Total Politics books editor Keith Simpson MP looks at a timely history of the Labour Party and the influence of war reporting
Speak for Britain: A New History of the Labour PartyMartin PughBodley Head, £20.00
Speak for Britain is not a House history or an attempt to debate the current dilemmas of the Labour Party. It is instead a more straightforward attempt to analyse the evolution of the Labour Party since its origins in late 19th century Britain, with the aim of explaining its development from a tiny sectional party to a major national one. This is a timely history of the Labour Party, and Martin Pugh generously acknowledges the research and writing of previous historians.
Pugh has successfully used the records of many constituency Labour parties, just as the late Professor John Ramsden did for the Conservative Party. This corrects what the author believes has been an imbalance in previous histories towards the national and Westminster scene. He contemplates how Labour leaders were heavily involved in the Churchill coalition government and may not have been aware of continuing political activity at the local level despite a so-called electoral truce. They were therefore surprised at Labour's landslide victory in 1945.
In contrast to the Conservative Party, which has always shown a degree of ruthlessness in removing failed leaders, Labour tends to pick the wrong leaders and then retain them long past their effectiveness. Interestingly, he makes a distinction between success and achievements of being a party leader and that of prime minister. Pugh is more generous in his assessment of Ramsay MacDonald who he judges to have been, under difficult circumstances, a good party leader, but less successful as prime minister. In contrast, he thinks historians have been too generous to Clement Attlee who was less than adequate as a party leader but a great achiever as prime minister.
Speak for Britain shows how several disparate organisations and groups came together to form what we now call the Labour Party. There have been continuing tensions between workers and intellectuals, the role and power of the unions and - at least in the early period - whether to work within the political system and seek gradual change. Combining socialism with patriotism was the ideal mix but always caused the party internal problems. One of the strengths of Pugh's book is that he does not consider the history of the Labour Party in isolation from other political parties, particularly the old Liberal Party.
The parliamentary Labour Party's role at Westminster was undoubtedly eased by the determination of Stanley Baldwin not to denounce it as a revolutionary party but to encourage its constitutional involvement. Baldwin decided to treat Labour leaders as equals, unlike his successor Neville Chamberlain who regarded them as "dirt". Labour would have sought a new prime minister in May 1940 because of the failures of appeasement but their intense dislike of Chamberlain made it inevitable.
Even if Balfour was correct in saying: "History doesn't repeat itself, historians repeat each other," Martin Pugh draws some interesting comparisons between the Labour government today and the Liberal government in 1916. Exhausted and divided by war, internal disputes over policy and civil liberties, a declining membership and a moribund local organisation. Signifi cantly, he draws a major lesson from the failure of the Liberals in 1917-18 to push through a form of proportional representation like the Brown government in 2007-2009, either of which would have shifted the balance away from the Conservatives being the ‘natural party of government'.
Unreliable Sources: How the 20th Century was ReportedJohn SimpsonMacmillan, £20.00
In 1975, Phillip Knightley published The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero, Propagandist and Myth-Maker from the Crimeato Vietnam. The "first casualty" in war being truth, yet it is assumed that in peacetime the media report the truth. Indeed, the dedication in Unreliable Sources is "to those who told the truth".
John Simpson is a distinguished journalist and the BBC's world affairs editor. His image as a heroic war reporter was encapsulated by film footage of him appearing to lead the liberation of Kabul in 2002, although this was overshadowed by the appearance of the BBC's Kabul correspondent greeting him warmly.
In Unreliable Sources, Simpson looks at the way in which the British media has reported significant moments in our history since the Boer War. He shows the heady mix between good reporters, editors and proprietors, who were often forceful, eccentric and at times difficult men and women. Simpson's sympathy is with the reporters who have tried to represent the truth against military censors, government press officers, editors and arrogant proprietors.
Some of those reporters have knowingly or unknowingly reported stories that have affected public opinion and moved government policy. William Howard Russell's despatches from the Crimea are a good example, though his reporting of the Indian Mutiny and the American Civil War received less attention.
Today's reporters are challenged by the physical difficulties of having to move through areas affected by terrorists and insurgents who do not regard them as neutral, and by the internet, mobile phones and blogging. Unreliable Sources is a cride coeur by Simpson for the old familiar world of the print media, the ‘star' reporter and the ability to move public opinion through language and force of despatch.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk