Before each recess, Conservative MP Keith Simpson produces a list of books that his parliamentary colleagues might consider reading. Here's his summer recess recommendations...
Prime Minister Gordon Brown has allegedly instructed his ministers only to have a two week break this summer and to be at their desks coming up with initiatives. In contrast, David Cameron has said that Shadow Ministers should have a break and recharge their batteries. And what better way than with a good book, perhaps taken from our team’s suggested summer reading list. The majority of these books have been published over the past few months with a few yet to be published later this summer. Enjoy.
The outstanding read for the summer is Patrick Hennessey The Junior Officer’s Reading Club Killing Time and Fighting Wars. Hennessey educated at a boarding school and a graduate in English from Balliol College Oxford, joined Sandhurst in 2003 and was commissioned into the Grenadier Guards. Whilst serving in Iraq he and a few friends were effectively “The Junior Officers’ Reading Club”, although strictly speaking this became an extended Club watching films on DVD, emailing and looking at Facebook. But his right of passage as a soldier was in Afghanistan and he graphically describes what it is like to serve there at the front as an infantry soldier. This book is really “Siegfried Sassoon meets Mad Max” and Hennessey is shrewd enough to recognise that like Sassoon all that he has written is not necessarily fact. Some readers will carp over whether Hennessey’s account is typical of the experience of his contemporaries, that it is too young Guards officer orientated and littered with expletives, and maybe they will be disorientated and even repulsed by the excitement and thrills he experiences of actual combat. All too familiar to warriors of previous conflicts and to old military historians who taught at Sandhurst, here described as “Hogwarts with guns”.
The best diaries published this year are Chris Mullin’s A View from the Foothills. Based on the diaries he kept during the period of the Blair government when he was an aspirant and then a junior minister. Of particular interest are the periods when he was at DFID and the FCO. Self-deprecating, amusing, insightful and indiscreet, these are Alan Clark’s diaries without the sex and malice.
Talking of the old rogue, Ian Trewin who edited Alan Clark’s diaries has now written Alan Clark The Biography, which will be published in mid September. Based upon more diaries and letters found at Saltwood and interviews with friends and colleagues this biography should complement the published diaries.
John Campbell is a prolific political biographer – Lloyd George and Margaret Thatcher – and we await with interest his authorised biography of Roy Jenkins. In Pistols at Dawn Two Hundred years of Political Rivalry from Pitt and Fox to Blair and Brown, he has covered some familiar ground but with fresh insights and a sure feel for the historical context.
At the rough end of politics – and we MPs have been experiencing a lot of that recently – is the interaction between the electorate and those who wish to represent them. From good old fashioned hustings brought to life by Dickens and Trollope to the TV debate and reality shows of today. In Electing Our Masters The Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair, Jon Lawrence has written a stimulating account of this aspect of political life.
Colin Brown of The Independent has long been fascinated with the personal, political and architectural aspects of Whitehall. He has now written a short and entertaining book Whitehall The Street that Shaped a Nation which should be required reading for David Cameron and the Labour Party’s numerous leaders in waiting.
Neville Chamberlain’s reputation was destroyed by the failure of his policy of appeasement, and yet before that he had a formidable reputation based upon social reform and financial competence. Recently there have been several biographies written about him but for those who wish to read one that combines recent research and interpretation then Nick Smart’s Neville Chamberlain published in August should fit the requirement.
Ever short of money, Churchill was never one to ignore a literary opportunity based upon his political experience and contacts. His Great Contemporaries drew vivid pen portraits of leading political and military figures. Frank Field has had the idea of pulling together some of the journalistic writings of Clem Attlee with a similar theme. Attlee’s Great Contemporaries The Politics of Character, gather together a selection of witty and caustic pen portraits from 1951 – 1966.
Harold Macmillan continues to fascinate us both as a person and as a politician and Prime Minister. Already we have several carefully edited volumes of his memoirs, the Alistair Horne official biography, and recently his edited post-war diaries. Charles Williams, a Labour Peer and prolific biographer, has now turned his pen to Harold Macmillan. He has revisited Macmillan’s complex personality and the humiliation of his wife’s affair with Bob Boothby as well as his transformation from the rather eccentric and marginal backbencher of the 1930s to the masterful and calculating front bencher of the 1950s.
Macmillan was a publisher, a writer and someone who loved reading books which were a great comfort to him. Sir Oliver Wright recalls that when he was a junior diplomat working with Macmillan as Foreign Secretary he observed him at an international conference in 1955.
“Macmillan had his own technique for surviving these bum-numbing sessions…. When it was not his turn to speak, he would encourage the time to pass more agreeably and more quickly by reading a book placed on his knees out of sight under the conference table. I remember being very shocked at first, thinking that our Foreign Secretary should be taking his work more seriously; but after a time, I realised how wise he was and only wished I could do the same”
Churchill, it would seem still attracts biographers and now Max Hastings has entered the fray covering a period of the Great Man’s life that one would have thought had been written out. In Finest Years Churchill as Warlord 1940-1945 to be published in September, Hastings argues there was a deep divide between what Churchill wanted from the British people and their armed forces, and what they were capable of delivering.
