British politicians sharpen pens Cash and clout: Politicians and statesmen in Britain regularly find writing to be more lucrative and influential than toiling in public office. They shape opinion in newspaper columns and entertain in novels.

Sun Journal

November 30, 1995|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- So, maybe Brian Sedgemore got carried away when he wrote "The Insider's Guide to Parliament."

A Labor member of Parliament, and far from the center of power, Mr. Sedgemore chose to detail the sex scandals, the money-grubbing and the perks that have come to seem a permanent part of the world's most hallowed debating chambers. But did he have to get so personal in the book?

Mr. Sedgemore called a Conservative minister, Virginia Bottomley, "beautiful but sexless." He also dismissed the Chancellor of the Exchequer with a word -- "fat" -- and claimed that Labor's leader, Tony Blair, "hijacked a political party in the pursuit of personal power."

But nobody censured him. Nobody tried to take his job away. In Britain, politicians don't get mad and they don't even try to get even. They publish.

"Writing is seen in Britain as a much more noble experience than the grubby trade of politics," Mr. Sedgemore says. "British politicians see writing as something that lasts."

British politicians are without equal when it comes to churning out words.

Enter any bookstore in Britain, and the political section is overflowing with biographies, diaries, memoirs, manifestos and novels written by politicians. The newspapers are crammed with political commentary penned by the players, who frequently jump back and forth from journalism to government.

Little ghost writing

Unlike their American counterparts, who rely on staff and ghostwriters to produce books and speeches, British politicians usually do their own writing. They have to. Their staff allowances enable them to hire no more than one secretary and one research assistant.

"British politics is verbalized in a better way than American politics. The verbal and debating culture leads to good writing," says Mr. Sedgemore, a 13-year parliamentary veteran who has managed to write three novels, a major book on government secrecy and a regular column for Private Eye, which is like Mad magazine for grown-ups.

His view of Parliament isn't all that inspiring. He opens the book writing, "Parliament must be important because the Queen thinks that it is even if nobody else does." And he closes 143 pages later: "Today it is not possible to be found to be 'in contempt of Parliament,' because Parliament is in contempt of itself."

In between, there is a lot of chaos, corruption, name-calling, and good old malevolence. British politicians, like British newspapers, pull few punches.

The way the system works, it's often more important to be writing in the papers than debating in the Commons. There is, for example, Matthew Parris, seven years a Conservative member of Parliament, who went to the press galleries, and then became a columnist with The Times of London.

"When I was a back-bench MP, Cabinet ministers didn't even know my name," he says. "I would never have been invited to dinner with them. If you're a newspaper columnist, politicians are happy to sup with you and they do remember your name. It does strike me as a rather odd way of a Member of Parliament to communicate with senior members of his party."

In the end, Mr. Parris has surpassed his rivals. He secured a stable place in journalism by writing that Margaret Thatcher performed like a cross between a "saber-tooth tiger and a B-52 bomber." He earns a lot more as a journalist than he would as a member of Parliament -- current annual salary, $52,438 -- and he has a new book in the stores: "Great Parliamentary Scandals."

Writing is ingrained in the system. Benjamin Disraeli, one of Britain's great 19th-century statesmen, was one of the country's more acclaimed writers, and used his novels to influence his peers. William Gladstone and Arthur Balfour also wrote before becoming prime ministers.

Churchill the champion

But the all-time champion of the British literary-political game was Winston Churchill, author of more than 50 novels, histories, memoirs and compilations of speeches, and winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. He used writing to advance his career and causes, and to pay the bills.

War dispatches from Cuba and South Africa brought him fame and provided the springboard to follow his father's path into politics. During his years of political exile in the 1930s, writing sustained him financially and intellectually, and provided him with a platform to call for British rearmament to counter Hitler's Germany.

Today's pols, like their predecessors, write for cash and clout.

"If we can't get heard in the Commons, well, we can phone up the newspaper and say, 'Do you want an article on this subject?' " says Edwina Currie, a Conservative member of Parliament. "If I want to get my point of view across, I have to go to the press. You have an obligation to your readership. If you sound like a party hack, nobody will read it."

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