Total Politics Summer Reading List 2013

Written by Keith Simpson MP on 5 August 2013 in Culture
Recess is here and the time has finally come to kick off your shoes, slap on the factor 30 and get lost in some well-deserved summer reading. Can’t think of where to begin? Let Keith Simpson give you some pointers with his definitive summer reading list

This article is from the August 2013 issue of Total Politics

Although the natural inclination for the summer holidays is to relax with a good book of fiction, there is always room in the travel bag for something more serious. This year has seen a good crop of political books.

The death of Margaret Thatcher has seen the publication of two biographies. Charles Moore has written the first of the two volumes of what will be, without doubt, a magisterial work. Margaret Thatcher: The Authorised Biography, Volume One: Not for Turning (Allen Lane £30) is in the same class as Robert Caro’s Lyndon Johnson. Whatever your opinion of Margaret Thatcher, Moore’s biography is well researched, well written and judicious in its conclusions.

Robin Harris served for many years as one of Margaret Thatcher’s assistants and was director of the Conservative Research Department. His Not for Turning: The Life of Margaret Thatcher (Bantam Press £20) lacks the access given to Charles Moore and gives a bleak description of her life after the downfall. Robin Harris has done for Margaret Thatcher what A. J. Sylvester did for Lloyd George and Dr Charles Moran Wilson did for Churchill – a portrait of decline, warts and all.

A former minister under Margaret Thatcher then in John Major’s cabinet, Gillian Shephard has written The Real Iron Lady: Working with Margaret Thatcher (Biteback Publishing £16.99), which draws upon the memories of a wide range of people who worked with her at all levels.

Robert Renwick, a former Foreign Office mandarin, worked closely with Margaret Thatcher and his A Journey with Margaret Thatcher: Foreign Policy under the Iron Lady (Biteback £20) is a personal assessment of her successes and failures.

Anne Widdecombe was an opinionated, feisty Conservative MP and minister and her Strictly Ann: The Autobiography (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20) recounts her political and celebrity lives.

Alan Johnson is one of Labour’s nicest MPs and was a respected cabinet minister. His This Boy: A Memoir of a Childhood (Bantam Press £16.99) is essentially a story of a remarkable woman, his mother, who fought against massive odds to bring up her children, and his sister who succeeded in keeping a parentless family together. Politicians frequently crave a ‘back story’, this is a real one told with skill and humour.

For David Cameron, the significant political relationship in Europe is with Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel. What makes her tick should be of crucial importance and an insight can be found in Alan Crawford and Tony Czuczka’s Angela Merkel: A Chancellorship Forged in Crisis (John Wiley and Sons £19.99).

Through his life and writings Machiavelli, like the Prussian military thinker Clausewitz, has been much analysed and interpreted. Philip Bobbitt, a US constitutional lawyer and former government official has written The Garments of Court and Palace: Machiavelli and the World that he Made (Grove Press £15), in which he introduces general readers to the Florentine thinker’s work. He succeeds in countering those who have seen Machiavelli entirely as an unscrupulous amoral intriguer, but at the cost of some historical perspective.

Edmund Burke, the radical eighteenth century politician, hack and philosopher, redeemed himself in the opinion of his more conservative contemporaries when he criticised the excesses of the French Revolution. Jesse Norman, a charming, thoughtful and intelligent Conservative MP of the 2010 cadre, has written a very readable life and times of Burke which shows why his thoughts and writings provide a useful guide for contemporary society and governance – Edmund Burke: Philosopher, Politician, Prophet (William Collins £20).

Historians writing about and discussing parliamentary reform can send the reader to sleep. But in Perilous Question: The Drama of the Great Reform Bill 1832 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20) Antonia Fraser has written a timely, interesting account of what happened in 1832, combining the high politics of the great men of the Whig and Tory establishments with the frustrations and violence of the street and the countryside. Fear of revolution helped to concentrate political minds.

What more can be written about Benjamin Disraeli after biographies such as that written by Robert Blake? Actually quite a lot, and Douglas Hurd and Edward Young have written a wonderful reassessment of the great politician and showman in Disraeli: Or, The Two Lives (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £20) in which they explore the paradoxes at the centre of his character, and how his exotic personality and ability to dazzle his contemporaries overcame his lack of principles, indebtedness and disloyalty. Wickedly, they suggest the only contemporary British politician who can be compared to Disraeli for making politics interesting is Boris Johnson.

Between 1832 and 1914 there were over 2,600 by-elections in Britain. Apart from the political outcomes these by-elections saw the evolution of election machines. T. G. Otte and Paul Readman have edited an impressive collection of essays in By-Elections in British Politics: 1832-1914 (The Boydell Press, priced at, gulp, £75).

In Portrait of a Party: The Conservative Party in Britain 1918-1945 (OUP £85) Stuart Ball has written a magisterial account based upon memoirs, private papers and the archives of the Conservative Party. He discusses everything from Conservative principles and attitudes, the organisation of the party, the election of parliamentary candidates, the whips, ministers and leaders. There are some uncanny parallels with today’s Conservative Party. At £85 the book is priced well beyond even the most extravagant bibliophile, but hopefully the publishers will bring out a paperback edition at an affordable price.

David Kynaston has been publishing successive volumes in his superb postwar history of Britain entitled Tales of a New Jerusalem. So far we have seen Austerity Britain: 1945-51 and Family Britain: 1951-57, and now Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-1959 (Bloomsbury £25). The author brilliantly illustrates the period through politics, social history, culture, entertainment, sport, crime and sex with penetrating analysis and wonderful vignettes.

