Order, Order! by Ben Wright
Part of my Sunday morning ritual is to collect The Sunday Times, grab the Culture section and have a read of the book reviews. Every once and a while you find something that looks like it demands reading. Ben Wright's Order, Order! was just one of those. Now, a book that is essentially a history of political drinking and the use of various forms of alcohol in politics could turn out to be a wet weekend of nothing more than drunken anecdotes or a dry cautionary tale on the dangers of drinking. Wright, a Political Corespondent for the BBC, walks a fine line and hits the sweet spot between the two brilliantly. Order, Order!, while genuinely hilarious at times, is more about the changing face of politics in a 24 hours news cycle and the impression that our leaders strive to portray more than anything else. While the stories of Churchill and Roy Jenkins are wonderful, the cautionary tales of men like Charles Kennedy sober the revelry well.
Order, Order! starts at a brisk pace, throwing you into some of the great tales of well lubricated British politics. From Labour Foreign Secretary George Brown, while on a visit to Brazil, asking the Cardinal Archbishop of Lima to dance through to a tour of the various bars and rooms of the Palace of Westminster that have kept the great and good of the establishment on an uneven keel. Your inbuilt disdain for Robert Maxwell will only increase when you find out how he sold off the Palace's wine cellar on the cheap, to himself. For me, that crumbling yet majestic house on the Thames is a wonder. It is where some of the greatest drama in history has played out. To have a glimpse inside the remarkably territorial bars and pubs that have shaped policy and intrigue, hidden in its depths, is a wonderful thing. Wright also shows how in days gone by, booze often got people into the house. In the 18th Century, legislation was passed to limit the public nomination ceremonies, where potential MP's plied all the local electorate with booze until voting day, to a maximum of fifteen days. Closer to modern times, we find out how a drunken New Labour press secretary kept the UK out of the Euro and torpedoed the royal yacht Britannia. Reading Wright's book, you marvel at how anything actually got done. But it is not just the UK that comes into Wright's gaze through the bottom of the glass. The reader is taken on whirlwind crawl around the word, with long stops in the United States and Russia. The drinking on Capitol Hill during Prohibition is always a wonderful stop on any tour of the drinking of the powerful. Ken Burn, in his documentary on the subject, revelled in the hypocrisy. Wright points to fact that legislation to control drinking habits had never worked any where in the western world.
Order, Order! is a fascinating read and Wright balances the subject matter well. Wright works through the modern problems of drink in our society (cheap booze, 24 hour supermarkets and fluctuating opening hours) and the issues our current MP's face when trying to balance the electorates desire to drink versus the health impacts and ensuing pressure on the NHS, that current sacred relic for MPs. Balancing humour with fact is something that all good political corespondents do well, as their chosen field is usually one where farce is never far from the brass rail. Order, Order! is a look at a dying (drying?) world. Our politicos are happy to be seen pulling a pint, but heaven forbid they ever drink from it. The sobering of Westminster is a good thing and the lessons of lost political giants like John Smith and Charles Kennedy are still felt raw. With our current febrile atmosphere at the heart of politics today, you wish that our leaders would decamp to Moncrief's, sing a few rugby songs, disrupt proceedings for an hour or two and just get over themselves. I'd buy the first round, and expense it, of course.