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Reid’s Reads: ‘Speaking Out’ by Ed Balls

I’m not a diary fan, and autobiographies don’t float my bookish boat, but Speaking Out is a decent blend of thoughtful musings, blunt politics and lightly-recalled life. Ed Balls presents a thematic account of his twenty-one years in politics from 1994 until 2015. If you’ve any care for the hubbub and crackle of Westminster, this is the book for you. 

Four sections and a preface make up Speaking Out. I was hooked at the thoughtfully poignant beginning: “Being at your own funeral isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.” May 8 2015, Labour lost the general election and Ed Balls lost his seat as an MP. I remember this being a striking example of the election result: that Balls went from potential Chancellor of the Exchequer to an unelected civilian.

Although the twenty-seven chapters each tackle an aspect of political life, they also tend towards a chronological timeline of events. Balls left the Financial Times to join Gordon Brown’s Treasury team in 1994. He became an MP in 2005 and then was Economic Secretary, Children, Schools and Families (Education) Secretary, Shadow Home Secretary and Shadow Chancellor. He also came third in the 2010 Labour leadership election and is married to Yvette Cooper (who ran for Labour leader in 2015).

Generally, Balls covers the twenty-one years evenly. He dives into the mess of the 2008 financial crash, picks apart the Blair-Brown dynamic and passes through the 2010s. However, the earlier chapters have a lengthier and warmer quality. You get the impression of a youthful pioneer being worn down by a decade of responsibility. For my part, I would’ve liked to have hear more about the Milliband years. Balls touches on ‘opposition’ and aspects of his political image in these times, but it seems like he’s holding back.

Balls memories are pretty upbeat and everything is discussed in statesman-like language. Nothing is sensational, but there is also a lack of ‘crunch’ to the chronology. Much is implied, but in a respectful way. Referring to Ed Milliband, for example, Balls is clearly disappointed by the way the Labour leader ignored the economy, but he refrains from taking it personally or showing any anger at the situation. This civil approach is admirable but was at times clinical. The cases where Balls does let out criticism beyond benevolent ambiguity then carry real weight.

Ed Balls and Gordon Brown at the Treasury.
Ed Balls and Gordon Brown at the Treasury in 1997.

Occasionally, Balls adopts a teacher role – giving advice to the politically engaged. This is a balance of soap-box incitement to action and cautionary warnings. Sometimes this comes across sermon-like, particularly the mantra of ‘good politics is essentially good economics’: an easy line which condenses Balls’s expertise and experience into a soundbite. On the whole, it is a necessary evil. As someone with little insight into economics, I didn’t mind hearing wisdom – even if that wisdom was sometimes shrouded in a defensive, preachy tone.

Triumphantly, Balls doesn’t mumble and downplay his life but sings a joyous melody of confidence. As much as I’ve been asked ‘Oh isn’t he the Twitter name guy?’, Ed Balls was a big player in British politics and shouldn’t be passed aside as less. The ‘hinterland’ chapter was particularly insightful: anyone who balances ‘real life’ with a job in the public eye deserves respect. Ironically, despite for years being the butt of cheap jokes and known for the eponymous annual Twitter day, the author has never been more popular. He represents an iconic niche of professional yet accessible. Although it starts as a metaphorical eulogy, Speaking Out reads like a victory lap, which is a true pleasure to read.

Verdict – 8/10 Chuffing Great

Upbeat, meaty and authentic. Although Ed Balls’s retelling of his political life can seem preachy, it feels honest and represents a beating heart of British governance which is oft-ignored in today’s apathetic and cynical climate.