Book Review: Chance Witness – An Outsider’s Life in Politics, by Matthew Parris
Parris never actually attributes the line “There’s something not quite right about that boy” to Thatcher; rather, he says, it was his reading of her face on more than one occasion. He claims in the introduction that this will be an unconventional autobiography, and it’s fair to say he does go into a longer description of his childhood than many. He has made an interesting story out of that – living variously in southern Africa, Cyprus, and England; the eldest of what turned out to be a relatively large family in the twilight years of the British Empire. An initially patchy education was completed in a progressive multiracial school in Swaziland after which Parris obtained a place at Cambridge, then a lazy year of postgraduate study in the US, before joining the Foreign Office, then the Conservative Research Department, then being in the right place at the right time – after a high-profile dog rescue in the Thames – to land a safe seat for the 1979 general election, quitting as an MP in 1986 to pursue a media career, initially on LWT and later as a sketch-writer for The Times. This book takes us up to 2002.
The jacket cover describes the autobiography as “candid”, and Parris certainly describes a few events of which he is less than proud; but more often he is generally indifferent about his own behaviour. He says his decision to leave parliament was made to some extent as he could see contemporaries starting to be promoted into government, while he was left behind; yet, by accident or design, perhaps the powers-that-were at the time made a good choice, for there are a continual stream of (mostly minor) errors of judgement. He says he was indifferent to Thatcherism, which perhaps also explains a lack of promotion in the 1980s; yet he maintains that was a position held by many. There was intermittent cruising on Clapham Common, which at the time went unreported; he later dug another hole for himself by going onto Newsnight with the intent of defending Ron Davies, but the effect of outing Peter Mandelson. Still, he found success as a sketch-writer, upsetting inter alia John Redwood and John Prescott. This is a thoughtfully-written and moderately entertaining book, though one isn’t quite sure whether Parris is a plain figure who never quite made it, or a complex figure who never quite wanted to make it.