What Does Jeremy Think?
Jeremy Heywood and the Making of Modern Britain, by Suzanne Heywood (Collins 2021)
In these days of zoom TV interviews it is not unusual to see the learned and powerful sitting in front of (usually) tidy rows of books. It is impossible to not to notice what these shelves hold and intriguing to wonder what they represent for their owners. Which ones might be discarded if need be? Which are used regularly or even read more than once ? If any of us had to limit our books to a small bookcase how would we choose which we wanted to hold onto?
Self justificatory biographies from the rich and powerful ( especially politicians) might be, I suspect, be the first to go? Too long, too self absorbed, too ready to defend reputation and explain away mistakes? Perhaps …. however this book however is not one of them. It is rich and informative at every level.
It is is a gripping and wise biography of the late Jeremy Heywood written by his widow Suzanne. It documents and captures a multi faceted picture of Heywood and his legacy as a civil servant working at the heart of Government. The chronicle, which she and Jeremy began after his diagnosis of lung cancer in June 2017. The text was augmented with interviews after he died in November 2018. There are few political revelations but it is an astonishing book for its picture of the complexity and unpredictable nature of power and the skill required to make decisions. the chapters document evidence of why Heywood is regarded as possibly the the most influential cabinet secretary of modern times. His energy and intelligence is balanced by his humanity and a deep desire to get things done by making it work better. It is people and their character (and values) that determines what happens.
The picture of the man is compelling and left this reader wondering what the ‘secret’ of success might be ? First an ability to grasp a complex situation requires intellectual ability but also instinct – especially in the understanding of what motivates people. Getting things done needs a wise grasp of human nature. It demands a steady patience with our foibles. It will certainly need the judgement of when to speak and when to keep silent ! Above all Heywood emerges as a skilful broker of compromise. Not everyone ( especially those holding the power) can get their own way – even if there is conviction that one way may be the only way. We all need checks and balances.
This book is also narrated political history too. We are taken carefully through a number of events. These start with starts his role in the Treasury of the then Conservative chancellor Norman Lamont. We read about the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and Heywood reveals the skill of the civil servant for hearing and understanding both sides at once ! I appreciated the warm and generous account of Brown’s premiership, making clear how the financial crisis was his finest hour. Initial ambivalence about the the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition warms into an appreciation of the counterbalancing effect it had on each party. And we are taken inside the Cameron and May premierships dominated by Brexit. This was possibly the most insightful and illuminating of sections in the book. And in all this the defence of the middle way is compelling!
In this a rather warm and sympathetic picture of politicians is painted here which some may doubt. We all need trust in our working life and there is a view here that politicians of all parties are honest and well intentioned. That made me consider the reality of cynicism and contempt with which is a dominant media view and that infects us all and our judgement. We do need to understand how power works and what the process of decision making looks like for us. In this are important questions about our world view and what kind of world we are building for one another. Surely these questions will bear upon us as we move out of lockdown into a new ecology ?
This is also beautifully human book. It is a lament on loss and a longing (perhaps) of what might have been. It is also the authors story – a childhood on a sailboat; a Cambridge PhD and achievements at McKinsey. It is also an intimate and personal story IVF, which did finally give them a son, followed by twins. The joy and struggles of parenthood are named – not least getting to work on time ! And in all this the man comes through – political and personal empathy, charm in listening and talking which enabled Heywood to be convincing and persuasive in equal measure.
So to return to those shelves. I shall certainly place this there and look forward to a second read. And grateful to my neighbours and friends the Seatons for this most excellent birthday present that kept me musing in Lockdown Three!