By Keith Simpson MP
After the excitement/trauma of the General Election colleagues have begun to settle down to Parliamentary, and in some cases ministerial life. The summer recess beckons and the thought of beaches, gardens, restaurants and wine bars. A time to recharge the little grey cells and to relax reading escapist fiction.
Following the publishing success of Fifty Shades of Grey there is a rumour that Iain Dale of Biteback publishing is considering two parliamentary versions, both based upon real people and incidents – Fifty Shades of Red by a Peeress and Fifty Shades of Green by a new female MP.
But many delight in reading something more serious, and, as usual, I have drawn up a selection of recently published books, mainly political, historical with a dash of war and conflict. Several of the books mentioned will not be published until late August/September and will provide sustenance for those sentenced to attend the Party Conference Season.
The media frequently criticise Parliamentarians for having little in the way of serious intellectual capacity or skills at writing beyond Party press releases, but even they should recognise that a number of our colleagues have written serious books on history and politics – they include Tristram Hunt, Chris Bryant, Nick Thomas Symonds, Chris Skidmore, Kwasi Kwarteng, Julian Lewis, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Damian Collins.
This has been a bumper year for interesting books published on history, politics and war. Michael Bloch’s biography of Jeremy Thorpe (Little, Brown £25) reveals how this talented politician led a double life of risk that amazingly never brought him down until well into his leadership. Bloch has widened his scope looking at an array of politicians who were gay or he assumes were gay – some rather far fetched – in Closet Queens: Some 20th Century Politicians (Little, Brown £25).
William Waldegrave’s family were established members of the political class, and he, as a One Nation Tory, served as an adviser and then a minister under Thatcher and Major. A Different Kind of Weather – A Memoir (Constable £20) is a rather rueful and reflective volume of a politician who helped to draft the policy which would become the Poll Tax and was a casualty of the Scott Inquiry.
Mention the name Wedgwood Benn and most people think of Tony Benn, politician and minister and enfant terrible of the Labour Party in the last half of the twentieth century. But his father, William, later 1st Viscount Stansgate, was a formidable politician and minister in his own right as a Liberal MP from 1906 until 1927 and then as a Labour MP. He served on active service in World War One and as a minister in Attlee’s government. Alun Wyburn-Powell has written a competent biography in Political Wings – William Wedgewood Benn, First Viscount Stansgate (Pen & Sword £33).
Clementine Churchill was the long serving, if not long suffering, wife of Winston whom she adored as did he her. To her fell the task of managing houses, family and budgets, as well as supporting him, and at times, saving him from his own enthusiasms. Sonia Purnell First Lady The Life and Wars of Clementine Churchill (Aurum Press £25) is a good biography although at times over eggs the intimate personal details.
The outstanding political biography of 2014 was Charles Moore Margaret Thatcher The Authorised Biography Volume One: Not For Turning. This is to be a triple deck biography and on the 8th October the second volume, Margaret Thatcher Everything She Wants will be published by Allen Lane at £30 with a third and final volume in 2017.
Kwasi Kwarteng, Conservative MP for Spelthorne, has yet to catch the selector’s eye for ministerial preferment, but has not sat and pined but been an active author with books such as Ghosts of Empire Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World and War and Gold A Five Hundred Year History of Empires, Adventure and Debt. Now he has turned his attention to a crucial period in Margaret Thatcher’s premiership when she was challenged on every front. Thatcher’s Trial: Six Months That Defined a Leader (Bloomsbury Publishing £20) will be published on the 20th September.
John Freeman was a war hero, a Labour politician, journalist, ambassador and pioneering TV interviewer who preferred the shadows to the limelight. Hugh Purcell has written a fascinating biography of a multi-talented man in A Very Private Celebrity The Nine Lives of John Freeman (The Robson Press £25). Recently the BBC has released on DVD his seminal series of TV interviews, “Face to Face” in which he calmly and persistently drew out of their comfort zones such celebrities as Evelyn Waugh, Edith Sitwell, Martin Luther King and Adam Faith.
Michael Jago has written a competent biography of Clement Attlee and now turns his attention to Rab Butler The Best Prime Minister Britain Never Had? (Biteback £25) published on the 20th October. The last serious biography of Rab was written by Anthony Howard in 1987. Rab came from the Tory political establishment, was a Chamberlain appeaser, responsible for the 1944 Education Act, helped to revive Conservative One Nation Toryism after 1945, was Chancellor of the Exchequer, Home Secretary and Foreign Secretary but was outmanoeuvred for the leadership and premiership by Macmillan.
Two books are published this autumn on David Cameron’s premiership. Anthony Seldon and Peter Snowdon’s Cameron at 10 (William Collins £20, 10 September) claims to be a definitive account of his premiership based on hundreds of interviews and personal access. Seldon has a proven track record writing about British premiers. Michael Ashcroft and Isabel Oakshott have written a form of political biography without significant access. Call Me Dave The Unauthorised biography of David Cameron (Biteback £20, 5 October) will be sardonic and at times critical.
UKIP appeared to be the political phenomenon of recent UK politics with successes at the European elections, council elections and by-elections following defecting Tory MPs. But at the General Election they gained significant votes but failed to make a Parliamentary breakthrough. Owen Bennett followed Farage around during the election and his conversations and observations formed the basis for Following Farage: On the Trail of the People’s Army (Biteback £12.99). A more academic analysis is to be found in Matthew Goodwin and Caitlin Milazzo UKIP: Inside the Campaign to Redraw the Map of British Politics (Oxford University Press £16.99, 1 September)
Norman Baker, former Lib Dem minister and a casualty of the General Election is publishing a memoir of his beliefs, successes and failures in Against the Grain (Biteback £20, 18 September). If they can be bothered, Therese May and Patrick McLoughlin, two of his Tory ministerial bosses, might look for their names in the index.
