Top of the pols: the bestselling books about politics 2018

Written by Colin Talbot on 1 February 2019 in Culture

Do we prefer insider accounts and journalism to more academic texts?


New figures on the bestselling books in the UK about politics and government in 2018 are here. And, according to the data supplied by Nielsen Bookscan, there are a few surprises.

Top of the list is Tim Shipman’s almost instant history of the run up to, conduct of, and fall out from the 2017 General Election: Fall Out – A Year of Political Mayhem.

As the most dramatic event of British politics this century (since the last one, the EU referendum in 2016, which Shipman also chronicled) the 2016 snap election is bound to be of interest. But Shipman’s thrilling journalistic account, in book form, brings us many inside details. The ‘first draft of history’ this definitely is.

(Although for those interested in the second draft, Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh’s The British General Election of 2017 is also very good but doesn’t make it into the list).

Number two in the list is Isabel Hardman’s provocatively (but maybe misleadingly) titled Why We Get the Wrong Politicians. Hardman’s answer to her titular question is far more nuanced and balanced than it suggests. She casts a critical but also sympathetic eye over the whole Westminster system to fascinating effect. 

The issue of right-wing populism in Europe and the USA dominates the list. Naomi Klein’s No Is Not Enough (No. 3) claims to explain the populist wave by “revealling … that around the world, shock political tactics are being used to generate crisis after crisis, designed to force through policies that will destroy people, the environment, the economy and our security.”

A more sober academic analysis of How Democracies Die (No.4) is provided by Levitsky and Ziblatt’s world tour of collapsing polities. Their central thesis is that it is through colluding and adapting to more extreme forces that mainstream political parties bring about not only their own demise but the collapse of their democratic institutions with them.

Perhaps the biggest surprise in the list is at number seven: Hannah Arendt’s classic analysis of The Rise of Totalitarianism, which was first published in 1951. Written after the defeat of Nazism in Europe, but at the height of the Stalinist USSR’s powers, it quickly became what Penguin billed it as when they re-released it in 2017: a Modern Classic. The rise of Donald Trump and other populist nationalisms clearly has lots of people searching for answers?

The UK political public’s interest in populism and fascination with the USA is evident from the list: The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House (Ben Rhodes), How the Hell Did This Happen?: A Cautionary Tale of American Democracy (P J O’Rouke) and Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic (David Frum) all report and analyse contemporary developments in the USA.

But a further three books in the list are very British affairs. Nick Clegg, former deputy Prime Minister in the Coalition government, addresses the “b” issue with: How To Stop Brexit (And Make Britain Great Again). (How this book will be fare since Clegg’s departure from British politics to join Facebook remains to be seen?)

Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton spent, they report, every Wednesday morning for five years preparing Ed Miliband (then leader of the Labour Party and the official Opposition, for the ritual combat of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs), with varying degrees of success. Their account - Punch & Judy Politics: An Insiders' Guide to Prime Minister's Questions - is fascinating.

What to make of the fact that while two of the top ten books have been penned by politicos and two are by academics, journlaists and writers are behind four of the top ten reads? UK politics book readers are a pretty cosmopolitan bunch, but perhaps we prefer insider accounts and journalism to more academic texts.



The top ten bestselling political books of 2018 in the UK*

1              Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem - Tim Shipman
2              Why We Get the Wrong Politicians – Isabel Hardman
3              No Is Not Enough: Defeating the New Shock Politics – Naomi Klein 
4              How Democracies Die: The International Bestseller: What History Reveals - Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt
5              How To Stop Brexit (And Make Britain Great Again) – Nick Clegg
6              The World As It Is: Inside the Obama White House – Ben Rhodes
7              The Origins of Totalitarianism – Hannah Arendt
8              How the Hell Did This Happen?: A Cautionary Tale of American Democracy – P.J. O'Rourke
9              Punch & Judy Politics: An Insiders' Guide to Prime Minister's Questions - Tom Hamilton and Ayesha Hazarika
10           Trumpocracy: The Corruption of the American Republic – David Frum


*Figures provided by Nielsen Bookscan – ranked by sales in the UK 2018. Figures for HB and PB sales have been aggregated.




About the author

Colin Talbot is professor of government at the University of Manchester.

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