3 Apr 2014 at 09:23
Guest Post by Keith Simpson MP
Whilst FCO ministers will be spending the Easter Recess valiantly dealing with many “little local difficulties” abroad, many MPs of all parties will be going around the country, in the words of Willie Whitelaw, “stirring up apathy” for the Euro elections.
But for those who have some time for relaxation or wish to stretch their little grey cells, there is a good selection of mainly historical, political and conflict books published over the past few months.
There are a lot of myths surrounding UKIP, including its membership and electoral appeal. Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin have written a “must read” analysis of UKIP based upon extensive polling and interviews with both leaders and activists. Unlike so many worthy and substantial academic books, it is well written and easy to read. In Revolt on the Right Explaining Support for the Radical Right in Britain (Routledge) the authors argue that UKIP’s support is largely working class heavily concentrated among older, blue-collar workers, with little education and few skills – groups who have been left behind and marginalised by the main political parties. UKIP appeals as a protest vote with the message no more immigration, no more EU, and no more cosmopolitan liberal elite condescension. And they have learnt “pavement politics” from the Lib Dems.
Roy Jenkins was a big beast of British politics in the last four decades of the twentieth century. A liberal reforming Home Secretary, a competent Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose career in the Labour Party foundered on his principled commitment to the EU. A founder member of the SDP he was effectively godfather to New Labour. A bon viveur, womaniser, writer and reviewer, his biography by John Campbell has been waited for with anticipation. Roy Jenkins A Well-Rounded Life (Jonathan Cape) is a substantial biography by an author who cut his teeth on F E Smith and Margaret Thatcher. Campbell even wrote a slim biography of Jenkins whilst he was still alive. An admirer of Jenkins, he has not, however, written a hagiography.
Joan Trumpington is today a caricature of a Tory politician of the old school. The daughter of an Indian army officer and an American heiress whose fortune disappeared in the Wall Street Crash. In Coming Up Trumps A Memoir (Macmillan) she describes leaving school without ever taking an exam and went to Paris to study art and French and German before returning to Britain on the outbreak of war to become a landgirl. Then she was recruited into naval intelligence at Bletchley Park. After the war she worked in New York in advertising then returned to Britain and became a headmaster’s wife. She was active in local politics as a Tory councillor in Cambridge, was made a life peer and served as a minister in the Thatcher government. Recently filmed in the Chamber of the House of Lords giving a Churchillian salute to Lord King of Bridgewater who had commented on her age. Forthright, witty and opinionated this is a wonderful memoir.
Somewhat in contrast is Jerry Hayes An Unexpected MP Confessions of a Political Gossip (Biteback). Jerry Hayes was a particularly unconventional Tory MP in the Thatcher years, and his book is not a standard biography, but rather a roller-coaster journey through parliament moving from one outrageous anecdote to another.
With the Scottish referendum in September and the possibility of a referendum on British membership of the EU in the next Parliament, constitutional matters have taken centre stage. Michael Kenny is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London and in The Politics of English Nationhood (Oxford University Press) he provides an interesting account of the idea of Englishness and how this relates to politics.
Linda Colley is a distinguished academic historian who has written extensively on “Britishness”. Acts of Union and Disunion What Has Held the UK Together – And What is Dividing It? (Profile) is a short book based on a series of programmes broadcast on Radio 4. Colley is convinced that to understand current decisions and choices, it is history more than geography that accounts for the current situation in the UK.
Many books written about Parliament are worthy but dull. The Labour MP, Chris Bryant, has now provided a history that is well researched, stimulating to read, and addresses a number of myths. The author has written biographies of Sir Stafford Cripps and Glenda Jackson, is an active parliamentarian with trenchant opinions, and at times, an ability to seriously irritate both Conservative and Labour colleagues. Parliament The Biography, Volume I: Ancestral Voices (Doubleday) begins in 1258 and concludes in 1801. A second volume will cover the period 1801 to 1990.
In The Tories From Winston Churchill to David Cameron (Bloomsbury), Timothy Keppel offers a comprehensive and accessible study of the electoral strategies, leadership approaches and ideological thought of the Conservative Party from Churchill to Cameron.
Kim Philby was the most notorious Soviet mole and British defector in history, and is still much honoured in Russia today. It is difficult today to comprehend what a shock it was to the British establishment when over the 1950s and 1960s a number of British men who had served in either SIS or the Security Service were exposed as having spied for the Soviets. Much of the evidence has been available for some time, but Ben Macintyre has had access to new released Security Service files and previously unseen family papers. Very aptly his book is entitled A Spy Among Friends Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (Bloomsbury).
Robert Gates was US Secretary of Defense from 2006 to 2011 serving under both Bush and Obama. Prior to that he was Director of the CIA. Gates was involved in both operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has critical comments about the Obama White House and the Pentagon monolith in Duty Memoirs of Secretary at War (W H Allen). It is a sobering fact that there is virtually no mention of the UK or any of our political or military leaders in the book.
