My Review of TEN YEARS TO SAVE THE WEST by Liz Truss

4 weeks ago 39

  I don’t know about you, but I am fed up with book reviewers who lazily review the author of the book rather than the book itself. Many of them have clearly read barely a page of the book they’re supposed to be writing about, and instead vent their prejudices about the author, as if what the author has written is incidental to their review. Nowhere is this more the case than in political autobiographies. Take the case of Liz Truss, whose book was published on Tuesday. I received an embargoed copy of the book about ten days before publication and started reading it three days before  my prerecorded interview with her, which was scheduled to take place a week before publication. I didn’t expect to enjoy it. Given the title, TEN YEARS TO SAVE THE WEST, I assumed it would be some sort of neocon treatise aimed more at the US market than the British. I was wrong, and after I had finished reading the book (in two sittings) I realized I had made a misjudgment. The book did actually shed some light on why Truss will go down in British political history as the shortest serving prime minister, and it helped explain why she made some of the decisions she made. What it wasn’t was a mea culpa. Yes, she admitted she made mistakes, but never quite gets round to detailing what those mistakes were. There’s always an explanation or an excuse as to why she herself wasn’t really to blame. Too often it’s the voice of a small child pleading “they made me do it”. Twice I read passages where she sought to palm off the blame and exclaimed out loud “But YOU were the fucking prime minister!” Having said that, her argument that a sort of liberal blob has taken over our system of government does have a modicum of truth to it, if you can bring yourself to listen to her argument. The “system”, by which I largely mean the civil service, has a unique ability to thwart politicians who don’t conform to the mantra of “we’ve always done it this way and see no reason to change”. Truss is right that the last thirty years have seen politicians divesting themselves of powers in order to avoid democratic accountability when things go wrong. The agencification of government has made government far more remote from ordinary voters. When the Secretary of State for Transport has few powers to intervene in the running of our roads network, because it’s all been delegated to anonymous apparatchiks in the Highways Agency, or National Highways, as it’s now called, you begin to wonder what the point of being a transport minister actually is. This phenomenon is now present right through the core of government. “What did you personally do to change this, during your ten years as a minister?” I asked her during our 83 minute long interview. She replied that there was nothing, as a junior minister, or even a cabinet minister, she could have done to change things. Even as prime minister she said she’d have needed years to bring forward any meaningful change. In this, she echoes the argument put forward by Gillian Shephard, her predecessor but one as MP for South West Norfolk.  In her book SHEPHARD’S WATCH – ILLUSIONS OF POWER IN BRITISH POLITICS , which I published nearly a quarter of a century ago, Gillian Shephard explains that in her long political career, which started as parish councillor and culminated as a cabinet minister, she always felt that power was held at the rung above the level she had just achieved. She concluded in the end that real power lay with the prime minister. When she told this to the then prime minister John Major, he said he felt the same, but didn’t feel he had the power as prime minister which most people assumed he had. The reason for that is twofold. Firstly, prime ministers are not dictators and do not have carte blanche to do what they want. And secondly, it’s the “system” that wields the power – especially the power to obstruct. And it is here that as so often in the book, Truss weakens her case by overstating it. She assumes a malevolence of intention and an anti-Tory bias among the blob. On occasion she may be right, but it’s too simplistic to blame the system for everything. What she should be doing is to blame the political class for being so weak and ineffectual. If a cabinet minister cannot get their own way, it is often, but not always, their fault. Truss admits she wasn’t easy to work with but never confronts the harsh reality that a cabinet minister who treats their civil service badly is less likely to persuade people to their way of thinking. Ask Dominic Raab. Where Truss is at her most interesting and thought provoking is in the sections on what it means to be a Conservative in 2024. There’s more than a touch of the zealotry of the convert about these sections of the book, given that she spent her nascent political years as a monarchy abolishing, pro European Liberal Democrat. She complains that too few Conservatives are able to articulate a case for right right, not just politically but economically. Who is putting the case for capitalism nowadays? Who is out there making the case for free markets? Is your average Conservative MP even capable of doing this. She accuses people like me of being captured by the modern liberal zeitgeist. In short, she believes people who think they’re on the right, and self- identify as being on the right, are actually fellow travellers. She doesn’t think social liberalism is compatible with fiscal conservatism. It’s an interesting debate and maybe there’s a point to it, but too often she sees these things through an American prism. In her relentless quest to justify her conversion to Trumpism, she loses sight of the fact that American style conservatism has never found a home in Britain, and there’s a reason for that. The public reaction to this book, and the series of interviews broadcast at the beginning of the week, has been quite revealing. If you read Twitter you could be forgiven for thinking that she was the devil incarnate and was in favour of slaughtering the first born, and probably the second too. The general consensus was that she was so evil, and so to blame for every single one of the country’s faults, that she should have been denied a platform or air time. How dare she write a book? After all, no one will buy it. It just shows how out of step social media can be. Within 24 hours the book had sold out of its first print run and had reached number 4 in the Amazon bestseller chart. And it stayed there for two or three days. That is some achievement, and it was done despite her media appearances, rather than because of them. She didn’t appear on any of the programmes you normally have to to get into the Top Ten. I was accused of all sorts of crimes for interviewing her for the best part of an hour and a half. Despite a record of being a fierce critic of Liz Truss at various points of her ministerial career, and despite warning the party what it would get if it elected her leader, and despite being hugely critical of that mini budget, somehow I had transformed into a Liz Truss fan boy. Presumably this was because I had the temerity to say I had enjoyed the book. Ah, came the retort, that’s because it was my company which published it. This was to ignore the fact that I left Biteback six years ago and have no connection with it. This wasn’t enough for the critics who maintained that somehow, I must be benefitting from it financially. Nay, nay and thrice nay, as Frankie Howerd might have said. And did. But why didn’t you hold her to account in your interview, they then screamed? I did, but I didn’t shout at her. I wasn’t gratuitously rude to her. In a long form interview it is usually wise to allow the interviewee the time to speak and to put their case. And then the viewer or listener can judge for themselves how justifiable their case is. Liz Truss is someone who finds it very easy to put the shutters up if she feels she is under attack. That’s why I will defend adopting the David Frost approach rather than the Jeremy Paxman one in interviews like this. And if people don’t like it, they can do the other thing. The fact I got at least a dozen news stories out of my interview with her is all the proof I need, that this approach gets the results. This is not the greatest political book ever written but neither is it anywhere near being the worst. If you approach it with an open inquiring mind you may even enjoy it. If you don’t you won’t. The full interview is on the LBC Youtube Channel HERE. If you prefer just to listen you can listen on the Iain Dale ALL TALK podcast. Liz Truss will also be appearing in my Edinburgh Fringe show on Monday 5 August at 1.30pm. You can buy tickets HERE.


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