Alan Johnson makes politics look easy. All you’ve got to be is normal, affable, at ease in front of crowds, with a neat line in self-deprecating charm and a surprising talent for mimicry, palpably decent and caring, and bright enough to master five Cabinet briefs in six years.
If you’re going to appear at a book festival it helps if you can also write well, tell stories with a telling twist of detail and have a neat way with a punchline – and he’s got that too. His latest work The Long and Winding Road is the third volume of an acclaimed autobiography.
The few members of the audience not old enough to remember the 1970s would have found it hard to imagine how trade union leaders like his predecessor-but-one as head of the Union of Communication Workers had a telephone hotline in their office on which Cabinet ministers regularly rang for advice. (In the Thatcher years, it only rang once, he revealed, “and that was a wrong number”.)
Still, he helped modify unions’ antagonism to Europe, led the first successful fight against privatisation, and after being parachuted into Hull West and Hessle (“or Hell West and Hassle as it was known”) he finally secured proper recompense for the trawlermen who lost their jobs when Britain’s long-distance trawler fleet was all but consigned to the scrapyard.
Ah, said one questioner at the end, but what about his leadership of Labour’s Remain campaign? “Well at least we got out Labour’s vote. I’m pleased 66 per cent of them turned out … and in every seat we got a majority backing Remain. David Cameron, who got us into this bloody mess, could only get 44 per cent of his supporters to do that.”
The state of the Conservative Party means Labour stands a good chance of winning the next election if it’s held within the next year, he added. “I’d be amazed if David Davis isn’t prime minister by next year. Theresa May is toast.”
If you wanted the bigger picture and to stare further into the future, you would have been at Economist editor Daniel Franklin’s event discussing his book Megachange, an anthology that is essentially an informed guesstimate about what the world will look like in 2050, or the event following that in which former World Bank head economist Branko Milanovic talked about his highly influential book Global Inequality. Actually, from what I could gauge, it seemed mis-titled, as the trend is towards global equalisation.
If that sounds like good news, it is if you’re Chinese, but it isn’t if you’re British or American, where globalisation is compounding inequalities within society with political consequences – Trump and Brexit – that are itches Charlotte Square scratches on a daily basis.