This one’s for you if you’re interested in what happens behind the scenes in British politics and the life of a reporter over the course of a fascinating year which covered the Scottish Referendum and the 2015 Election.
Nick Robinson was BBC political editor for ten years. It has put him in a unique position to give an insight into politicians as real people with real hobbies, interests, virtues and flaws. I like to find the best in people, and have always wondered if politicians are the victims of demonisation by the British public. But reading this book, I was surprised to learn of politicians and their spin doctors contacting reporters directly to give their personal opinion of how they have reported a certain speech/vote/other political event. It certainly increased my respect for the reporters! Other surprises included the level of backstabbing that takes place between politicians, and how much the news that reaches the public can be shaped by who speaks out first. Having said that, it is inspiring to read the thoughts of someone so passionate about what they do, particularly on a subject that can seem so disengaging at times.
I bought this book because of Robinson’s specialist knowledge about politics and reporting, but it also covers his personal journey to cover the election after a diagnosis of throat cancer. When I first heard about his diagnosis I likened the awful timing (right before an incredibly exciting General Election) to an athlete picking up an injury just prior to the Olympics. Reading about his desperation to be able to speak in time, and the ups and downs that that entailed, added a new dimension to my respect for him.
“Politicians are terrified of appearing human, but isn’t that precisely what the public are screaming out for them to be?” p8
On Nick Clegg after the tuition fee promise. “The public fell for him once and is absolutely determined not to do it again. So much so that people simply won’t listen to what he’s saying even when they agree with it” p11
On the partnership of Jack Straw and Gordon Brown (this reminds me of the quote from “I am Malala” about losing an organ). “The official cabinet seating plan required that Jack sit on Gordon’s blind side, which meant Gordon was on his deaf side. As a result they were never able to exchange a discreet word about what others were saying, being forced instead to swap written notes in the fat, bold, black felt tip pen Brown always used to ensure he could read them. The only problem was that everyone else nearby could read them as well.” p32
On the failure of Ed Miliband to make speeches with sound bites for the press to quote and the public to understand. “Miliband has failed what I call the ‘my mum’ test. Put simply, can you sum this up in a way that my mum can grasp instantly?” p39
“As the product of an Essex comprehensive [Andy Coulson] he knew, as so many senior Tories do not, how to connect them to parts of the electorate they struggled to reach. Ever the pragmatist, the prime minister put his own need for Coulson ahead of all the reasons why he should have let him go.” p50
“Teresa May shows once again why she is the longest serving Home Secretary in fifty years. She is doing something she has long resisted but she is doing it with apparent conviction, professionalism and efficiency.” p63
“Boris [Johnson] is one of those rare people who rewrites everyone else’s rules to suit himself and leaves us all smiling as he does so. His one weakness is that he’s no team player and good leaders of parties need to be that.” p86
Alistair Darling (in charge of the no campaign against Scottish independence) “risks looking…like an angry member of the Westminister establishment wagging his finger at Scots and telling them that whatever they want they simply cannot have it.” p91
“The problem with instant news is that it requires instant judgements. It’s all too easy to hyperbolize in haste only to repent at leisure.” p96
Farage and Salmond: “They are both charismatic, anti Westminister champions of their people, selling a version of what David Aaronovitch of The Times brilliantly called ‘Out-opia’- the idea that if only you were out of the UK or Europe, all these things that anger you would go away.” p107
On the significance of the independence referendum. “the PM, the deputy PM, the leader of the opposition, the governor of the Bank of England and her Majesty the Queen have intervened in the same political debate. I tell Huw Edwards we are unlikely ever to live through another like it.” p109
Gordon Brown’s “greatest weakness has always been his inability to understand people who don’t share his own views.” p111
About Ed Balls: “there’s a vast gulf between the one dimensional public man and the private football-playing, marathon-running, karaoke-singing, piano playing, curtain-lederhosen-wearing enthusiast.” p133
“Many would argue that it was a statement of post-imperial arrogance and extravagance to claim…that we should ‘punch above our weight’ in international affairs. Others would say that to do anything else is to abdicate our historical and moral responsibilities.” p135
“My experience taught me that statements that the NHS is the best system in the world should be regarded with the same scepticism as any other assertion of national superiority.” p158
“Those who really can’t stand the idea of voting for the European Arrest Warrant have been told that it would be a good day for a vital visit to the dentist or a select committee trip to Ulan Bator.” p177 For anyone else not quite as well educated as the BBC’s previous political editor, Ulan Bator is the capital of Mongolia.
“Leadership is, in the end, all about displays of self confidence. I can’t help feeling that we demand inhuman levels of it from our leaders, deriding those who lack it (Brown) and attacking those who have excess quantities of it (Thatcher and Blair) as unhinged.” p183
“One of the reasons for the lack in trust in politicians is that they vow to control things over which voters know they have little or no control, and then have to admit that they broke their vow. At worst, this makes them look dishonest. At best impotent.” p221
Matthew Paris in The Times about twitter: “it is the duty of journalists to stand up to them, rather than to treat the often ignorant and mindless 140-character rants of this entirely self selecting, misrepresentative sample of the British public as the voice of the people.” p227 This adds to comments that Nick Robinson made in his previous book, “Live from “Downing Street”.
What he would write if he was to make an election poster: “whoever you vote for will have to cut spending and raise taxes in ways they’ve not yet told you; that they will struggle to find the money the NHS needs and will face a huge budget deficit and debt…The bottom line would read: ‘Labour will spend more, the Tories less. Exactly how much will depend on the circumstances. So vote for whichever you think seems fairest and most sensible.” p299