Book reviews: Perilous Question & 5 Days in May
This article is from the July 2013 issue of Total Politics
By Antonia Fraser
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20
Review by Keith Simpson, Conservative MP for Broadland, and PPS to the foreign secretary
Antonia Fraser is a distinguished historian who has written extensively on the 17th and 18th centuries, so her decision to write about the Great Reform Bill of 1832 has seen her move “out of period,” something noted by some nitpicking academics. The Great Reform Bill has been written about extensively, and there are two excellent detailed studies available, Michael G Brock’s The Great Reform Act (1973) and Edward Pearce’s Reform!: The Fight for the 1832 Reform Act (1973).
So, why another book? In Fraser’s words, “I wrote this book to satisfy my own curiosity: what were they like, the people who fought for (or against) the Reform Bill of 1832? What was it like, the reality of the precise, short period – July 1830 until July 1832 – in which it took place? I wanted to investigate the flavour of the times, rather than a history of reform. During the period I was working on this book, British politics sometimes seemed to be tracking my early 19th century course, as topics like voting and the House of Lords regularly came up for discussion, to say nothing of popular demonstrations; parallels are, however, for the reader to draw. Essentially, I was interested to pursue the perennial mixture of idealism and self-interest which permeates the politics of great events.” In all of this Fraser succeeds.
Superficially, looking back on the events of 1832, it is easy to think that the Great Reform Bill changed very little. The size of the House of Commons remained at 658, there were still ‘pocket boroughs’ and the electorate only increased from 478,000 to 813,000 out of a total population of 24 million. It took nearly another 100 years before there was complete universal suffrage.
But, as Fraser shows, the passing of the Great Reform Bill was not just about dry electoral detail, but set against a background of widespread violence and fear of revolution, as was seen in France in 1830. Economic distress and the impact of the introduction of farm and industrial machinery aggravated a situation in which new towns like Manchester had no parliamentary representation.
Fraser is brilliant at portraying all the great figures of the period, whether landed aristocrats like the Tory Wellington or the Whig Grey, as well as the Radicals. She rescues King William IV from royal obscurity, who was a sensible monarch who in the end took his constitutional duties seriously. Reform split the Tories, with some entering the Whig cabinet and others remaining irreconcilable opponents of any reform. The great constitutional clash between the Commons and the Lords, which saw the Bill rejected in 1831, prompted widespread violence that frightened the political and social establishment.
Perilous Question is a cracking good read and should be on every parliamentarian’s summer reading list. Just over two years later, in October 1834, the Old Palace of Westminster was gutted by fire, superbly told by Caroline Shenton in The Day Parliament Burned Down (2012).
5 Days in May: The Coalition and Beyond
By Andrew Adonis
Biteback Publishing, £12.99
Review by Rob Wilson, Conservative MP for Reading East
5 Days in May reads like it was written by a bride who has been jilted, having already arrived at the altar, waiting for the ring to be put on her finger. It is a book full of anger, recrimination and justification.
The author, Andrew Adonis, the outstanding former education/transport secretary and Labour negotiator in the aftermath of the 2010 general election, gives a highly personal account of his involvement and reflections on those five historic days. His anger bursts out of the pages as his disbelief at the treachery of the Liberal Democrats becomes almost all-consuming. At times, his despair is nearly audible: how could the Lib Dems do this?
But this adds to the interest as the words crackle with barely concealed rage. It is hardly surprising that Adonis feels the way he does – he spent much of his political lifetime dreaming of a ‘realignment of the left’. He felt that many in the Lib Dem Party thought the same way and were eager to exchange vows. It must have been a shattering blow to find that the people with whom he built friendships and consorted for all those years turned their backs and fled the church at the crucial hour.
The book is short and makes for a pacey read. It doesn’t add much to what we know already about the negotiations or the personalities involved, but it does give an insight into a significant strand of Labour thinking at the time.
Adonis supported Gordon Brown’s view that keeping the Conservatives out of government – almost at any cost, even to the Labour Party itself and the country – had to be the primary aim. Fortunately, other Labour figures took a different view. Although one of the sharpest brains in the former government, Adonis was blind to the flaws in the argument that the Tories would be bad for “Labour’s people”. The Labour government had allowed the banks to gallop towards the edge of self-destruction, almost taking the entire British economy with them. How could it get much worse for ordinary people?
What Adonis did grasp was that the public had had enough of Brown, but he failed to realise it had also had enough of Labour. The Lib Dem leadership knew this and was always intent on a coalition with the Conservatives. From very early on the Lib Dem leadership’s main hurdle was to convince its predominantly leftwing MPs and party, and Adonis makes an incisive analysis of this that is hard to fault.
Inadvertently, the book also demonstrates that governing parties in particular are transfixed by how the media will react and what the media has to say. It confirms the unfortunate impact that 24-hour rolling news has had on the psychology of British politics: big screen TVs are everywhere and particularly in evidence in Brown’s inner sanctum in No 10. How can prime ministers concern themselves with the long-term needs of the country when they are always reacting to BBC or Sky News?
The Lib Dems, rather unsurprisingly, come out of the book looking shifty and duplicitous. Looking forward, it does seem difficult to see how a Lib-Lab coalition could emerge after the next election, even if the numbers dictated it. The seething dislike that now exists in the House of Commons is largely confirmed by Adonis. If Labour is the largest party after the next election – and it is still unlikely – Adonis may find he gets his wish of seeing the second and third parties joining to form the coalition and leaving the former spouse standing on the sidelines again. Wouldn’t that be maddening?