With the prospect of another away day and the chance to catch up on some reading between presentations here are a few recently published books which may stimulate colleagues little grey cells.
The political publication of the month is Winston Churchill The Boris Factor How One Man Made History (Hodder & Stoughton £25). This is one of Mr Churchill’s “quickies” in which he explains with brio the life and career of a remarkable up and coming politician, writer, wit and all round good egg. Naturally the author has reservations about Mr Johnson – Eton rather than Harrow, turbulent relations with editors, a careless relationship with parliamentary colleagues, no military experience, and at times a life style more in keeping with that of Mr Churchill’s friends David Lloyd George and F E Smith. Mr Churchill concludes that he respects Mr Johnson for his dedicated, single-minded and ruthless ambition, so unlike his own.
In fact Boris Johnson’s The Churchill Factor How One Man Made History (Hodder and Stoughton) has been written in conjunction with the fiftieth anniversary of the great man’s death next January, but if the reader wants a traditional biography then he should turn to Roy Jenkins, the best of the crop. This book is very much a personal view and is about personality. It is a rollicking good “Bojo” read which ducks and weaves through Churchill’s life, and its publication provides a back story to the author himself.
Boris is generous with his acknowledgement of those who have helped him, including “David Cameron [who] did some invaluable delving into the exact locations of the pivotal meetings in May 1940”. An image in mind of the Prime Minister being hauled out of a meeting of the National Security Council to go and search in the archives.
In politics, art sometimes imitates life and vice-versa. This is magnificently on display in Graham McCann A Very Courageous Decision The Inside Story of Yes Minister (Aurum Press £20). The author looks at the origins of the series, the way in which the authors brought together ministers and civil servants in the plots, and how the issues – such as freedom of information – are timeless and repetitive.
Unusually, as the newly appointed Chief Whip, Michael Gove began to read as much as he could about the history, organisation, modus operandi and culture of the Whips Office. He soon discovered that it is a myth that whips never wrote memoirs or kept diaries – they did long before Tim Renton, and Gyles Brandreth Breaking the Code Westminster Diaries (Biteback £25) originally published in 1998 and now republished, expanded and updated from 1990-2007. The core of the diaries relate to his time in John Major’s Whips Office, and although history, it makes for sobering reading as similar controversies and personalities have come back to haunt David Cameron.
Would They Lie to You How to Spin Friends and Manipulate People (Elliott & Thompson Ltd £10.44) is written by Robert Hutton who is political correspondent of Bloomburg. It is essentially a book of political and management “uncommunication” and “double speak” familiar to Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell and to some of our thrusting young ministers and aspirants.
Engel’s England Thirty-nine Counties, one capital and one man (Profile Books £20) is a very personal travel book about England, and follows in the footsteps of Defoe, Cobbett and Priestley. Mathew Engel is a journalist on the Financial Times and began in 2011 to visit all the English counties, and London, to discover what we now call localism but also about history, culture and roots. Every county is covered and if his chapter on Norfolk my home, and home county, is anything to go by, captures the distinctiveness of each even in these days of uniformity and local government reorganisation. A must for Eric Pickles.
The period of European history from 1789 to 1848 covers the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, the counter-revolution and then the revolutions of 1848. But Phantom Terror The Threat of Revolution and the Repression of Liberty 1789-1848 (William Collins £30) by Adam Zamoyski is not yet another history of this turbulent period in history, but rather an analysis of why governments overreact to the slightest peril and resort to repression through armies, police and informers and spies. Something for our own age.
The Bodleian Library Oxford has vast collections of papers, including those which either wholly or partially relate to the First World War. Mike Webb, the curator of historical manuscripts has made a selection covering the period 1914-1916 in From Downing Street to the Trenches First Hand Accounts from the Great War (Bodleian Press £19) Overwhelmingly male, the extracts include those from Cabinet ministers, the military, academic and literary figures – Henry and Margot Asquith, Clement Attlee, Harold Macmillan, Andrew Clarke, W Yeats, T E Lawrence and Bertrand Russell, to name just a few. Sensitively and imaginatively edited, one of the best of the recently published collections of contemporary sources on the First World War.
The centenary of the Waterloo Campaign Commemorations in 1915 had to be postponed because of another war. The great irony was that in 1915 the British were allied with the French fighting the Germans whilst in 1815 the opposite was true. It is still possible to find contemporary Brits – some in parliament – who are reluctant to recognise that the Duke of Wellington commanded a coalition army with European partners. Over sixty per cent of Wellington’s army were Germans, Dutch and Belgian troops even before Marshal Blucher’s army arrived in the nick of time. Wellington’s German troops were in the King’s German Legion, Nassauers, Brunswickers and Hanoverians. A combination of the subjects from the Hanoverian dynastic possessions of the British royal family and Germans who had fled from Napoleon. Brendan Simms in The Longest Afternoon the 400 Men Who Decided the Battle of Waterloo (Allen Lane £14.99) examines the German dimension to British military power of the period and more specifically the role of the 2nd Light Battalion of the King’s German Legion in its valiant defence of the crucial La Haye Sainte farmhouse in the centre of the allied line – a kind of German Rorke’s Drift. Now there is something for David Cameron and Angela Merkel to commemorate.
Keith Simpson MP