Book reviews: Mr Speaker & Six Moments of Crisis

Written by Keith Simpson MP and Rob Wilson MP on 15 March 2013 in Culture
Keith Simpson MP reviews Six Moments of Crisis: Inside British Foreign Policy, by Gill Bennett, and Rob Wilson MP reviews Mr Speaker: The Office and the Individuals since 1945, by Matthew Laban

This article is from the April 2013 issue of Total Politics

Six Moments of Crisis
Inside British Foreign Policy
Gill Bennett   
Oxford University Press, £20
Review by Keith Simpson MP, PPS to the foreign secretary
For the historian and political scientist, how and why decisions are taken at the national level is both fascinating and fundamental. Gill Bennett is the former chief historian at the Foreign Office and author of Churchill’s Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence.
In Six Moments of Crisis, she examines British foreign policy from an insider’s perspective and without hindsight, in the context of how and why decisions were taken. Her sources comprise official papers, including cabinet minutes and the draft and fuller notes kept by members of the secretariat, memoirs, diaries and interviews.
Bennett has taken twelve moments of crisis since 1945 – the decision to send land forces to Korea in 1950; the decision to confront Nasser in 1956; the decision to apply to join the EEC in 1961; the decision to withdraw from East of Suez in 1968; the decision to expel KGB agents in 1971, and the decision to send a task force to the Falklands in 1982.
Quite rightly, the author writes that, to understand how and why a decision was taken, we have to forget what we know about the consequences. Also, she rightly emphasises that in any of these crises, it is impossible to understand how ministers arrived at their conclusions without understanding the wider political issues and distractions. 
For example, the decision to send land forces to Korea was against a background of economic dependency on the USA, and the decision to send a task force to the Falklands was against public outrage and parliamentary uproar at what appeared to be an intelligence failure.
In many respects, Bennett’s approach to these decisions is from the perspective of a member of the Whitehall establishment – hardly surprising given her background. 
Her starting point has been the formal cabinet minutes, and, where available, the fuller notes kept by the cabinet secretariat. She values diaries above memoirs, as the former are more likely to be contemporaneous. She is firmly of the belief that, in all the foreign policy decisions she examines for this book, the role of the cabinet was crucial. Not a view that has found favour with historians and political scientists for some time.
She has two golden rules of governmental decision-making. First, that government policy is made by ministers, not by officials, advisers or foreign governments, although they may have an input. Second, that even in times of crisis, ministers always think about more than one thing at a time, even if at the meeting in question they discuss a single issue.
Perhaps the author underestimates the continuing and growing influence of both civil servants and political advisers and the way in which prime ministers ‘square’ individual ministers, or at least the most powerful and influential, before a crucial cabinet meeting. 
This feeds into a wider debate about the so-called decline of cabinet government under Thatcher’s later years and under Blair. There is a danger that politicians, civil servants and historians look back to a golden age of cabinet government from about 1945 to 1985.
It is difficult from reading this book to evaluate the role of intelligence in influencing cabinet decision-making, with only the prime minister, foreign secretary, home secretary and defence secretary receiving regular briefing, and, apart from the PM, often from only one agency. Even the PM may have been kept in the dark about some aspects of intelligence by the cabinet secretary.
Finally, Bennett’s book is a living example of the importance of history, not just in the context of how and why these decisions were made, but in providing a guide to the complex, and at times misleading, phrase: ‘lessons of history’.
Mr Speaker
The Office and the Individuals since 1945
Matthew Laban 
Biteback, £20
Review by Rob Wilson MP
Matthew Laban’s Mr Speaker: The Office and the Individuals since 1945 is an enjoyable romp through post-World War Two parliamentary Speakers. What it lacks in weighty detail it makes up for by telling the stories of the ten MPs who have been elected to the highest honour the Commons can bestow on one of its members. It is much more readable than it should be for what would be considered by many a dusty, rather dry, topic.   
For people who don’t take a close interest in the Commons, Laban clearly sets out how the role of Speaker has evolved and developed over the period of nearly 70 years that the book covers. The impact of radio, followed by television, changed the job from a low key inward-facing role to a high profile, sometimes international, one. With all sorts of new roles and responsibilities having developed, what happens in the Commons chamber is “the tip of the iceberg”.
Laban does get a few things wrong, for example, suggesting the Speaker’s Panel of Chairmen is elected, and he doesn’t always understand the political implications of some of the events he describes, but this should not detract from the reader’s enjoyment. 
He paints very colourful pictures of each Speaker, but particularly those who could be described as from the black and white era. His characterisation of the failure and weakness of Speaker Hylton-Foster and Speaker King’s “fondness for sherry” are both entertaining and perceptive.
I’m not sure that Laban, despite the modernisation of the Speaker’s role, wanted to paint a picture of its ultimate weakness, but that’s what he achieves. To be fair, he does point out that much of the importance of the role is often carved out by the character of the individual holding the office. 
Speaker Boothroyd’s character was perhaps more in tune with the role than Speaker Martin for example. Martin was also quite unfortunate to follow such an outstanding Speaker and to be constantly compared to her.
But with all Speakers, what comes across is their powerlessness against the executive, even when the government is weak. One is left with the feeling that, even with a very active Speaker, their successes are small and they have to be careful who they upset. Even today, if the government wanted either to make life difficult for a Speaker or force him or her out, it would easily be within its power.
All Speakers since 1945 have run into trouble – often of their own making. Speaker Martin’s long period in office is largely regarded as a failure by Laban, but for those present at the time it appeared more of a witch hunt. Although his handling of the expenses crisis lacked finesse.  
Speaker Bercow has also had his troubles, particularly, as the book sets out, with the accusations of bias. Having been elected on the backs of Labour MPs, Speaker Bercow has found this accusation difficult to shake off. His fiery temper, which has led to him reprimanding mainly Conservative MPs in an extremely hostile and aggressive way, has not helped. 
But a change in his behaviour in recent months has been detected and the previous hostility and chatter has dissipated as a result. If Bercow wants his wider contribution to the office to be fully recognised by history, he would be wise to continue on this journey.
The book is wrong in one of its conclusions, namely that the Speakership “is now most certainly on a par with becoming a cabinet minister in terms of a politician’s career aspirations”. It is not, and there are few MPs who would agree with that statement. But it is true that the role has been transformed and this book paints a very colourful and readable account of that change.

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