First it was gangnam style on Strictly Come Dancing. Then it was best-buddy style in Travels in Trumpland. Whatever next for Ed Balls? Has there ever been a more extreme apparent make-over of a public figure?
The word ‘apparent’ is important. No one is able to change their personality completely. The new Ed Balls must always have been lurking behind the old Ed Balls, lacking any means of escape while his alter ego pursued a political career. Now, that career having been terminated by the electorate (at least for the time being), the concealed Ed Balls has been able to blossom.
I must admit that I was not a fan of the old Ed Balls. He seemed to be an integral member of the pack of arrogant, dissembling bruisers that formed the baleful court of Gordon Brown. I didn’t like him and I didn’t trust him. His defeat was the Portillo moment of 2015. Now, just like Michael Portillo, he has reinvented himself on TV in a much more human guise.
Strictly proves to have been only the beginning. There, he demonstrated an admirable ability to make a fool of himself – not a notable trait of politicians, or not deliberately so. He was cuddly and fun – not attributes previously associated with him. I voted for him happily then, which I would never have done before, and was disappointed that he didn’t win. But it was still only light entertainment.
Travels in Trumpland belongs in a different category. On a serious level, it was the most informative and perceptive of the (many) documentaries I have watched on the Trump phenomenon. But it was on the human level that the series was most revealing.
This could so easily have been yet another programme by a patronising European liberal mocking the odd assortment of gun-toting rednecks and billionaire face-lifters that make up Trump’s constituency. It was not. The degree of empathy, the level of engagement, that Balls exhibited with everyone that he met and talked to was rare and extraordinary. All the more so since most of them were people with whose views he disagreed profoundly, living lives beyond his own experience or (one imagines) his aspirations.
And all this was accomplished without a loss of integrity. Balls did not conduct sycophantic interviews and then use his commentary to rubbish his interviewees when they were no longer there to defend themselves. He did not disguise his own opposing opinions in the interviews, but he made his points courteously, modestly and humorously. He seemed, at all times, genuinely interested in the people he was talking to and open-minded enough to listen to them.
There was a moment, talking to someone about the Mexican wall, when you could sense him wanting to make the pro-immigrant case. You could also sense the politician in him – a thoroughly honest politician, in this case – realising that, if he was in office, he could not so readily ignore the fears of the anti-immigrant lobby. So he did not give the predictable response. He kept quiet, where other commentators would not.
Cynics would say that this was just a veneer. If it was, it was a pretty convincing veneer and he should immediately consider a career on the stage. But I think it was genuine. To my own amazement, I have come to the conclusion that Ed Balls is a thoroughly nice, funny, self-deprecating, open-minded, sympathetic man. Who else would start all three episodes of his programme with the scene of his greatest humiliation – his election defeat in 2015?
Two thoughts remain. The first is the hope that more documentaries will now follow this one. In particular, I would like to see Ed Balls do a British version of the Trumpland series: Travels in Brexit-land. The second is a puzzlement that people should need – or should feel that they need – to adopt a restrictive, unattractive and misleading persona if they are to make a career in politics. Why couldn’t the Ed Balls of these documentaries have been the Ed Balls in office for all those years?
If he does go back into politics, and who knows whether he wants to or not, I hope that he will go back as the man he has now shown himself to be. If he does, I may well vote for him this time. And, if he does, I should think he stands a good chance of becoming Prime Minister one day. If his wife hasn’t got there first.