Britain in 1963 – an Etonian prime minister of a Conservative government attempting to cope with social change and scandals involving ministers, journalists, the police, prostitutes, criminals and foreign powers. In An English Affair: Sex, Class and Power in the Age of Profumo (Harper Press £20) Richard Davenport-Hines shows the public hypocrisy of the establishment, the near criminal activity of some of the press, corruption amongst the police and high moral cant from the judiciary. How fortunate we are that times have changed.

Graham Stewart is an accomplished historian having written a book previously on the relationship between Chamberlain and Churchill and a volume of the official history of The Times. In Bang! A History of Britain in the 1980s (Atlantic Books £25) he makes a case for a Britain of confrontation – political parties, financial and business enterprises, culture and entertainment. A trip down memory lane for Thatcher’s children.

Sir David Cannadine is one of our most distinguished historians and in The Undivided Past: History Beyond Our Differences (Allen Lane £30) he attempts to show how so much of our writing of history has been driven by a desire to dramatise differences rather than common similarities.

One of the ironies of Roosevelt’s New Deal and later his deepening opposition to the totalitarian powers is that it relied upon the support of a unified cadre of white southern congressmen determined to maintain segregation. This is the theme of Ira Katznelson’s Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (W W Norton & Co £22).

Ever since the US film industry relocated to Hollywood in the early twentieth century it has had an influence on American politics, through its producers, directors, actors, writers and the game itself; and is the subject of Steve J Ross’s Hollywood Left and Right (OUP £12.99).

The office of Speaker and the personalities of the MPs who have held it since 1945 are examined in Matthew Laban’s Mr Speaker: The Office and the Individuals since 1945 (Biteback Publishing £20). There is a very balanced assessment of the life and times of the current Speaker without his usual “chuntering”.

The British government spends some £670bn a year and over the past two decades there have been repeat failures in initiating and managing major projects. Richard Bacon MP has been a senior member of the PAC and brings great experience to analysing what has gone wrong and, importantly, what needs to be done. Along with Christopher Hope of The Daily Telegraph he has written Conundrum: Why Every Government Gets Things Wrong – and What We Can Do About it (Biteback Publishing £17.99). The question is, what will government do about it?

Since Robert Walpole’s premiership, prime ministers have had personal or private secretaries who exercised influence if not direct power. In At Power’s Elbow: Aides to the Prime Minister from Robert Walpole to David Cameron (Biteback Publishing £20) Andrew Blick has provided a useful corrective to those who believe it is a contemporary phenomenon associated with Bernard Ingham and Alastair Campbell.

In the days following the election of May 2010 negotiations went on between the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives but also between the Lib Dems and Labour. Andrew Adonis has written an account from the perspective of one of the Labour insiders, 5 Days in May: The Coalition and Beyond (Biteback Publishing £12.99).

The ordinary lives of MPs – now there is something of a contradiction, as someone has to be extraordinary, in the sense of being driven to be selected as a candidate and then elected as an MP. Tony Russell has attempted to show through the words of a cross section of MPs their everyday lives in Commons People: MPs are Human Too (Matador £9.95).

If you are looking for a ‘bluffer’s guide’ to the debate over the UK membership of the EU then it can be found in David Charter’s Au Revoir Europe: What if Britain Left the EU? (Biteback Publishing £14.99). Charter is The Times’ correspondent in Berlin having served in Brussels and his book provides a forensic, precise and detailed analysis of the ramifications should Britain leave the EU. One for the insomniacs.

Nothing like a polemic essay to make you sit up and think. The Daily Telegraph correspondent and writer Peter Oborne with the writer David Morrison have done just that in A Dangerous Decision: Why the West is Wrong About Nuclear Iran (Ellcott & Thompson £8.99).

Michael Burleigh writes provocatively and with vim and his latest book Small Wars, Far Away Places: The Genesis of the Modern World (Macmillan £25) is about the post-war collapse of the colonial empires and the ensuing conflicts.

An equally provocative book on modern warfare is Douglas Porch’s Counterinsurgency: Exposing the Myths of the New Way of War (Cambridge University Press £18). He challenges the very basis of modern counterinsurgency doctrine from the late nineteenth century to the Petraeus surge in Iraq, suggesting that far from being a cost-free option it causes untold casualties and creates lasting instability.

Frank Ledwidge has written a thoughtful book about the British experience in Iraq and Afghanistan – Losing Small Wars: British Military Failure in Iraq and Afghanistan (Yale University Press 2011). Now, after months of research and in-depth interviews with participants, he has written a sober follow-up, Investment in Blood: The True Cost of Britain’s Afghan War (Yale University Press £18.99).

It is very rarely that Professor Michael Howard, the doyen of military historians, writes of a book that “a work of such importance should be compulsory reading at every level in the military, from the most recently enlisted cadet to the chief of the defence staff, and even more important, the members of the National Security Council who guide him.” And the author is… a retired general, diplomat or minister? No, rather a former young British infantry officer who has served in Afghanistan. Emile Simpson’s War From the Ground Up: Twenty-First Century Combat as Politics (C Hurst and Co £20) turns Carl von Clausewitz’s On War on its head. The author shows that in modern conflict there are no distinct boundaries between different levels of operations or between war and peace and suggests how we need to change our thinking, planning, training and organisation, and how to do it. A seriously important book.   

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