Start again, by Philip Collins – book review

I get it. You’ve read four, maybe five party manifestos already in this election. (I certainly have.) Why would you want to read another, written by a former speech-writer to Tony Blair? But maybe you are on a roll and isn’t an election about coming up with ideas for a better country and good ideas can come from anywhere and it might be fun and Lord knows there might be another election around the corner and policy policy policy vision vision vision.

Philip Collins Start Again colverIt’s lunchtime right now in the office and I’ve just said that I’m reviewing this book. A colleague points out Collins’ ridiculous column in The Times on 28 November in which he argues that Labour (by which he means Corbynite) racism is worse than Tory racism because the Tories are ignorant bigots from whom nothing good can be expected while Corbyn and co have spent some time thinking about the Israel and Palestine question. 

That rather throws me off course. On the one hand the quality of Collins’ ideas in Start Again do not rise or fall because he’s written a piece that more-or-less excuses one type of racism (and the more common and insidious type at that) while (correctly) condemning another. But we very rarely blind-mark what we read. And a piece of persuasive argument must – well, persuade. As a speechwriter and master of rhetoric Collins knows the arts of persuasion and part of that is getting the audience on your side. I was sort of on his side when I read the book – twice! Yes I started again – and today, based on a very small part of Collins’ written output, I am not. But the following comments are, I think, fair.

I read the book twice because the first time I found it frustrating but couldn’t place why. Collins does the whole personal story number (see also Peston and Goodall) and disassociates himself from the political class. He condemns the self-righteous and quotes Young on the dystopia created when the smug elite in what they think is a meritocracy start to believe that their good fortune is merited. Annoyingly, I think he is stronger when he is in columnist mode than when setting out his policy agenda: there are some nice barbs at the Conservatives (‘compassionate Conservatism draws our attention to the fact that compassion is not intrinsic to the creed’) and the critique of Labour could be fixed by better communicators (‘there is a finger-wagging bossiness to Labour politics which knows what is good for you’).

On the policy front, Collins perhaps predictably sets out a third way: fiscal discipline but a concern for the poorest and an encouragement of dissent. There is a very powerful section on the moral imperative to encourage people to read, though I am not sure about the assertion that all three year olds should follow in Collins’ footsteps and read The Times. Our house flitted between the Daily Express – in those days a newspaper – and the Guardian. I’m being flippant but Collins’ whole approach here is excellent and based on giving people the ‘space to write their own scripts of what the good life means to them.’ He is good, too, on breaking up concentrated power wherever it lies. And there are a few notions that may or may not be original but are none the less new to me, such as that the private rental housing market should be consolidated so that standards can be improved. That’s the kind of thing I came to read.

So there’s good stuff…but there’s the other kind too. Assertions are made and not argued for. The royal staff ‘should’ be cut by at least half: a statement without an argument. ‘Dissent and democracy’ are what ‘defines the nation’ – as though France knows nothing of dissent, nor Germany of democracy. It’s lazy.

There are always going to be good proposals and bad in this type of book. But I think that the key problem is this: Collins sets out ten ‘condition of Britain’ questions that, if answered correctly will set us on a happier path. In turn, those questions are economic, then political, then cultural. They’re the wrong way round, aren’t they? How can you take politics and culture out of questions on investment and tax? The whole narrative running through the book – the story of Peel – would sit more happily if the order was reversed: if you started with the idea of the right thing for your country and ended with the means to provide it.

Come Friday, at least one party is going to want to rethink its approach. It should come and look at this book, as much for the arguments it doesn’t make, and the assumptions it takes for granted. If you’re going to start again, this is as good a place to start as any. But I am not convinced that this is where we, or they, will finish.

Thanks to Fourth Estate for the review copy.

You can get Start Again here (affiliate link).

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