Book review: Fighting Talk – The Biography of John Prescott

This review of Fighting Talk: The Biography of John Prescott by Colin Brown, appeared in Liberator in 1997.

The new deputy prime minister, John Prescott, has a public image of bluntness, sometimes unsettling party managers but touching a popular chord with the pubic. His most memorable speech was made at the 1993 Labour conference where, according to some, he saved John Smith’s one-member-one-vote proposals. As this biography puts describes it, the speech “contained every facet of the Prescott personality, which makes him so difficult to pin down – it was powerful, and moving, and hopelessly ungrammatical.”

He has been both admired and patronised for this image of a plain, honest man with a simple approach to politics and an amusingly hapless approach to grammar and syntax. However, as this biography reveals he is a rather more complex character. Often seen as an enemy of modernisers, he has in fact often pioneered support for policies – such as trade union ballots – normally seen as the preserve of a very different type of Labour politician. Unlike almost all of his colleagues on the Labour left he was never a member of CND and has been more interested in bringing new people into the party than fighting factional battles amongst a small number of activists..

Brown’s book is clearly friendly to Prescott, and benefits from his co-operation. Often the defence of Prescott’s views or actions are clearly stated, with the critical case given little airing. However, there is just enough balance to keep the book for hagiography, and the defences are often interesting. Many of them revolve around a view of politicians of the Left, whom Prescott categories into two groups: “There are those priests of the Left who want to keep their consciences and there are those who will get their hands dirty. I belong to the dirty hands brigade. I risk getting it wrong.”

Despite his northern, working class image Prescott was actually born in Wales (in 1938) and much of his childhood was in a household that was more middle class than working class. Poor biographies can make the recount of birth, childhood and education a tedious introduction, but this one examines his early years well in order to help explain the character we now see. In 1951 his family were runners up for the “Most typical family in Britain” competition. Not an image you normally associate with Prescott!

His inferiority complex is partly based in his failing of the 11 plus, but also on a more general social awkwardness: “I do believe I’m a socially inferior person. There are some places I’d never go alone, like the theatre or a posh restaurant.”

Much of his early life can almost seem as more appropriately belonging to a different person, a moderniser. He was arguing for union ballots when Blair was still at school. Long before the Tories had their Private Finance Initiative, he was arguing for British Rail to be able to borrow money privately.

He was heavily involved with the National Union of Seamen, and traced a course not immediately obvious for one now pigeon-holed on the left. He was pro-ballots, pro-union reform (clearing out a leadership that was too closely linked with the employers), sometimes arguing for strikes to end, but also often leading industrial action and even nearly accused by Wilson of being a communist plotter.

He became an MP in 1970, defeating Norman Lamont. During the 1970s he took an active part in Europe, turning down in 1980 the chance to become a European Commissioner. David Marquand wrote, “Two former anti-marketeers – Lord Bruce of Donnington and John Prescott, the leader of the Labour group, played leading parts in the work of the Parliament, of a remarkably constructive kind.”

This is typical of his approach as described here – getting on with doing things even if he did not really approve of them. Adapting to circumstances, or selling out and compromising? The book strongly favours the former, but has just enough balance to give the critical reader enough ammunition to draw a different conclusion. This makes for an interesting book, although the clear style is sometimes marred by a jiggling about of events which can make the chronology difficult to follow.

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