Keith Simpson's summer / autumn 2015 reading list

Written by Keith Simpson MP on 21 July 2015 in Culture
Summer political reads abound, while two books will soon published on David Cameron’s premiership - including Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakshott’s unauthorised biography.

This is a selection of recently published books, mainly political, historical and ones about conflict.  Several of the books mentioned will not be published until late August/September.

Michael Bloch’s biography of (Little, Brown £25) reveals how this talented politician led a double life of risk that amazingly never brought him down until well into his leadership.  Bloch has widened his scope looking at an array of politicians who were gay or he assumes were gay – some rather far fetched – in Closet Queens: Some 20th Century Politicians (Little, Brown £25).

William Waldegrave’s family were established members of the political class, and he, as a One Nation Tory, served as an adviser and then a minister under Thatcher and Major.  A Different Kind of Weather: A Memoir (Constable £20) is a rather rueful and reflective volume of a politician who helped to draft the policy which would become the Poll Tax and was a casualty of the Scott Inquiry.

Mention the name Wedgwood Benn and most people think of Tony Benn, politician and minister and enfant terrible of the Labour Party in the last half of the twentieth century.  But his father, William, later 1st Viscount Stansgate, was a formidable politician and minister in his own right as a Liberal MP from 1906 until 1927 and then as a Labour MP.  He served on active service in World War  One and as a minister in Attlee’s government.  Alun Wyburn-Powell has written a competent biography in Political Wings: William Wedgewood Benn, First Viscount Stansgate (Pen & Sword £33).

Clementine Churchill was the long serving, if not long suffering, wife of Winston whom she adored as did he her.  To her fell the task of managing houses, family and budgets, as well as supporting him, and at times, saving him from his own enthusiasms.  Sonia Purnell's First Lady: The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill (Aurum Press £25) is a good biography although at times over eggs the intimate personal details.

The outstanding political biography of 2014 was Charles Moore's Margaret Thatcher The Authorised Biography Volume One: Not For Turning.  This is to be a triple deck biography and on the 8th October the second volume, Margaret Thatcher: Everything She Wants will be published by Allen Lane at £30 with a third and final volume in 2017.

Kwasi Kwarteng, Conservative MP for Spelthorne as been an active author with books such as Ghosts of Empire: Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World and War and Gold: A Five Hundred Year History of Empires, Adventure and Debt.  Now he has turned his attention to a crucial period in Margaret Thatcher’s premiership when she was challenged on every front.  Thatcher’s Trial: Six Months That Defined a Leader (Bloomsbury Publishing £20) will be published on the 20th September.

John Freeman was a war hero, a Labour politician, journalist, ambassador and pioneering TV interviewer who preferred the shadows to the limelight.  Hugh Purcell has written a fascinating biography of a multi-talented man in A Very Private Celebrity: The Nine Lives of John Freeman (The Robson Press £25). 

Recently the BBC has released on DVD his seminal series of TV interviews, “Face to Face” in which he calmly and persistently drew out of their comfort zones such celebrities as Evelyn Waugh, Edith Sitwell, Martin Luther King and Adam Faith.

Michael  Jago has written a competent biography of Clement Attlee and now turns his attention to Rab Butler: The Best Prime Minister Britain Never Had? (Biteback £25) published on the 20th October.  The last serious biography of Rab was written by Anthony Howard in 1987.  Rab came from the Tory political establishment, was a Chamberlain appeaser, responsible for the 1944 Education Act, helped to revive Conservative One Nation Toryism after 1945, was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary but was outmanoeuvred for the leadership and premiership by Macmillan.

Two books are published this autumn on David Cameron’s premiership.  Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon’s Cameron at 10 (William Collins £20, 10 September) claims to be a definitive account of his premiership based on hundreds of interviews and personal access.  Seldon has a proven track record writing about British premiers.  Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakshott have written a form of political biography without significant access.  Call Me David: The Unauthorised biography of David Cameron (Biteback £20, 5 October) will be sardonic and at times critical.

UKIP appeared to be the political phenomenon of recent UK politics with successes at the European elections, council elections and by-elections following defecting Tory MPs.  But at the General Election they gained significant votes but failed to make a Parliamentary breakthrough.  Owen Bennett followed Farage around during he election and his conversations and observations formed the basis for Following Farage: On the Trail of the People’s Army (Biteback £12.99).  A more academic analysis is to be found in Matthew Goodwin and Caitlin Milazzo UKIP Inside the Campaign to Redraw the Map of British Politics (Oxford University Press £16.99, 1 September)

Norman Baker, former Lib Dem minister and a casualty of the General Election is publishing a memoir of his beliefs, successes and failures in Against the Grain (Biteback £20, 18 September).

