The Unusual Suspect by Paul Flynn
Reviewed by Tom Harris for ePolitiX.com
I probably disagree with Paul Flynn on more issues than I care to list. He and I do not occupy the same geographical position on the broad and colourful spectrum that is the modern Labour Party. He clearly does not share my admiration for Tony Blair or my enthusiasm for nuclear power.
He is, nevertheless, one of the best writers I know – not just ‘a good writer for an MP’, but a very good writer. Full stop. His love of wordcraft comes across powerfully, beautifully and movingly.
The Unusual Suspect, the Newport West MP’s memoirs, is the kind of book that could achieve the virtually impossible task of persuading the reader that politicians are more than speech-makers, legislators and soundbite-creators; that they are, in fact, rounded human beings with the same back story as those they represent.
Paul, as a highly regarded parliamentarian – now in his seventies and standing again for re-election in his Welsh seat – recalls his life’s main events with a beguiling clarity and honesty.
The dramatic and serendipitous events that formed the careers of better-known political figures are well documented: Tony Blair’s successful lobbying to be reinstated on the Sedgefield shortlist after his name had been removed, Gordon Brown becoming the youngest-ever rector of Edinburgh University, William Hague’s famous (infamous?) teenage appearance on the Tory conference rostrum.
Flynn reminds his readers that a less extraordinary hinterland need not be a barrier to a political career. His early failure in academic life, his financial struggles as he and his wife brought up a young family, his job in the Llanwern steelworks, his divorce and remarriage… There is much to which the ordinary reader from a non-political background can relate.
He also successfully communicates his life’s great loves: the Welsh language and his wife, Sam, the description of whose battle with breast cancer reveals the very human and vulnerable side to Flynn.
But it is his retelling of when he and his first wife discovered the dead body of their 16-year-old daughter Rachel in her bedroom, that best illustrates Flynn’s writing ability. Here it is calm, measured and factual, but with human despair and desolation intruding through every dot and comma.
Throughout most of The Unusual Suspect, however, Flynn’s charm and humour shine through. His description of the early days in the Commons of a group of newly elected Welsh MPs brought a smile of recognition to my lips, while his plentiful and detailed analyses of various Labour Party selection contests made me grimace – again, with recognition.
He is, as one might expect, ruthless in his denunciation of those with whom he has crossed swords over the years. His personal attacks on Labour parliamentary colleagues come across as just a bit too bitter, and almost spoil the generally generous tone of the rest of the book. He falls into the trap of extreme sanctimoniousness when he dismisses the motives of those who wish to serve as ministers rather than backbenchers:
“My guru Tony Wright helpfully defined MPs as the Whys and the Whens. The Whens are obsessed with when they will get a job, go on a trip, be recognised as leaders. The Whys seek out the truth and remedies for reform.”
Flynn himself, as he records, served on Labour’s front bench in the Welsh and social security briefs, so was, at least for a time, a ‘When’ himself. Given how accessible The Unusual Suspect is to the non-political reader, it’s a pity that Flynn has chosen to perpetuate the anti-politics media myth that only backbenchers can ever be true to their principles, and that seeking ministerial office is, of itself, a compromise too far.
Nevertheless, most of the book is an unashamed celebration of politics. Like his previous book, Commons Knowledge (which I bought at Labour conference shortly after being selected as a candidate, but before I was elected), it’s packed with fantastic anecdotes illustrating the often weird life of an MP, whether at constituency or parliamentary level.
The Unusual Suspect is one of the best – and best written – political memoirs I’ve read. Any personal frailties which Flynn, either wittingly or unwittingly, exposes simply confirm the view that the electorate are best served by individuals as flawed and as complicated as themselves.
The Unusual Suspect by Paul Flynn
Biteback £19.99 256pp