Keith Simpson's recess reading guide

Written by Keith Simpson MP on 7 August 2012 in Culture
Now that the Olympics are over, politicians should be off on their summer holidays. Our books editor Keith Simpson provides them with the perfect reading material

This article is from the August issue of Total Politics

What do Gordon Brown, Michael Howard, William Hague, George Osborne and Danny Alexander have in common?

A deep admiration for the American biographer Robert A Caro and his magisterial – and, as yet, incomplete – multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. The Years of Lyndon Johnson Volume 4: The Passage of Power (Bodley Head, £35) is the penultimate volume and takes Johnson from his indecisive pursuit of the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1960, through his time as vice president and his first few months as president following the assassination of Kennedy. Caro is a prodigious researcher and no detail is too small not to be examined. He not only explains the strange contradictions of LBJ, but also the mechanics of politics and government. The life of LBJ was about the acquisition and exercise of power, and this, the best of the four volumes, should prompt those who read it to turn to the earlier ones, which are still in print.

Another book that examines the acquisition and exercise of power, but from personal diaries, and not quite in the same league, is The Alastair Campbell Diaries Volume 4: The Burden of Power: Countdown to Iraq (Hutchinson, £25). Originally, Campbell published an expurgated volume of diaries, The Blair Years, and then unexpurgated extended volumes, in which the entries would be less damaging to Gordon Brown and the Labour Party. Fascinating, but exhausting to read.

Michael Spicer was a Conservative MP from 1974 to 2010 and a junior minister in the 1980s. The Spicer Diaries (Biteback, £30) give a personal view of Thatcher, Major and subsequent Tory leaders in opposition from 1997. As chairman of the 1922 committee, he had the unenviable task of presiding over leadership challenges and elections.

From 1983 to 2010, Conservative MP David Heathcoat-Amory held several ministerial appointments, including that of whip at the time of Maastricht, and resigned as paymaster general in 1996. Confessions of a Eurosceptic (Pen & Sword, £19.99) is an elegant memoir that outlines his euroscepticism but is also touched with personal and family tragedy.

In Cameron: Practically a Conservative (Fourth Estate, £10.99), Francis Elliott and James Hanning have updated their earlier biography, and this edition now observes Cameron as prime minister.

David Maraniss, whose biography of Bill Clinton, First in His Class (1995) has been much praised, now turns his attention to the young Barack Obama and the contrasts between the public and private man. To understand the president, read Barack Obama: The Making of the Man (Atlantic Books, £25).

We think of journalism as a modern invention, but fans of WT Stead can probably lay claim to his being the first investigative journalist of the Victorian era. A strange combination of Puritan, sex fanatic, spiritualist and social reformer, Stead died on the Titanic. W Sydney Robinson’s Muckraker: The Scandalous Life and Times of WT Stead, Britain’s First Investigative Journalist (Robson, £20) shows that our own tabloid journalists have much to live up to.

The role of Canada in British imperial history is overshadowed by Australia and New Zealand, yet Canada and its politicians were crucial to Britain’s survival in two world wars. Canadian prime minister William Lyon Mackenzie King towered over all other Canadian politicians as a great reformer, committed to Canadian unity and interests. But in private he was a vain, insecure man, easily flattered and manipulated by both Churchill and Roosevelt, as Allan Levine shows in King (Biteback, £30).

Jean Edward Smith, biographer of Ulysses S Grant and FDR, has written a revisionist biography of Eisenhower. In Eisenhower: In War and Peace (Random House, £25.58), Smith claims that President Eisenhower was a shrewd politician, who successfully negotiated an end to the Korean War and refused to get drawn into preventative wars with the Soviet Union and China. There are lessons here for a number of contemporary Western leaders.

Richard Aldous’ previous outing, The Lion and the Unicorn (2007), examined the rivalry between Gladstone and Disraeli. In his Reagan & Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship (Hutchinson, £25), Aldous argues that the leaders’ apparent close personal and ideological relationship was in fact more nuanced and, at times, cooler. There were wider and more traditional variations on the ‘special relationship’.

The politician as author is a well-established public figure, but motives for baring all are not always lofty. In Churchill’s case, his fertile mind certainly produced a mass of political ideas, but he also needed the money. In Mr Churchill’s Profession: Statesman, Orator, Writer (Bloomsbury, £20), Peter Clarke chronicles the writing of the magisterial work that occupied Churchill for a quarter of a century, his four-volume A History of the English-Speaking Peoples.

To be published in September, and currently under ‘warning order’, is Tim Bale’s The Conservatives since 1945: The Drivers of Party Change (OUP, £55). Post-war Britain was a country struggling to regain its feet, and this book examines why and how the Conservative Party adapted to the new world through a combination of strong personalities, ideas and political realities.

