2012 book reviews: A new leaf
Written by Cultureon 2 January 2013 in
This article is from the January 2013 issue of Total Politics
The outstanding political biography of 2012 was Robert A. Caro’s The Years of Lyndon Johnson: The Passage of Power Vol 4 (Bodley Head, £35) which covers the period of his vice presidency and the first few months of his presidency.
Jack Straw’s Last Man Standing: Memoirs of a Political Survivor (Macmillan, £20) is one of the best memoirs of a contemporary Labour politician, even if it slides round some political and personal issues.
A surprisingly good memoir is Seb Coe’s Running My Life (Hodder, £20). Driven to succeed by his own internal grit and a forceful father, he has been an Olympic champion, a Conservative MP, chief of staff to William Hague as leader, businessman and then the man who delivered the Olympics to London and ensured their success.
Right-wing Tory MP Michael Spicer served briefly as Margaret Thatcher’s PPS, then as a junior minister and over many years was a leading euro-sceptic before becoming chairman of the 1922 Committee. The Spicer Diaries (Biteback, £30) give an insight into the politics of three decades.
Nick Robinson appears to have been commenting about and analysing politics and life in Whitehall forever. A consummate professional, his Live from Downing Street (Bantam Press, £20) is both a memoir and a commentary on the relationship between the media and politicians.
Halfway through the life of the coalition government, and the Constitution Unit had interviewed dozens of ministers, parliamentarians, civil servants and party apparatchiki about the workings of the coalition and its impact on Whitehall and Westminster. Ably edited and written by Robert Hazell and Ben Young is The Policies of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government Works (Hart Publishing, £19.95).
Why are some nations more prosperous than others? This, using historical and contemporary examples, is the question addressed by Daron Acemoglu and James A Robinson in Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty (Profile Books, £25).
Complementing this book is Niall Ferguson’s The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die (Allen Lane, £16.99). Ferguson is concerned about the decline of the West with symptoms of slow growth, massive debt, ageing populations and bad social behaviour. The reason is that our institutions are degenerating – discuss.
Mark Marzower is a distinguished historian and author of the impressive Hitler’s Empire: Nazi Rule in Occupied Europe. In Governing the World: The History of an Idea (Allen Lane, £25), he outlines how nations have attempted to promote their national interests but within some form of international diplomatic framework, from the Concert of Europe through the League of Nations, the UN and even the EU.
We live in an increasingly data-driven world, but it is harder than ever to detect reliable patterns amid the noise of information. The statistics guru Nate Silver explores the art of prediction in The Signal and the Noise: The Art and Science of Prediction (Allen Lane, £25).
David Priestland, in Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A History of the World in Three Castes (Penguin Press, £17.46), argues for the predominance in any one society of three value systems – the commercial class, the military and the boffin. These castes struggle alongside the worker for power. At present, the author argues we have lived through an age ruled by merchants.
Ian Cobain is an investigative reporter with the Guardian who has worked on the UK’s involvement in torture since 9/11. In Cruel Britannia: A Secret History of Torture (Portobello Books, £18.99) he argues that Britain, far from not being involved in torture, has used it from the Second World War through decolonisation and the war against terror.
Sherard Cowper-Coles is a former FCO mandarin who recently wrote Cables from Kabul about his experiences in Afghanistan and the Pakistan. Ever the Diplomat: Confessions of a Foreign Office Mandarin (HarperPress, £20) is an entertaining memoir of over 30 years’ service.
At a more magisterial level, the former diplomat David Hannay has written Britain’s Quest for a Role: A Diplomatic Memoir from Europe to the UN (IB Tauris, £30), which combines a narrative of British foreign policy over the past 40 years with his own involvement with the EU and the UN.
Patrick Hennessey’s The Junior Officer’s Reading Club was a great success, based on his service as a young Guards Officer and experience in Afghanistan. Rather guiltily, he explains in his latest book Kandak: Fighting with Afghans (Allen Lane, £16.99) that he had failed to adequately explain the role of Afghan soldiers.
British ambassadors’ valedictory despatches have been curtailed – which is disappointing, given they were often amusing, indiscrete and critical. Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson edited some of these despatches in Parting Shots. A further volume by the duo has now been published, The Spanish Ambassador’s Suitcase: Stories from the Diplomatic Bag (Viking, £16.99), which contains amusing, quixotic stories that often reflect a cultural snobbery of a bygone age.
James Mann, author of The Vulcans, analysed the people and policies of Bush’s foreign policy team. His The Obamians: The Struggle Inside the White House to Redefine American Power (Penguin Press, £18.99) is an attempt to do the same thing in Obama’s White House, written prior to the election and an inevitable change in personnel.
The dramatic rise, and then fall, of US General David Petraeus is addressed by Fred M Kaplan’s The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War (Simon & Schuster, £17.49). Kaplan argues that Petraeus and a small group of soldier-scholars reformed the US military to be able to fight wars of counter-insurgency. He has hastily had to add material following the resignation of said general.
Understanding contemporary China must include understanding Chinese interpretations of their own history and relations with foreign powers. Odd Arne Westad’s Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750 (Bodley Head, £25) does just that.
Caroline Shenton’s The Day Parliament Burned Down (OUP, £18.99) is a superb account of the great fire of 1834, while Churchill, as a writer and author, has been examined before, but Peter Clarke has written a very insightful account in Mr Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer (Bloomsbury, £20).
Extracts from political diaries can be enjoyed in Ruth Winstone’s Events, Dear Boy, Events: A Political Diary of Britain from Woolf to Campbell (Profile Books, £25). Veteran political reporter Colin Brown has looked at various significant events in British history in Real Britannia: Our Ten Proudest Years – The Glory and the Spin (Oneworld, £16.99), ranging from Magna Carta to the Falklands.
Finally, we have a number of books that come under the heading ‘stocking fillers’ or purchases with those ubiquitous book tokens. Thomas R Flagel’s The History Buff’s Guide to the Presidents: Top Ten Rankings of the Best, Worst, Largest and Most Controversial Facets of the American Presidency (Cumberland House Publishing, £11.99) is something for the political anorak. A delightful compendium of Parliamentary facts and trivia is Robert Rogers’ Who Goes Home?: A Parliamentary Miscellany (Robson Press, £14.99).
Gaffes by politicians always provide amusement for journalists and voters, and some of the best/worst have been included by Phil Mason and Matthew Parris in Is That Mic Off?: More Things Politicians Wish They Hadn’t Said (Robson Press, £12.99).
It seems many Nobel Prize winners have provided memorable quotes, and David Pratt has gathered his pick in The 1,000 Wisest Things Ever Said: Wisdom of the Nobel Prize Winners (Robson Press, £9.99). And last but by no means least is Fred Metcalf’s compendium for dipping into at leisure, The Biteback Dictionary of Humorous Political Quotations (Biteback, £9.99).
Keith Simpson is the Conservative MP for Broadland