From my Perspective: Ed Balls

Economist, broadcaster and former cabinet minister

What inspired you to write your new book, Appetite: A Story of Family and Food?
The pandemic meant my trip to America to film Return to Trumpland was cancelled and I ended up on Best Home Cook with Mary Berry. But the main catalyst was the photo-book I’d done for my daughter’s eighteenth birthday when she asked for, “a book of all the recipes Dad’s cooked for the last eighteen years.” Covid made everyone realise how important food, family and being together was.

How do you divvy up the cooking in your household?
Yvette retired from cooking when our first daughter was born. So initially it was survival. But over time I’ve taken on all the food shopping and cooking. She was good, but she just gave up – she said she had other things to worry about.

Who taught you to cook and what recipe kick-started your enthusiasm?
My mum taught me to cook, although the first recipe I tried to make was my grandma’s shepherd’s pie, which was always made with beef mince, not lamb. I was around ten and would get instructions left on a note on the table, on things I could do to help before mum got back: “Prepare the potatoes!” The other thing I remember, from doing my Scout cook’s badge aged thirteen, was making a beef casserole with brown ale. I thought, “You put beer into a stew?” It was a lightbulb moment, it seemed really exciting and innovative.

You talk in the book about the foodstuffs of the 1970s. What do you miss most?
There are two things we had a lot in the ’70s, which I’ve not eaten for twenty years: tinned peaches and Angel Delight. If I’m honest with you, I don’t really miss tinned peaches because fresh peaches are better. But actually – although I’ve not had it for years – back then Angel Delight was a treat. I mean, it was a powder, and it became dessert. And the strawberry one was really good.

What would your last supper consist of?
It’s hard to beat a really good steak. But the first meal I ever had in my life (other than milk) aged three weeks, was roast beef and Yorkshire puddings liquidised in a Moulinex, on the advice of the health visitor. So, I think I’ll have to say that my last ever meal, to round things off, would be roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. End where you started.

Which five people would you invite to Sunday lunch?
I did an amazing programme for BBC Radio 4 six years ago called Dream Dinner Parties (I made the first one) where you go into the BBC archive and find old broadcasts of people who have passed away. Then, using their recorded words, you edit it all into a dinner conversation. I “invited” Denis Healey and Danny Kaye, Nancy Astor, Les Dawson and Joan Rivers and we discussed Dawson’s views of women, which Nancy was offended by. There was a conversation between her and Denis about cowardice in World War II, then Les Dawson talked of his fears about being on screen. Nancy’s style was so old-school – I served her a glass of champagne and the bubbles covered up the poor sound quality of the old recording. I’d love to get them together for real.

Are you the sort of person that who goes on diets?
Yes, I’ve been on lots of diets. They never work. When my mother-in-law says to me, “Have you lost weight?”, I know that means she thinks I’ve put weight on. So, it’s always a trigger. I’ve learnt that the important thing is that’s it’s not a diet, it’s a lifestyle change. I’m about three quarters of a stone down since Christmas. But it’s really, really important to say it’s not a diet.

Would anything tempt you back into politics?
Being a cabinet minister was the hardest and the best thing I’ve ever done. And I think to say I could never be tempted would be wrong, because it’s good to aspire to be in public service. But, having said “never say never”, I think in life you should always go forward. And, for me, it would feel like going backwards; I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

You seem to have taken to TV presenting. What do you enjoy about it?
I’ve presented Good Morning Britain a few times over the past six months. Three hours of live morning television, covering everything – politics, culture, health. The autocue and the open talkback in your ear is actually much more enjoyable and exhilarating than I expected. Compared to any other medium I’ve ever been involved in, television’s so intimate, powerful and long-lasting. People I’ve never met before talk to me in a personal way about how they were affected by things like Trumpland, which was now five years ago, or the last year’s Inside the Care Crisis. You can make people see things differently, or think anew. Having been in politics for a long time, I can see television offers different ways to get people to think about issues which are important for the future.

You took up piano late in life, why?
I wanted to play as a child, but we didn’t have a piano. And then our children had a new piano teacher and I had this sudden realisation that if they could learn, why couldn’t I? So, I just started from scratch and did my Grade One exam six months after. I’m now eleven years in and have four different Bach Goldberg variations on the go. And the moment your mind wanders from your hands and the music and the playing, it all falls apart. So it’s the only thing where you can’t think about anything else. Also, as an adult, you never have to practise. It’s entirely your choice. So many people don’t go back to music because they think it’ll be a burden. But there’s no obligation. I’m ten years into a midlife crisis which is going really, really well. Piano, sailing, marathons, all sorts.

What one measure would you take to improve life for the next generation?
The right answer of course, is a globally agreed and enforceable settlement on reducing emissions to tackle climate change. But, if I had a magic wand, I would find a way in which phones and technology and social media ended each night at 7.30pm. The intensity of the school day and playground (all those issues around friendships and relationships) is too much and phones take it all home. When I was a teenager, I came back and we’d watch Coronation Street, or I’d have dinner and do my homework. I would like the next generation to not feel burdened by the 24-hour intensity of social engagement.

Would you advise someone young to go into politics?
Definitely. Because democracies require people to put themselves forward, to be elected, to serve the public. And if you don’t have the good guys doing it, it ends up with the bad guys in charge. It’s hard and I wouldn’t advise people to go into it with rose-tinted spectacles. And I’d like our society and parliament to change to make it more supportive, inclusive and welcoming. Recent events around sexism in parliament haven’t helped. But in the end, if you don’t inspire the next generation that politics is a noble pursuit then, as a democracy, you get into real trouble.

What’s the most significant political meal you’ve attended?
The Granita dinner between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Although, having explained to Gordon Brown what polenta was and witnessed his horror at the idea of choosing from a chi-chi Mediterranean menu, I left the two to talk privately and didn’t actually eat. In terms of my personal politics, the first meal I ever had with Yvette was fish and chips on a Friday night and we both had peas and put the salt and vinegar on the fish and chips in the shop. It was clear we’d both been similarly brought up and we’ve never looked back.

What would you cook for Gordon Brown and for Tony Blair?
For Gordon Brown, I think spaghetti Bolognese or very well done steak and chips. Tony Blair – I think I might make him a crab and samphire tart. I don’t think Gordon would eat crab. He’s never heard of samphire. He would be averse to a tart on the grounds it wouldn’t be substantial enough. Whereas I think Tony would like crab, know what samphire is and quite like a tart. So that’s the difference.

What were the Blair and Brown administrations’ greatest achievements?
The only achievements which count in politics are the ones which last, become consensual and part of the way in which we all think. So – even if they were contested at the time – the national minimum wage and civil partnerships qualify. What was done in Northern Ireland has lasted. The failures were the things that failed to build consensus. And clearly Gordon Brown and Tony Blair failed to build a consensus that you could be strong and patriotic and independent and part of the European Union – it was also a failure of the government that came afterwards.

If you were chancellor now, what measures would you take?
I would have deferred the national insurance rise for a year. I don’t know why Rishi Sunak didn’t do that in the budget. There’s a big argument about whether the national insurance rise, tax rise, is the right tax rise or not. But given the kind of global cost pressures at the moment, given the fact that public finances had improved compared to when he announced the national insurance rise, he could, from an economic point of view, have deferred it for a year.

How has your stammer affected your life on the public stage?
I didn’t find out it was a stammer until I was a cabinet minister. I think it made the earlier years in politics and the first period of my time in the cabinet really hard. But in the end, it was liberating – I think I became a more natural speaker, and presenter on television, because I understood and embraced it rather than trying to fight it.

Why is the Sound of Music the greatest musical ever written?
It’s the only film in which I know I will always cry at a certain point – when the children have been told off by their father for falling in the water and he sacks Maria; then he walks in as they reprise, in harmony, the Sound of Music theme. It’s the first time music has re-entered the family home since the death of his wife and suddenly he realises what a massive mistake he’s made and joins in the singing. At that moment you see music as the path to redemption, understanding and moving on. And he runs out to tell Maria, “Don’t leave.” Best moment in cinema.

Ed Balls was Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families 2007-10 and then Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer. His most recent book is “Appetite: A Story of Family and Food” (Simon & Schuster)

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