Election campaign diaries read after the event can be like drinking flat champagne.  Nick Robinson, Political Editor of BBC TV, has written one of the better ones in Election Notebook: The Inside Story of the Battle Over Britain’s Future And My Personal Battle (Bantam Press £20), made more poignant by his diagnosis, treatment and battle with cancer.

Early copies of the Times Guide to the House of Commons command serious money second hand, and even reprints of the pre 1945 ones published by Iain Dale are highly collectable.  Why?  Because they contain details of the results in individual constituencies and brief profiles of candidates and in later editions, essays covering everything from the media to regional variations.  Candidates, journalists, academics and political analysts await with interest The Times Guide to the House of Commons 2015 (Times Books £60), especially the chapter analysing polling before the election.  Be prepared – this Guide provides more candid information about the lives of MPs.  Sadly, there are some errors and the quality of paper has declined.

To many, the Privy Council is an arcane relic of past Royal and political history.  An advisory council which today has seen most of its powers devolved, but it still a valued honour for politicians, with Cabinet Ministers and most ministers of state automatically becoming a Privy Councillor and entitled to be a Right Honourable.  An anecdotal history has been written by David Rogers By Royal Appointment, Tales from the Privy Council – the unknown arm of government (Biteback, £25).

Anthony King is the doyen of British political scientist with a string of books  and articles to his credit, including as co-author The Blunders of Our Governments.  Now in the excellent Pelican Introduction series he has written Who Governs Britain?  (Pelican £7.99), and he seeks to point out that the governing arrangements of the UK are not quite what they seem. A stimulating read.

Biteback publishing have a trio of books appearing on the 8th September – British Conservative Leaders, British Labour Leaders and British Liberal Leaders each at £25.  These are edited collections and very much compare and contrast with leadership judged against an academic matrix.

The old German aristocracy, despite losing in some cases their families, their homes and their fortunes, have managed, in many cases to survive two World Wars.  Hitler was quite prepared to use them for unofficial diplomacy, particularly with their British equivalents to whom they were often related.  He had an exaggerated view of the influence of these people, but Karina Urbach in Go Betweens for Hitler (Oxford University Press £20) shows how Hitler used such aristocrats as the Duke of Coburg, grandson of Queen Victoria.

Goebbels was Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and Popular Enlightment.  The voice of Nazi Germany who chose to commit suicide with his family in the Berlin Bunker – his wife murdered his children.  Goebbels kept a voluminous diary which has been transcribed and was his view of the Nazi World Order and his place in it as he chose to interpret it for posterity.  Peter Longerich who has written a biography of Himmler, has now written a massive biography Goebbels (Bodley Head £30) in which he concludes that Goebbels had less influence on Hitler than he or many historians have claimed.

Stalin, like Hitler has been the subject of numerous biographies, including some of the best by Robert Service and Stephen Kotkin.  For those who want to understand Stalin the man and the dictator based upon his own archives and those of the Central Committee then Stalin, A New Biography of a Dictator (Yale University Press £25) by Oleg V Khlevniuk is a must.  The author has had almost complete access to the archives despite a clampdown by Russian authorities under Putin.  Khlevniuk demolishes many myths, but shows how Stalin acquired and exercised ruthless power and was probably responsible for the imprisonment and execution of a million Soviet citizens a year.  Putin is fascinated by Stalin, who has been steadily rehabilitated.

What do George Osborne and Gordon Brown have in common, apart from both being “Imperial” Chancellors?  Their admiration for the American biographer Robert Caro, now aged 79, whose monumental multi-volume biography of LBJ is still to be completed.  His first major book in 1974 was the 1,246 page biography of The Power Broker Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, now published in the UK by The Bodley Head at £35.  Robert Moses was not a politician but New York City’s master planner who ruthlessly exercised power to demolish and rebuild the City and marginalise ethnic minorities.  This biography, as the subsequent volumes on LBJ, are based on an incredible amount of detailed research and in depth interviews with hundreds of people who knew or worked with Moses.  Caro is fascinated by those who acquire and exercise power, and although I suspect that George Osborne has read the original American edition, he will happily re-read this British edition.

In the nineteenth and twentieth century geopolitics was all the rage amongst certain academics and governments but taken to an ideological extreme under the Nazis, understandably got a bad name.  But the geographical and environmental position and context of nation states is crucial for their political and economic security.  Tim Marshall, journalist, writer and broadcaster, best known for his reporting of foreign affairs and security, has written a timely reminder of the importance of geopolitics in Prisoners of Geography, Ten Maps That Tell Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics (Elliott & Thompson £16.99).


Keith Simpson is Conservative MP for Broadland



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