Twenty years ago Max Hastings wrote a powerful book about the 1944 Normandy Campaign and now Antony Beevor the author of Stalingrad and Berlin has revisited the campaign in D-Day the Battle for Normandy.
The experiences of the First World War overshadowed the 1920s and 1930s. In popular British imagination the Battle of the Somme in 1916 epitomised the futility of war. Now William Philpott in Bloody Victory The Sacrifice of the Somme and the Making of the Twentieth Century, has put that campaign into a wider context that includes the French and German experience and demolishes many of the myths perpetuated by, amongst others, Winston Churchill.
Constitutional reform is now flavour of the month and all political leaders are keen to be a champion. Peter Kellner has written Democracy 1000 Years in Pursuit of British Liberty, which is a sort of serious version of 1066 And All That. Kellner traces specific dates in British political history and provides a useful analysis of their significance.
Vernon Bogdanor has established a reputation as a constitutional historian who nurtured undergraduate David Cameron at his Oxford knee. In his The New British Constitution Bogdanor’s purpose is to show that New Labour’s largest, and largely accidental project, has been to partly transform an uncodified constitution into a codified one. This will prove to be a “must have bluffer’s guide” for those of us grappling with the challenges of constitutional change. Perhaps something for Speaker Bercow’s sand and surf reading?
John Keane’s The Life and Death of Democracy claims to be the first substantial, broad, revisionist interpretation of the history of democracy for over a century. It must be another book of the moment given the furore over MPs expenses and the rush into a constitutional change. Keane argues that “representative democracy” has been overtaken by “monitory democracy”, in which power and authority are open to continual scrutiny and challenge.
Under Blair’s policy of “liberal interventionism “there has been considerable controversy concerning the legal justifications for such action, particularly over Iraq, as well as the conduct of operations and treatment of prisoners. Nigel D White considers this looking at British military deployments since 1945 in Democracy Goes to War British Military Deployments under International Law.
The continuing recession has seen a plethora of books looking at the historical precedents and the origins of the immediate crisis and some tentative suggestions for dealing with it. On the historical context Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance, 1929, The Great Depression and the Banks Who Broke the World, concentrates on the personalities and economic thinking of the governors of the central banks in the UK, USA, France and Germany. Keynes has suddenly come back into fashion and Robert Skidelsky’s two volume biography is now much in demand. In September the author will publish Keynes The Return of the Master, which will consider the man and his economic theories in a contemporary context.
Two books looking at the current crisis are Andrew Gamble The Spectre at the Feast Capitalist Crisis and the Politics of Recession, and Viral V. Acharya and Matthew Richardson (eds) Restoring Financial Stability How to Repair a Failed System. The latter is a series of essays dealing with every aspect of the financial crisis and should be required reading for our Shadow Treasury and Business teams.
For those colleagues who require some historical breadth and depth to their summer reading then I would suggest Peter H Wilson Europe’s Tragedy A History of the Thirty years War, which is a superb and comprehensive new history of that terrible seventeenth century conflict in Europe.
Poland’s history is one of triumph and tragedy and a struggle for survival. Adam Zamoyski’s Poland a History, is a well written, scholarly researched and thoughtful history which attempts to answer the question, “what is Poland?”
It would be fair to say that Chiang Kai-shek has had fairly critical reviews by historians. The leader of the Chinese Kuomintang he has been accused of being a Soviet puppet, a leader who only “shadow boxed” with the Japanese, and then was defeated by the Communists and lived out his life in the Nationalist fortress of Taiwan. Now Jay Taylor in The Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek and the Struggle for Modern China, has written an enthralling revisionist account, which, whilst not restoring Chiang to the premier league of world leaders does rescue him from the also rans.
If you had been quick off the mark then it was possible to obtain a copy of Andy Hayman The Terrorist Hunters before the lawyers arranged for its withdrawal. As the former counter-terrorism chief with the Metropolitan Police Hayman dealt with the impact of 7/7 as well as other terrorist threats before being forced to resign. Much of the narrative is anecdotal but he does give a glimpse into the at times chaotic response to 7//7 and has some proposals for future policy in preventing terrorist threats.
Richard English’s Terrorism How to Respond, is an excellent short, concise bluffer’s guide. The author has written about the IRA and Irish nationalism and in this study demolishes a lot of the myths about terrorism and has some practical suggestions on how governments can limit their own contributions to giving terrorists the political oxygen they need.
Christopher Andrew has established himself over many decades as the doyen of British historians writing about our intelligence community and relations with the United States and Soviet intelligence services. Over the past few years he has effectively been a member of the Security Service to research an official history. In October his The Defence of the Realm The Official History of M15, will be published and with all the usual caveats about the nature of official histories, this will prove to be a very valuable contribution to our understanding of our Security Service.
Operations in Afghanistan still dominate Britain’s security priorities and there are plenty of memoirs and accounts of soldiering at the operational and tactical level. A golden oldie written fifty years ago and still in print thanks to the Oxford in Asia series is Sir Olaf Caroe The Pathans. Caroe served in the old Frontier Political Service from 1920 until 1949, and this book is a labour of love and the Pathans themselves recognise it as a locus classicus of their history.
Keith Simpson MP
Shadow Foreign Affairs Minister