In lieu of a rambling, disjointed post about the things that I find wrong or misleading with Jenni Russell’s recent Guardian.co.uk article about the deteriorating relationships between ministers and civil servants, here’s a review of a fairly light-hearted but meaningful book about the difficulties involved in being a member of any particular Government.
How to Be a Minister by Gerald Kaufman
Labour MP Gerald Kaufman (Manchester Gorton) worked as a press advisor to Harold Wilson and later became a junior Minister under Wilson and then under Jim Callaghan. Today, he is probably best known to the general public for his description of the 1983 Labour election manifesto as ‘the longest suicide note in history’. But one of the other things he is known for is his book How to Be a Minister, written and published shortly after Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister. Presumably, Kaufman wanted to write about his experiences as a Minister when his memories (and perhaps his wounds) were still fresh, and that’s essentially what he does — he gives advice on how to be a Minister, drawing on personal experiences and observations of the foibles of the 1970s Labour Governments.
The book’s chapters cover a wide range of Ministerial topics, touching on everything from working with trade unions to running (and not being run by) your Department to not getting in trouble with your Prime Minister. One thing that Kaufman does emphasise — understandably, considering his situation — is the fact that every Minister is an ex-Minister waiting to happen, and that one of the worst things you can do as a Minister is to fall under the impression that you will be in office forever. The entire last chapter of the book is devoted to the tricky task of leaving office gracefully, if you can help it, and how this difficult task can be managed with a minimum of pain and suffering. The book is liberally sprinkled with examples of ‘how to do’ and ‘how not to do’ things as a Minister, and fortunately Kaufman is willing to put up his own failures, as well as his successes, for the readers’ examination.
All in all, How to Be a Minister a nice, quick read, and it’s sitting on my bookshelf with my other ministerial diaries and memoirs as a sort of meta-piece about life in government. Kaufman is able to look back on his tenure as Minister with irony and general good humour…two things that are not always part of a politician’s retrospective on his or her career.