David Starkey, who sees himself as the doyen of Tudor historians, is now being challenged by a younger generation of very talented female historians. Amongst them is Jesse Childs, who examines the Catholic predicament in Elizabethan England through the eyes of one family, the Vauxes of Harrowden Hall, in God’s Traitors Terror and Faith in Elizabethan England (Bodley Head)
The thought of another biography of Napoleon is enough to depress the enthusiasm of any reader. But Michael Broers Napoleon Soldier of Destiny (Faber & Faber) is the first life of Napoleon that makes full use of the new comprehensive version of his correspondence without the nineteenth century editing. In this biography through his correspondence, we can read the thoughts of Napoleon himself, his intense emotions, iron self-discipline, acute intelligence and immense energy and ambitions. A must read for any ambitious young back bench MP.
Following the death of Queen Victoria, Reginald Brett and Arthur Benson were selected to edit what became three volumes of her correspondence down to 1860. Both men were highly complex figures, with Esher being a Royal confidante who had a secret obsession for Eton boys, whilst Benson struggled badly from depression and yearnings for young men. In Censoring Queen Victoria How Two Gentlemen Edited a Queen and Created an Icon (One World) Yvonne M Ward, describes how Brett and Benson had to read some 400 volumes of the Queen’s correspondence, whilst promoting their own preconceptions about Victoria and her court, covering up scandals and promoting an image of royalty.
Mary, Madeline and Pamela – the three Wyndham Sisters – lived privileged lives in the late Victorian and Edwardian period. Their parents were liberal and romantic and friends with the Pre-Raphaelites. The three Wyndham sisters were attractive and unconventional. As Claudia Renton shows in Those Wild Wyndhams Three Sisters at the Heart of Power (William Collins) through the use of private correspondence and memoirs, the sisters found emotional connections with the poet Wilfred Scawen Blunt, the Tory Cabinet Minister Arthur Balfour and the Liberal Foreign Secretary Edward Grey. Downton Abbey without the servants.
Hew Strachan, Oxford University Professor of Military History, adviser to Whitehall on defence matters and a prolific author, has long argued that in both the USA and the UK there is a failure to misread and misapply strategy. In The Direction of War Contemporary Strategy in Historical Perspective (Cambridge University Press) he argues that wars since 2001 have not in reality been “new” as has been widely assumed and that we need to adopt a more historical approach to contemporary strategy in order to identify what is really changing.
Leaders, ministers and senior military frequently draw the wrong lessons from conflict experience. Eden saw Nasser as another Mussolini, George W Bush saw Saddam Hussein as unfinished business from his father’s watch. In Toppling Qadaffi Libya and the Limits of Liberal Intervention (Cambridge University Press), Christopher S Chivvis examines the role of the US and NATO in Libya’s War of Liberation and its lessons for future military interventions. He questions whether this specific kind of intervention can be repeated.
David Owen, former Labour foreign secretary and member of several parties, is now a crossbencher in the Lords. In The Hidden Perspective The Military Conversations of 1906-1914 (Haus Publishing), he argues that there was a “mind set” in the Foreign Office – and indeed in the War Office and Admiralty – which influenced political decision making and sentiment. This is quite a well trodden patch but David Owen does use with skill his experience as a former Foreign Secretary to breathe new life into a well known controversy.
Amongst the plethora of books appearing on the origins and consequences of the First World War, two stand out. The Cambridge historian Christopher Clark – much demonised by Michael Gove – has exhaustively examined the sources and arguments over the origins of the war in The Sleepwalkers How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Allen Lane). Clark places Serbia and the Serbian government at the centre of the crisis and suggests that the Austro-Hungarian government had a lot of justice on its side. He argues that France and Russia were more complicit in the crisis than has been accepted, and that Germany was perhaps less of a villain than has previously been thought. Not surprisingly this book has topped the best seller list in Germany and is used as primer on diplomacy and negotiation in the current crisis over the Ukraine.
Complementing Christopher Clark is another Cambridge historian David Reynolds, whose The Long Shadow The Great War and the Twentieth Century (Simon & Schuster), addresses the political, parliamentary, cultural, military and social legacies of the war and corrects many of the myths that have been perpetuated. How we interpret the war today depends as much upon the post war mood as what actually happened at the time. If you read no other book on the First World War, it should be this one.
Finally, in the finest tradition of Tory lady novelists – Sandra Howard, Ann Widdecombe, Frances Osborne and Louise Mensch – Nadine Dorries has contributed to the genre. Based, one suspects on some of her own childhood experiences, The Four Streets (Head of Zeus), is a novel set in the tight-knit Irish Catholic community of 1950s Liverpool. This is a serious novel and readers should be warned that it is not in the bodice ripping category.