The best books of 2011

Written by Keith Simpson on 23 December 2011 in Culture
Keith Simpson MP names his favourites from the past year

This article is from the January issue of Total Politics

While these days iPhones, iPods and TV are our daily sources of political information, purer founts of knowledge can be found in the plethora of good books published over the past 12 months. Total Politics offers a selection for your shelves:

The final volume, although by dates the first volume, of Chris Mullin’s diaries, (Profile Books, £25) captures the highs and lows of the political terrain before Labour won its landslide in 1997.

The first banking crisis and the impact on the Brown government is documented by former Chancellor Alistair Darling’s Back from the Brink: 1,000 Days at Number 11 (Atlantic Books, £19.99), which many see as the revenge of Mrs Darling.

Both of London’s mayoral candidates have written books, but from different perspectives. In Johnson’s Life of London: The People Who Made the City that Made the World (HarperPress, £20) the inimitable Boris has a quick canter through the lives of some of London’s famous citizens. Observations range from the astute to the banal, but it is a lively literary romp. Former mayor Livingstone’s You Can’t Say That: Memoirs (Faber and Faber, £25) is a long, at times wearisome, catalogue of both significant and minor political events in the life and times of our Ken.

The surviving honorary president of the parliamentary awkward squad and former Labour MP Tam Dalyell has penned a worthwhile read in The Importance of Being Awkward: The Autobiography of Tam Dalyell (Birlinn Ltd, £25). The ‘life and times’ volume charts the career of a charming, intelligent, wayward and eccentric politician.

Pamphlets and short polemic books are often vehicles for new, thrusting MPs to advance ideas, and their chances for promotion. Three from this genre provide good reading: Masters of Nothing: How The Crash Will Happen Again Unless We Understand Human Nature (Biteback, £12.99) is a joint work by Matthew Hancock MP, former chief of staff and current close adviser to the chancellor, and Nadhim Zahawi MP, who has been a successful businessman and entrepreneur. Another offering from the Conservatives is After the Coalition: A Conservative Agenda for Britain (Biteback, £9.99), a volume of essays edited by Kwasi Kwarteng MP. Written by other members of the 2011 intake, it is perhaps a draft outline manifesto for 2015. From Labour we have Robert Philpot’s The Purple Book: A Progressive Future for Labour (Biteback, £9.99), in which the continuing flames of the legacy of New Labour can still be seen flickering.

Historically, the Conservative Party has struggled to come to terms with the politics of homosexuality, even though it has had a number of well-known sexually-ambivalent politicians among its ranks. Michael McManus, in Tory Pride and Prejudice: The Conservative Party and Homosexual Law Reform (Biteback, £20), documents this history and puts it into a wider context.

Mary Soames is the widow of Christopher Soames and mother of Nicholas. She has an established reputation as an author, and in A Daughter’s Tale: The Memoir of Winston and Clementine Churchill’s Youngest Child (Doubleday, £25), the youngest and only surviving child of Winston and Clementine Churchill relates her life from childhood to adulthood at the end of the war. Her reflective diary gives the reader an insight into her personality and of the wartime Churchill circle, and she writes with love and perception about her parents.

Castlereagh (1769–1822) is the only foreign secretary to have fought a duel and eventually committed suicide. His reputation has suffered from allegations of brutality and duplicity in Ireland, and a lack of political charisma. John Bew’s Castlereagh: From Enlightenment to Tyranny (Quercus, £25) is a major reassessment of an important political figure.

Bill Cash MP is known for his strident euroscepticism, but now he has written John Bright: Statesman, Orator, Agitator (IB Tauris, £25). A distant family relative, Bright has for many years fascinated the author, not least because of his subject’s formidable parliamentary reputation. A political reformer and briefly – twice – a cabinet minster, Bright was an outstanding orator whose speeches inspired, among others, Abraham Lincoln.
Charles Stewart Parnell was a nineteenth century Protestant Irish landlord who, at one stage, was thought likely to be a future prime minister. In Enigma: A New Life of Charles Stewart Parnell (Gill & Macmillan, £21.99), Paul Bew depicts a man full of contradictions who was ultimately brought down by his own appetites and lack of judgement.

Following John Ramsden’s previous story of the Conservative Party, An Appetite for Power (1999) is Robin Harris’ lively and trenchant new history, The Conservatives (Bantam Press, £30). The former director of the Conservative Research Department and member of Thatcher’s staff traces the story of the political party through the lives of its leaders, highlighting his heroes Disraeli, Salisbury and Thatcher. The traditions of Baldwin, Macmillan, Major and Cameron receive short shrift.

Robert Ingham and Duncan Brack have edited Peace, Reform and Liberation: A History of Liberal Politics in Britain, 1679–2011 (Biteback, £30), a series of essays by individual contributors. This is not a history of the Liberal Party, but a contribution to what some Lib Dem and Labour politicians would see as the progressive majority.

Attlee nearly always comes out top of any political scientist league table of British prime ministers. Robert Crowcroft’s Attlee’s War: World War II and the Making of a Labour Leader (IB Tauris, £56.50) is a stimulating reassessment of Attlee’s role as deputy PM during the Second World War and his ability to see off the leadership challenge of Herbert Morrison. Also, Crowcroft discusses the politics of coalitions, which has a resonance for today’s government.

Michael Lewis is an American political guru, much in fashion, whose works are cited and quoted within the Whitehall Village. His Boomerang: The Meltdown Tour (Allen Lane, £20) is one of the best analyses of what the Western world has experienced over the past three years, and what is to come.

In what President Obama may think of as an unhelpful contribution, Bill Clinton has written Back to Work: Why We Need Smart Government for a Strong Economy (Hutchinson, £16.99). In two parts, the first section is, in essence, a Democrat ‘bluffer’s guide to political campaigning’, the second about the need for the eponymous smart government.

Rumsfeld and Cheney have both written hard-hitting and partisan memoirs of their time in the Bush administration. Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s national security adviser and then secretary of state, has written No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington (Simon & Schuster, £20). This is a rather dry, academic memoir that lacks the sharp barbs of the Rumsfeld and Cheney offerings. Despite being close to the Bush family, Rice appears to have been marginalised by her powerful colleagues and rivals.

Robert Harris, author of many historical novels and the political thriller The Ghost, has turned his pen to the financial markets and their dependency upon computer programmes and high-risk gambling. The Fear Index (Hutchinson, £18.99) is just the novel for 2012.
Ann Treneman, The Times’s parliamentary sketchwriter, has brought together a year’s worth of her penmanship in Nick & Dave: The Year of the Honeymoon (The Robson Press, £14.99). Many an MP will be fingering the index, fearing – hoping? – for a mention. ■

Tags: Books of the year, Issue 43, Keith Simpson

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