Des Wilson was a pioneering, high-profile and controversial campaigner, leading the way in the then novel spheres of single-issue campaigning and of charities getting stuck into small-p political campaigning before turning to taking the corporate pay cheque as a pioneer of corporate social responsibility. That makes his book one that fully lives up to the quote on the cover from Peter Hennessy: “These pages crackle and burn. You will enjoy them.”
It is inevitable and understandable that someone’s memoirs should very much give their side of the story and with the many controversies he was involved in, there is plenty of his side of the story for Des Wilson to give. Yet he usually also gives enough of the background and the criticisms of himself to give the reader very good clues as to what the contrary case is. Generally, in the accounts of his early campaigning life he is generous to those who criticised him and puts up a good defence of his most controversial trait – the way campaigns became personalised around him. He gives good examples of how putting an identifiable name at the head of a campaign helped the campaign, especially in securing more media coverage: “Yes, I court publicity. It is the lifeblood of the business I am in. But it’s purely business. It’s not personal.”
That applies most notably to his time at Shelter, whose first employee and whose moving spirit he was in the 1970s, but also to his later campaigning, including time as Chairman of Friends of the Earth and founder-Chairman of the Campaign for Freedom of Information.
His campaign style was uncompromising, as The Guardian wrote at the time he took on the role of running the 1992 general election campaign for Paddy Ashdown’s Liberal Democrats: “Wilson accepted on the understanding that there would be no formal written contract, that he could pick his own team and that he would receive no pay. Wilson is, above all, a man who likes to do things his own way and the value of these conditions is they divest him of unwelcome obligations: they enshrine his authority, ensure his independence and, crucially, insulate his relationship with the leader”.
The account is studded with lively personalities and amusing anecdotes, such as Godfrey Bradman who once rang Pizza Express to order a pizza be delivered to him. Not unusual you may think… save that at the time Bradman was sat at a table in the Claridges dining room, ordering the pizza to make a point about slow service. Unsurprisingly for someone who has spent time with Simon Hughes, Des Wilson has a tale of an over-running speech. In his case, it’s one that ran so late even Simon’s mother, who was sat on the platform, had to depart mid-speech, explaining she had a train to catch.
Des Wilson is at his least convincing when it comes to looking back on his time in the Liberal Party and then the Liberal Democrats (he was a Parliamentary by-election candidate and Party President for the Liberals before his time working on the 1992 general election campaign). After some generous remarks about individual leaders during the main chronology of the book, Wilson then moves on to a wrap-up section looking at all the qualities of all of the party leaders he has known. It’s the bitchiest and most critical part of the book, and it would be only a little unfair to summarise it as ‘none of them were as good as me’.
Even so, Memoirs of a Minor Public Figure is a great read both for its account of a fascinating life and for its lessons for anyone who wants to be a successful campaigner.