Ashcroft goes in search of the real Starmer

21 Aug

Red Knight: The Unauthorised Biography of Sir Keir Starmer by Michael Ashcroft

Michael Ashcroft specialises in getting there first. Within the last two years he has brought out the first biographies of Rishi Sunak (reviewed here) and Jacob Rees-Mogg (reviewed here), this week he offers us the first life of Sir Keir Starmer, and he has promised that “early in 2022” we shall get his account of Carrie Johnson.

There is an excitement in being first. One feels like an archaeologist excavating a site which no rival has yet touched.

I had this experience in 2004, when I began researching the early life of Boris Johnson, tipped at that time as the next Conservative Prime Minister.

Starmer has led a quieter life than Johnson. A search of all 72 issues of The Leeds Student (the weekly newspaper for Leeds University) published during Starmer’s time reading law there (1982-85) yielded a single reference to him, published in the “Personals” column on 27 January 1984:

“Keir Starmer, King of Middle-Class Radicals.”

As Ashcroft writes, this arresting phrase “was almost certainly an in-joke between friends”. He uses it as the title for a chapter, and speculates that Starmer was already “fending off accusations of being more bourgeois than he would care to admit”.

While at Leeds, Ashcroft concludes, Starmer “did not seek the spotlight, but was instead cautious, modest and restrained”, and concentrated on getting a good degree.

Which he did, taking a first and proceeding to postgraduate law studies at Oxford University, where he was at St Edmund Hall from 1985-86.

During this period, “Oxford was awash with future front-rank politicians”, including David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Radek Sikorski, Ed Balls and David Miliband.

Johnson, regarded by many of his contemporaries as a future Prime Minister, was at that stage the best known of these aspirants. In early 1986 he was elected (at the second attempt) President of the Oxford Union, and the following year just failed (to his bitter disappointment) to take a first in classics, having done almost no academic work except for an inadequate last-minute spurt.

Starmer spent, by his own account, “an intense year studying” in Oxford, which “confirmed me in my choice of pursuing a career as a human rights advocate, both here in the UK and abroad.”

It is not hard to think of circumstances in which this contrast could work to Starmer’s advantage. One can well imagine that Johnson’s mastery of the theatre of politics, and patchy approach to study, might create a reaction in favour of a less dramatic but more conscientious Prime Minister.

On the other hand, if it does, the Conservatives will attempt to install a less dramatic but more conscientious figure of their own.

Starmer has long been at pains to emphasise his working-class origins. Ashcroft looks into this class question with great care, and suggests that petit bourgeois would be a more accurate term, though that implies a cultural narrowness of which there is no sign.

For Starmer won a place at Reigate Grammar School in 1974, at a time when it was still, just, “a proper state grammar school”, as one of the teachers recalls, where “the ability level of the pupils was amazingly high”.

Starmer was a gifted musician, “good enough at the flute to be an exhibitioner at the Junior Guildhall School of Music”, to which he travelled for lessons on Saturday mornings.

He was also an accomplished footballer, who captained the school team in his last year “and proved a good leader both on and off the field”.

On the bus each morning to school, Starmer, a member of the East Surrey Young Socialists and an atheist, honed his wits in a running argument about politics, and also about religion, with a fellow pupil, Andrew Sullivan, a liberal conservative and Roman Catholic who was elected president of the Oxford Union and has since become a well-known commentator in the United States.

In 1976 Reigate Grammar School escaped abolition by going independent (though under the transitional arrangements Starmer continued to attend without his parents having to pay fees).

Andrew Adonis recently pointed out, in a piece for Prospect entitled “Boris Johnson: The Prime Etonian”, that in the 1970s, “having been for centuries essentially a comprehensive for the aristocracy, Eton changed into an oligarchical grammar school”:

“Just as Eton and the other top public schools were mutating into warped meritocracies, the grammar schools were abolished, so the competition largely left the field. It was strangely unrealised by Labour politicians of the era that the esprit de corps and academic prowess of the grammar schools had been vital to the left’s ability to take on the Tory public school elite on equal terms.

“The main political casualty of Labour’s comprehensivisation of education turned out to be the Labour Party itself, which thereafter lacked leaders with the confidence to match the gilded grammar school generation of Wilson, Healey and Jenkins, while the new breed of ‘meritocratic’ Etonians and fellow public school boys—girls were still rare, and girl Etonians non-existent—remained deep blue.”

Johnson used quite often to declare, with passionate sincerity, that competition is an essential part of education, so is academic selection, and so is studying subjects, such as Greek and Latin grammar, where there are right and wrong answers.

Competition suited him, and it suited Starmer, though the latter’s subjects at A level seem to have been maths, physics and chemistry, in which there are likewise right and wrong answers.

Conservatives still argue rather fruitlessly about grammar schools, but for Labour the whole subject of education, and how to reconcile the democratic thirst for equality with unequal distribution of ability and society’s need for a highly educated elite, is even more difficult.

Starmer’s parents were keen supporters of their local theatre, the Barn in Oxted, and attended plays and concerts all over Surrey. His father, a toolmaker, had his own business, and cared devotedly for Keir’s mother, born in 1939, who at the age of 11 was found to be suffering from Still’s disease.

Her consultant at Guy’s Hospital, Dr Kenneth Maclean, received her parents’ permission to administer the new steroid cortisone to her, which for a long time enabled her to live a much fuller life than had been expected.

Keir did not have a close relationship with his father, a man of rugged independence who late in life sent a round robin Christmas letter in which he remarked of “some of the residents in Oxted”:

“The posher the voice, the more vulgar they are.”

Ashcroft finds this “rather gratuitous”, but I find it admirable, an expression of the Englishman’s ancient right to be as rude as he likes about those who give themselves airs.

I would guess Starmer finds Johnson vulgar, but doesn’t quite know how to say this. One of the melancholy conclusions to be drawn from this book is that Starmer has yet to offer any phrases to the world which are likely to survive him.

Ashcroft takes us through Starmer’s increasingly successful legal career, culminating, after he has served as Director of Public Prosecutions, in a knighthood. His parents drive up from Surrey for the ceremony, bringing with them a Great Dane, a rescue dog called Chip, who they are told they cannot bring into Buckingham Palace, until Chip licks the police inspector’s face and they are all allowed through, with a member of staff volunteering to look after the dog.

The Starmers, she by now confined to a wheelchair, watch their son kneel in front of Prince Charles and reckon they are “the proudest parents there”. This is the stuff to give voters in the Red Wall seats who doubt whether Labour is still patriotic.

But it is also something their son feels an overwhelming urge to play down, for like most members of the modern Establishment, he wants somehow to deny that he belongs to it, and to emphasise his ordinariness.

As Ashcroft points out, this makes it impossible for Labour to talk convincingly about aspiration, the opportunities to better oneself which industry and ability can open to anyone in this country.

Unwearying egalitarianism undermines pride in individual achievement. Of course, any individual achievement also reflects credit on family, school, friends, colleagues etcetera.

But Starmer comes across as a bit of a bore (which actually he isn’t) because he feels a moral obligation virtually never to give credit to individuals, and to the difference they can make, but always to be collective and inclusive.

Until recently, Starmer could have served as a barrister and an MP at the same time, which would have given him more practice at speaking like a politician rather than a human rights lawyer.

This book will be found invaluable by anyone seeking to work out what kind of a person Starmer really is.