This is the third volume of Alan Johnson’s autobiography, and it deals with the period during which he was a Union official and then an MP and a Cabinet Minister. But, perhaps to show that there was always a private man behind the public figure, the first chapter is about an uncomfortable family reunion in 1990 evoking memories of the past.
The next seven chapters are taken up with his role in the Union of Communication Workers (UCW), interspersed with accounts of his second marriage, a formative visit to the United States, some quite humdrum matters, such as the kind of clothes he liked to wear or how he learnt to swim and to learn to play the piano at the age of forty. As “Outdoor Secretary” on the Executive Committee he had to deal with the industrial disputes in which post office workers were involved. In 1992 he was elected General Secretary of the Union. Six months later Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade, proposed the privatization of the Post Office, and Johnson had the fight of his life on his hands. He was able to enlist other unions in the fight, especially the National Communications Union (NCU) who merged with the UCW in 1995, and also many sections of a public fearful of the consequences of privatization; and of course the Labour Party was against it, too, and so were the Ulster Unionists. In the end there was enough unease in the Tory Party to force the dropping of the Heseltine proposal. (The Tories managed to privatize the Post Office in 2012.)
In 1995 Johnson joined the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party. He had always been a moderate and a aware of the need to modernize many aspects of both trade unions and the Labour Party; and on the Executive he supported Tony Blair in his successful attempt revise Clause IV in the Party’s 1917 constitution which committed the Party to “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange”. Though dear to the hearts of left-wingers, the Labour Party had never implemented it when in power (Gaitskell’s attempt to repeal it had been defeated in 1960), and the modernizers saw it as an anachronism and an impediment. Johnson was the only union leader who supported the revision, which went through in 1995. 90% of the membership of his union supported him.
Then in 1997, shortly before the General Election of that year, Blair phoned Johnson to say that he would like him to stand for Parliament, and that he hoped Johnson might soon be the member of a Labour government. Johnson was parachuted as the candidate for the safe seat of Hull West and Hessle, and was duly elected; and there is a vivid account of his first days as a new boy in Westminster.
We are now a little less than half-way through the book, and he will now have stories to tell, not about trade union colleagues of most of whom I had never heard and in whom, frankly, I wasn’t very interested, but about household names in politics; and these I enjoyed much more. At first he saw his primary role more as a constituency representative than as a parliamentarian, and was deeply involved in setting right two appalling injustices (fully described) under which the fishermen of Hull had been suffering for more than twenty years. In 2000 he and his supporters at last secured justice from the Labour Government in the one case, in 2004 for the other.
At the end of 1997 he became Parliamentary Private Secretary (PPS) to Dawn Primarolo, the Financial Secretary at the Treasury (and we learn much about what it means to be a PPS). Next, in 1999, came appointment as a junior minister, parliamentary under-secretary at the Department of Trade and Industry.
He justifies his vote for the Iraq War in 2003 and would “in the same circumstances, make the same decision again.”
In 2003 Blair made Johnson, who had never been to university, Minister for Higher Education. The government’s aim was to increase the number of students entering higher education from the then current 40%. The cost to students of £3,000 a year would not be payable up front but would be recovered in due course in instalments by a graduate tax once graduates earned over £15,000 a year. This scheme was accepted by Parliament in 2004 with a slim majority.
In 2004 Blair promoted him to the Cabinet as Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, and only eight months later to Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Twelve months later, in 2006, he became Secretary of State for Education. After a further twelve months, in 2007, Gordon Brown, now Prime Minister, made him Secretary of State for Health. He was able to write that in 2008 “NHS waiting lists were at a historic low, funding at a record high and satisfaction greater than it had ever been”. He stayed at the Ministry of Health for a full two years before becoming Home Secretary in 2009. In four years and nine months he had held five Cabinet posts!
The moment he became Home Secretary he was accompanied wherever he went, publicly or privately, by armed security guards. But even as he took office he guessed, correctly, that he would not be Home Secretary for long, for Gordon Brown was becoming increasingly unpopular and was likely to lose the General Election in May 2010, just eleven months away. And at this point this third volume of his autobiography comes to an end.
There is always room in this book for Johnson’s human side to show itself: his essential modesty; the genuine self-deprecatory note he often strikes; his sense of humour; the grief he felt at the death of his step-daughter; the joy, at the age of 50, at the birth of the son of his second marriage; the warmth with which he describes his colleagues, his rivals and opponents, his assistants, the drivers of his ministerial car, and his constituents. There is only one single (and well justified) note of hostility in the book. All this sustains the reader through his discussions of policy issues which are often pretty technical and may be of interest to specialists only.