Seasons in the Sun: The Battle for Britain 1974-1979 (Allen Lane, £30) is the fourth volume by Dominic Sandbrook in a political, social and cultural history of Britain since Suez. A sparkling account of a politically depressing period of British history.

Although the research that went into The Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative–Liberal Democrat Government Works (Hart Publishing, £19.95) concluded at the end of 2011 – thereby missing some of the achievements, failures, stresses and strains of the past six months – editors Robert Hazell and Ben Yong have, nevertheless, included interesting observations and conclusions.

Lord Hennessy of Nympsfield, better known to friends and admirers as Peter Hennessy, is a political historian and doyen of Whitehall watchers. Previous books include Whitehall, Cabinet, The Hidden Wiring and The Secret State. In Distilling the Frenzy: Writing the History of One’s Own Times (Biteback, £18.99), Hennessy reflects, through a wide range of themes, on the development of British foreign and security policy. One of his most stimulating chapters is The Power and the Story: Policy-Makers and Historians.

Intelligence-gathering and analysis are central to government policy and planning, and considerable resources are allocated to their agencies. In Under Every Leaf: How Britain Played the Greater Game from Afghanistan to Africa (Biteback, £20) William Beaver examines how the Topographical and Statistical Department of the Victorian War Office evolved into the Intelligence Division.

Trying to find a succinct, informed analysis of where we are on Afghanistan, and how events will develop over the next few years, is not easy. But the International Institute for Strategic Studies has done just that in Afghanistan: To 2015 and Beyond, edited by Toby Dodge and Nicholas Redman (Routledge, £50).

There are plenty of books still being published about the Second World War, but Keith Lowe is concerned with the aftermath and truly appalling period, especially in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, of ethnic and religious cleansing. In Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of World War II (Viking, £25), Lowe explains in graphic detail the divisions and hatreds that continued after the Axis powers had been defeated, and whose legacies remain.

In retrospect, the Berlin Crisis of 1961 was as dangerous for super-power confrontation as the Cuban missile crisis. Frederick Kempe, in Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth (Penguin, £12.99) has used declassified documents from the US and Russia, personal papers, diaries and interviews with many of the leading players to explain the origins and nature of this crisis.

Jonathan Fenby is a distinguished journalist who has written extensively about China. He rejects many of the simplistic attempts to analyse the modern country. In Tiger Head, Snake Tails: China Today, How It Got There and Where it is Heading (Simon & Schuster, £20), he writes for the general, interested reader. This is a one-stop account of where the fastest-growing major nation stands, and what that means for both China and the world.

The mellifluous and magnificently bewhiskered Robert Rogers, clerk to the House of Commons, last year published Order! Order!: A Parliamentary Miscellany, which has rightly been reprinted by Robson Press (£14.99). The compendium of parliamentary myth-busting facts and figures will be supplemented in September by Who Goes Home?: A Parliamentary Miscellany (Robson Press, £14.99), which continues the search for odd, surprising facets and stories from the nooks, crannies and corridors of power.

In October 1834 the rabbit warren of old buildings that made up Parliament was burnt down in a catastrophic fire. It shocked the political establishment, and entertained the public, but without it we would not now have the Barry/ Pugin New Palace of Westminster. The events of October 1834 are now told in an informative but entertaining way by parliamentary archivist Caroline Shenton, in The Day Parliament Burned Down (OUP, £20).

Before Hansard became the official record of the Commons, the public relied upon newspaper hacks who crowded above the old chamber to take down proceedings verbatim. A number of our distinguished literary figures cut their pens on parliamentary reporting, as described by Nikki Hessell in Literary Authors, Parliamentary Reporters: Johnson, Coleridge, Hazlitt, Dickens (Cambridge University Press, £55).

For those requiring a handy bluffer’s guide to Parliament that provides historical context while exploding a number of myths, A Short History of Parliament (Boydell Press, £25 paperback), edited by Clyve Jones, is a must.

Journalist and writer Ferdinand Mount produced a wonderful autobiography several years ago, entitled Old Cream (2008), which, among other experiences, recounted his days at Number 10 working for Margaret Thatcher. Now, in The New Few: Or a Very British Oligarchy (Simon & Schuster, £18.99), Mount argues that power and wealth in Britain has been consolidated in the hands of a small elite and new ruling class.

In End This Depression Now! (WW Norton and Co, £14.99), distinguished American academic Paul Krugman offers a Keynesian interpretation of the current economic crisis, and a liberal interventionist solution that will probably provide more comfort to Ed Balls than to George Osborne.

Tags: Issue 50, Keith Simpson MP, Life, Summer reading guide

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