If you’re not a political geek or a LibDem, you’ve probably never heard of Jonny Oates, but take it for me if you read his book you’ll want to learn more about him.
This is not the book I was expecting. Given his background in liberal democratic politics and his position as Nick Clegg’s chief of staff during the coalition years, I thought the bulk of that would be. Is not it. By far not.
Kudos to Biteback for the release, because unless its reputation spread orally, a book by a LibDem boy in the back room is unlikely to ever ring the tills in Waterstones. During my two decades in publishing, I would occasionally get a manuscript that I would read and then decide it was a book that deserved to be published, even if it only sold 100 copies. This is one of them. It’s a corker.
Jonny Oates had what most people would consider a normal civic upbringing. His father was the pastor of St. Bride’s Church on Fleet Street. They were a normal family in every way. But Jonny had a troubled childhood, and this is where the book begins. The first chapters are the best in the book in many ways, and they set the scene for Whart Follows. At the age of 14, Jonny runs away from home. To Addis Ababa. Yes, in Ethiopia. And whatever story it is. Although his stay in Africa only lasted a few weeks, he begins a love affair with the continent and returns in the mid-1990s to teach in Zimbabwe and work for Inkartha in South Africa.
The main theme of the book is Jonny’s struggle with his sexuality. He realizes early on that he’s different, but like so many gay men in the 1980s and 1990s, he can’t bring himself to come to terms with it. One of the best passages is when he describes his first thoughts on Lynne Featherstone’s initiative to introduce the Equal Marriage Act. He wonders whether the political struggle is worthwhile given the existence of civil partnerships. His LibDem colleague James McGrory, a decade younger than him, tells him to get away from it, and of course it’s the right thing. James is, as Oates describes him, a straight man who supports Arsenal.
The final chapters of the coalition years are no less exciting than they were before, even if it’s a well-worn path that is described in several books I published by David Laws. Jonny Oates sees George Osborne very differently from David Laws. It doesn’t come out well here. At times Oates had remorse and almost resigned after a self-admitted cock-up. The only person who shows up with an intact reputation is Nick Clegg. Perhaps not surprising, but it confirms what I’ve always thought – that Nick Clegg is a thoroughly decent man, who did his best for his party and his country, and to whom the history books are friendlier than contemporary commentators.
I named this one of my ten books of the year after reading only a third of them. I’ve finished it in the last few days and I have no hesitation in recommending it to you as my best overall book of 2020.
You can hear my hour-long interview with Jonny Oates about his book on the Iain Dale All Talk podcast feed.
Buy the book from Politicos.de for £ 13.99 (normal price £ 20) which is cheaper than Amazon.