Book review: Christmas reads
There is always the temptation over the Christmas and New Year holiday period to relax with some wonderful trashy novel or a book on anything other than politics. But for the real dedicated political anorak or minsters intellectually exhausted by their red boxes, good books on politics can be both relaxing and stimulating.
For those with a tendency to the Bradshaw approach to political life there is The Times Guide to the House of Commons 2010 edited by Greg Hurst and at £55.00 a very, very generous present. The seventy pages of essays bring together fact and analysis while the constituency profiles provide satisfaction for those elected and hope for aspiring candidates.
It is complemented by The British General Election of 2010 (Palgrave Macmillan, £22.99) edited by Dennis Kavanagh and Philip Cowley. This really does get the reader to think about the pre-election period as well as the election campaign.
Even before the General Election the participants in the New Labour project and government were writing autobiographies and editing their diaries. They make a wonderful archive for journalists and political opponents, although not necessarily for historians. Tony Blair’s A Journey (Hutchinson, £25.00) was much hyped before publication but really is a good read, even if it is GQ magazine meets Facebook. Not in the tradition of most ponderous political autobiographies, 'I was born at an early age,' but chatty, funny and of course quite sly in the way difficult issues are dealt with to the anger of his political friends and colleagues, let alone his opponents. Peter Mandelson’s The Third Man: Life at the Heart of New Labour (Harper Press, £25.00) was published before Blair’s book, both pre-empting the former prime minister as well as being a warm up act. This is a good read ̶ lively, amusing and at times spiteful.
Sympathetic Labour journalists have attempted both to analyse what went wrong with the Blair/Brown governments, but also to offer a trenchant defence of the achievements. Polly Toynbee and David Walker's The Verdict: Did Labour Change Britain (Granta Books, £18.99) concludes not as much as they had hoped. Steve Richards' Whatever it Takes: The Real Story of Gordon Brown and New Labour (Fourth Estate, £14.99) attempts a fair and balanced analysis of the Labour government and in particular Gordon Brown.
Anthony Seldon who has written biographies of John Major and Tony Blair has now, along with Guy Lodge, written Brown at 10 (Biteback, £19.00). This is the first attempt to analyse the Brown government and relies upon interviews with many of the leading staff inside No 10.
But the best of the plethora of insider books on the Blair/Brown governments is by Jonathan Powell, who served as Blair’s Chief of Staff. His The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World (The Bodley Head, £20.00) attempts to provide a political context by drawing on Machiavelli. Among other things Powell does a devastating demolition job on Gordon Brown as well as analysing the problems faced by a prime minister running No 10, relations with the civil service, cabinet members, the media and life in general. Wonderfully arrogant and a no apology defence of Blair, this is a must for both the coalition cabinet and the shadow cabinet.
Those waiting for an autobiography or diaries, if they exist, from Gordon Brown, will have to wait a long time. Instead the former prime minister has written Beyond the Crash: Overcoming the First Crisis of Globalisation (Simon & Schuster, £20.00). This is a personal and self justifying account of the recent financial crash as well as the crucial role, in his opinion, he played in re-establishing fiscal stability. The book also offers recommendations for the future. One for Shadow Chancellor Alan Johnson.
Perhaps a more objective analysis of the Great Crisis can be found in Howard Davis's The Financial Crisis (Polity, £14.99). This is a good bluffer’s guide as the author looks at all the explanations and arguments and the remedies proposed. An economic 'blast from the past', but based on experience and real intellectual rigour is Nigel Lawson’s Memoirs of a Tory Radical (Biteback, £14.99) which is an abridgement of his original memoir with a new concluding chapter looking at recent financial events.
Which Way’s Up: The future for coalition Britain and how to get there (Biteback, £8.99) is a stimulating book by Nicholas Boles, Conservative MP for Grantham and Stamford, and for many years the intellectual 'cup-bearer' to Francis Maude. This may be a thesis too far for many Conservative and LibDem MPs as Boles wants their parties to agree to an electoral pact well in advance of the next general election.
Hung Together: The 2010 Election and the Coalition Government (Simon & Schuster, £18.99) is written by Sky political reporters Adam Boulton and Joey Jones. It’s a journalist insiders' account of the election and the negotiations to form a coalition government.
The origins of and formation of the coalition in May 2010 is addressed in two books. David Laws, a key member of the LibDem negotiating team and then chief secretary before his sudden resignation, has written 22 Day in May: The birth of the Lib Dem - Conservative Coalition (Biteback, £9.99). Rob Wilson, the Conservative MP for Reading East, has attempted a broader analysis in 5 Day to Power The journey to coalition Britain (Biteback, £9.99). Not part of the negotiating teams, nevertheless he has interviewed many of the leading participants on all sides (see articles by both authors on p28).
Good political biographies are ideal holiday reading. For years Adam Smith has been celebrated as the founder of modern economics, but as Nicholas Phillipson demonstrates in Adam Smith An Enlightened Life (Allen Lane, £25.00) Smith saw himself primarily as a philosopher rather than an economist.
It might be thought that yet another book on Lloyd George had little more to say that was original. The grand old warhorse of the Labour Party, Roy Hattersley, would disagree. His The Great Outsider: David Lloyd George (Little, Brown £25.000), benefits from the author’s experience as a minister and knowledge of early Labour-Liberal history even if the title of his biography doesn’t really fit the evidence.
Macmillan, the old 'One Nation Tory', is coming back into fashion, not least in Downing Street. DR Thorpe who wrote an outstanding biography of Eden has now written a superb biography Supermac The Life of Harold Macmillan (Chatto and Windus, £25.00).
Good diaries are a joy to dip into or read from cover to cover. Chris Mullin published two years ago his A View from the Foothills about his time as chairman of a select committee and junior Blairite minister. In Decline and Fall: Diaries 2005-2010 (Profile, £20.00) Mullin documents the slow wind down to leaving the Commons and while perceptive, and at times funny, it has a sad endgame feel to it.
Relations between the military and ministers were severely strained during the later Blair and then Brown governments - not a unique experience in British political history. General Richard Dannatt became a very public critic which is touched upon in his memoir Leading From the Front (Bantam Press, £20.00).
Bob Woodward has written several insider accounts of US presidents in office and the challenges they face. He was able to have intimate conversations with President Bush and his White House advisers as well as politicians, military and journalists. Now in Obama’s Wars: The Inside Story (Simon & Schuster, £20.00) he looks at how Obama has dealt with Iraq and Afghanistan. A British or European reader is struck by how it centres on Washington and America’s allies barely get a mention.
Finally two stocking fillers. Alistair B Cooke is now the official historian of the Conservative Party having for many years served as the deputy director of the Conservative Research Department. He has now written a short book A Gift from the Churchills: The Primrose League 1883-2004 (Carlton Club, £9.50). The League became one of the largest voluntary political organisations, bringing together mainly upper and middle class conservatives, predominately women, and increasingly working class Tories. A source of political support as well as helpers in constituencies.
Until 2006 a British ambassador leaving his post abroad, would write a valedictory despatch often circulated widely across Whitehall. This was the parting shot, and through Freedom of Information requests Andrew Bryson has extracted from the National Archives a rich and amusing collection originally presented on Radio 4 by Matthew Parris. Now a glorious read Parting Shots (Viking, £16.99) is a tribute to the Foreign Office diplomat in all his, and they mainly are his, prejudices. The valedictory despatch was effectively reduced and restricted in 2006 following the leak of comments from one despatch about the 'bullshit bingo' of the new management consultancy culture in Whitehall. Shame.
Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland
This article was first published in Total Politics magazine.