Screwing Up by Mark Oaten

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Screwing Up by Mark Oaten

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Category: Autobiography
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Van der Kiste
Reviewed by John Van der Kiste
Summary: A personal and political memoir by the former Liberal Democrat MP for Winchester, who stood down from Parliament after lurid revelations about his private life.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: September 2009
Publisher: Biteback
ISBN: 978-1849540070

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Like John Profumo and others, Mark Oaten will probably be remembered for the wrong reasons. It was the episode which made him for a while the country's No. 1 paparazzi target, and which as he recounts in his Prologue, when his world was crashing down and it hardly needs recounting in detail. Yet when all is said and done, this is a very lively, readable, sometimes quite poignant memoir from one of the men whose career at Westminster began and ended with the Blair and Brown years. Throughout there is an admirable absence of self-pity.

Born in Watford in 1964, after teenage years which revolved around football, pubs and the town's nightclub, Oaten was drawn to the SDP in his late teens, and at 22 he became the only Liberal on the local council. After standing in his home town at the 1992 general election and coming third, he was selected to fight the then apparently safe Conservative seat of Winchester in 1997 – a photofinish which resulted in a two-vote victory, a legal challenge by his worsted opponent and an astonishing 21,556-vote majority in a by-election at the end of the year.

Now one of 46 Liberal Democrat members and soon to be parliamentary private secretary to the next leader, Charles Kennedy, Oaten's early experiences included discussing the identity card issue, something of which he was initially in favour but later changed his mind after exploring the full human rights implications, meeting Rowan Atkinson on the pros and cons of freedom of speech and legislation on religious hatred – and being grilled by Jeremy Paxman on trifling issues (like his party's commitment to cod liver oil costs) about which he knew nothing. Having failed his O-level Maths three times, he admits that numbers and finance are not his strong point.

By 2005 the political landscape was changing. He was becoming frustrated with Kennedy's leadership (and having to cover up for his leader's drink problem, which had for some time been the worst-kept secret in political circles) and 'out of kilter' with a party which he felt took none too kindly to his brand of 'tough liberalism', and which led to some of them labelling him a right-winger. After the election of David Cameron as Conservative leader, with his non-stuffy approach and willingness to take on the Tory old guard, he was close to picking up the phone and putting out feelers to join what had been recently been known as 'the nasty party', before being persuaded to stand as Lib Dem leader after Kennedy's resignation, then having to withdraw due to lack of support among his colleagues.

Then came the bombshell, the Saturday morning he drew the curtains to find an army of press photographers outside the house, what he calls the days of 'prozac and paparazzi'. It was, he says, one of the first political scandals in the blog era, and imagination as to his activities ran riot on the internet. Needless to say, if you're looking for lurid revelations in these pages, you won't find them here. Oaten deals with them briefly in a matter-of-fact way. He is quite honest about the fact that at a time when he was working ridiculous hours and on a treadmill of meetings, interviews and speeches, knocking back a few glasses of alcohol at each function, and was dog-tired, he made a grave error of judgment for which he paid dearly.

Having decided he would stand down from Parliament at the next election, in the closing pages he offers a few thoughts on political reform, written at a time when the MPs' expenses issue was dominating national headlines. The very look and sound of the House of Commons, he says, is straight out of 'Jurassic Park' and needs to move into the 21st century. In certain ways, during the last few years, things around him have become worse, not better. Trains are late, full and expensive, we have ruined our green fields with new housing estates, impoverished pensioners can only claim money to get an oven fixed after filling in 31-page forms, while sport and fun are being pushed out of education and the result is a generation growing up fat and depressed. He concludes that he is becoming a grumpy old man – in which case, there are surely a lot of us about. It is also interesting to read his views, expressed in the final months of 2009, on the likely outcome of the next (in other words, the last) general election.

I started reading this book knowing little about Oaten beyond some of the more lurid headlines, and I finished it with a great deal of sympathy and admiration for him. As an engaging, level-headed and constructive political memoir I can wholeheartedly recommend it.

For a similar memoir, written by 'the most popular politician he's ever met', you will also probably enjoy Climbing the Bookshelves by Shirley Williams.

Buy Screwing Up by Mark Oaten at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Screwing Up by Mark Oaten at

Buy Screwing Up by Mark Oaten at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Screwing Up by Mark Oaten at


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