and the demeaning, its actors a combination of the powerful and the completely futile, helpless, naïve and manipulated. He does not spare individuals, and even American readers ought to be entertained by the part about the ludicrous Sir Gerald Nabarro, whom older British citizens will wince to recall and who would have been thought highly improbable if he had been a character in fiction. He has no strong political convictions of his own so far as I can see, and he is candid about any he ever did have. Like myself, he joined the Labour society at university not through any great belief in Labour but because he could not even stomach the alternative. He feels some obvious nostalgia for the days when there was a clear philosophical divide and not just a choice of managements, as when Clement Attlee's post-war government aspired to 'the socialist commonwealth of Britain', but he is not so simple-minded as to suppose that any such clear ideological choice is possible without disastrous results these days. How much, or rather how little, really depends on ideology as opposed to perceptions, outside influences, individual decisions and particularly individual mistakes, sheer luck and above all what Macmillan called 'events, dear boy, events' is something on which I find him particularly clear-headed and illuminating.
He writes in much the way he talks. That suits me in general, except to say that he is prone to giving too many instances. On air these come over very effectively as pungent asides, in print they tend to dilute the thrust of his argument which is somewhat discursive anyway. This is good-quality journalese, the work of a thoughtful, intelligent and battle-experienced professional, and I found it a very easy and agreeable read. As a writer he is no Muggeridge, but as a thinker he is less egocentric and much fairer-minded. He is witty and entertaining, but in fact the funniest thing is not in the text of the book at all, but the last two quotes from reviews on the back page, and I'm sure he picked those, or at least approved them, himself. He would not, I'm sure, expect me to award him 5 stars, and consequently I have not done so.
Two questions stand out in Jeremy Paxman's book. Why do people want to be politicians?; and why do the public mistrust politicians?
Why do people want to be politicians, there is one major reason given by the MP's themselves, to serve the public but as Paxman points out the aphrodisiac of "Power" and control is always there not very far beneath the surface.
Using examples both historic and modern he shows how Politicians climb their way up the ladder of power,only a few reaching the heights of cabinet posts. Some are shown to be very active in their constituency, others less so. Some have a history of voting with their conscience, most though have at least one eye on the main chance.
The second question is answered indirectly so many times in this book. We do not like Politicians because.
Loyalty to party is valued over personal integrity.
Party conferences are no longer anything but commercial side-shows.
The whips, especially New Labour ones, come across almost as Gauleiters, semi house-trained thugs there to oversee that no member considers voting with their conscience rather than what the Leader requires.
They blatantly lie.
The sycophantic questions at PMQ's.
They are backstabbers par-excellence, look at how Mo Mowlem was punished when party members dared to give her a standing ovation during Tony Blair's party conference speech.
They vote themselves inflation busting pay rises and protected pensions whilst dragging their feet over workers who have been sold out by their employers.
Party membership is in decline as people of all political hues despair of the self-serving chancers currently at Westminster.
Recent voting figures show the electorate has switched off in large numbers.
For any politician who still wonders why the people do not trust them I suggest they read this book and then look in the mirror and tell us if they like what they see. Pre-supposing,obviously,that they can even be honest with themselves.
on 3 December 2003
In this book, Jeremy Paxman sets out to explore what makes politicians tick. This is one of the only books of its kind that I have come across; a similar book is "How to be a Minister" by Gerald Kaufman. By the end of the book's 10 chapters, the reader will have a clear understanding of each stage through which the ambitious politician must pass as s/he strives for the highest office in the land.
The first chapter explains in detail the key attributes required by anyone wishing to achieve political office. In subsequent chapters, Paxman shows what potential politicians must traditionally do to get noticed, what they must then do having been noticed and how they can begin their ascent of the greasy pole.
The chapter titles, the contents of which one can easily get a sense of, are as follows:
Out of the Mouths of Babes and Sucklings
New Boys and Girls
Look at Me!
Busy Doing Nothing
Power at Last
The Price of Fame
Feet of Clay
There follows an afterword in which Paxman explains the consequences of politics as it has evolved to date, along with suggestions of how things might be improved.
Throughout the book, Paxman's cutting humour and many, many years of experience in the political field both entertain and enlighten the reader. Unlike other reviewers, I would not say this book is in any way lacking in insight; in fact I found it to be thoroughly revealing. If you are still hesitant about purchasing a copy, I'd say that one only has consider what in-the-know reviewers say about it to be persuaded (by way of two examples: Lively, persuasive, excellent. Matthew Parris, Spectator; Devastatingly accurate, Michael Portillo).
Highly recommended-5 stars!
on 10 March 2004
Jeremy's book charts the rise and fall of a hypothetical polititian in an attempt to better discover what makes and motivates the species. The book is extremely well researched with a liberal sprinkling of anecdotes, facts and conjecture. The writing style is gloriously indirect and verbose in a very British way, something that might not appeal to all, but which for me added to the joy of reading.
The portrait of a polititian that emerges is a pretty damning one, but is neither unsympathetic or unkind. "Feet of Clay", one of the chapter titles, perhaps best illustrates what I mean. We discover that they are human too, in fact perhaps even a little more human than the rest of us in a strange way.
There are also some fantastic lines, such as "Golden candyfloss helmet" to decribe one MP's blonde, rain soaked wig.
Definitely a buy recommendation if you have an interest in British politics and at least a passing knowledge of a name or two from the scene, so as to better appreciate the anecotes.
on 9 November 2006
What makes for a politician? According to Paxo it is ambition, drive and liking to hear your own voice. To get to the top he unearths the surprising statistic that you most likely will have lost a parent, especially a father, when young.
Paxman writes well in an entertaining fashion so he is a pleasure to read. He charts how one becomes an MP and the duties involved. It is not a family friendly life. Conformity is required, enforced by the whips. If one conforms one may rise to ministerial office and the ministerial life is surveyed all the way up to prime minister. Life beyond office or parliament is also examined. The treatment is both sympathetic and critical. Corruption is shown to be rare. What Paxo omits is the commoner, more hum drum life in local politics. Councillors are too dull beasts for the top journalist. Yet many who become MPs follow the local government route, even those from political dynasties like the Benn family.
on 13 January 2004
This book aims to give the reader an insight into what makes a person chose a life of politics.
It is very well researched, has a excellent balance between anecdotes and hard facts, and was a fascinating read. I have little prior knowledge of politics so a lot of the names he mentioned meant nothing to me, but I felt that the book was not biased towards any politic party, and I found it a fascinating read.
There are notes and a lengthy bibliography to allow for further reading of any areas of interest.
It read like an essay, but still made me laugh, made me angry and made me think. I really enjoyed it.
on 21 February 2003
I enjoyed this book from beginning to end. It is often amusing - though occasionally I found some efforts at amusement not that funny. The best effort at amusement, not one of Paxman's, was the reference to Churchill's quote "buggers can't be choosers" (which I had not heard before).
Anybody picking up this book will most certainly have opinions on the ambition and honesty of politicians. The actions and promises of politicians create their own stereotyping of themselves - if anything this book emphasises this stereotype. There seems to have been politicians of all types occupying the hallowed seats in the House of Commons. Every electorate deserves what it gets - and the British certainly got its fair share of liars and corrupt MPs.
I liked the style of bringing the reader from the aspiring MP seeking election right up through the ranks to Prime Minister.
This book could be written about any democracy - only the names and scandals will change. I'm sure there are rich pickings for aspiring authors to follow Paxman's example here.
It is easy to read and not too demanding on brain power - RECOMMENDED.