Election campaign diaries read after the event can be like drinking flat champagne. Nick Robinson, Political Editor of BBC TV, has written one of the better ones in Election Notebook The Inside Story of the Battle Over Britain’s Future And My Personal Battle (Bantam Press £20), made more poignant by his diagnosis, treatment and battle with cancer.
Early copies of the Times Guide to the House of Commons command serious money second hand, and even reprints of the pre 1945 ones published by Iain Dale are highly collectable. Why? Because they contain details of the results in individual constituencies and brief profiles of candidates and in later editions, essays covering everything from the media to regional variations. Candidates, journalists, academics and political analysts await with interest The Times Guide to the House of Commons 2015 (Times Books £60), especially the chapter analysing polling before the election. Be prepared – this Guide provides more candid information about the lives of MPs.
To many, the Privy Council is an arcane relic of past Royal and political history. An advisory council which today has seen most of its powers devolved, but it still a valued honour for politicians, with Cabinet Ministers and most ministers of state automatically becoming a Privy Councillor and entitled to be a Right Honourable. An anecdotal history has been written by David Rogers By Royal Appointment, Tales from the Privy Council – the unknown arm of government (Biteback £25).
The Duke of Wellington has been the subject of dozens of biographies, not least by military historians. But he was more than a successful general, and his political interests and his ministerial and Prime Ministerial role were crucial after Waterloo. Rory Muir has written a massive “two decker” biography attempting to put Wellington’s life into a wider context and a revisionist account of his service as Prime Minster. Wellington The Path to Victory 1769-1814 (Yale £30) was published a year ago and now Wellington Waterloo and the Fortunes of Peace 1814-1852 (Yale £30) considers his self promotion of his reputation and his diplomatic and political life.
Ever since visiting Shanghai and seeing the Bund I have been fascinated by the relationship between the Chinese and the foreign interlopers who came to trade, establish treaty ports and to proselytise Christianity and in some cases to colonise in the period 1842-1943. Robert Neild has written a gazetteer of some of the two hundred and fifty treaty ports that the British, Europeans, Russians, Americans and Japanese established at various times. The “unequal treaties” still rankle with the Chinese today but some of the architecture remains and is still used. China’s Foreign Places The Foreign Presence in China in the Treaty Port Era (Hong Kong University Press £46) is a fascinating account of a relationship which was more than one sided exploitation.
With tensions between Russia and NATO and the EU over the Ukraine and the Baltic States a good introduction to the complex history is Anna Reid Borderland A Journey Through the History of the Ukraine, now updated in a paperback (Weidenfield & Nicolson £12).
Ferdinand Mount, former adviser to Margaret Thatcher, journalist and author has written a book on his family – and David Cameron’s links with India. Through the lives of family members in the nineteenth century he has documented their service and ambitions in the old East India Company and later the Crown. It is a discursive book and covers many aspects of British India. The Tears of the Rajas Mutiny, Money and Marriage in India 1805-1905 (Simon&Schuster) £25 makes for grim reading and perhaps a counter point would be the books of William Dalrymple.
Robin Prior, better known for several scholarly books on the First World War, has turned his attention to the summer of 1940 which is already a well researched period. But When Britain Saved the West The Story of 1940 (Yale University Press £20) combines the high politics with the personal uning diaries, official reports and the Home Security Files.
The Second World War had a major impact on rural Britain and the countryside – airfields, camps and military installations built after compulsory purchase, communities evicted, evacuees and refugees and prisoners of war and the need to produce more food. Our Land At War A Portrait of Rural Britain 1939-45 (William Collins £20) by Duff Hart-Davis is a marvellous account of this turbulent period and might provide some useful reading for Liz Truss, the Secretary of State responsible for our countryside.
The old German aristocracy, despite losing in some cases their families, their homes and their fortunes, have managed, in many cases to survive two World Wars. Hitler was quite prepared to use them for unofficial diplomacy, particularly with their British equivalents to whom they were often related. He had an exaggerated view of the influence of these people, but Karina Urbach in Go Betweens for Hitler (Oxford University Press £20) shows how Hitler used such aristocrats as the Duke of Coburg, grandson of Queen Victoria.
Anthony Beevor is a very successful military historian who has written about battles and campaigns through original archival sources and has given us new interpretations and analysis. Colleagues will be familiar with his Stalingrad and Berlin. In Ardennes 1944: Hitler’s Last Gamble (Viking £25) he addresses a familiar story but through a combination of examining the commanders on both sides as well as ordinary soldiers gives a new perspective to a familiar story, whether it is the outrageous egos of Montgomery and Patton or the fact that the Allies, as well as the Germans, shot POWs.
Goebbels was Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda and Popular Enlightment. The voice of Nazi Germany who chose to commit suicide with his family in the Berlin Bunker – his wife murdered his children. Goebbels kept a voluminous diary which has been transcribed and was his view of the Nazi World Order and his place in it as he chose to interpret it for posterity. Peter Longerich who has written a biography of Himmler, has now written a massive biography Goebbels (Bodley Head £30) in which he concludes that Goebbels had less influence on Hitler than he or many historians have claimed.
As a timely corrective to all the commemorations and histories of the First World War on the Western Front is Dominic Lieven’s Towards the Flame Empire, War and End of Tsarist Russia (Allen Lane £25). Lieven challenges many of our perceptions about the origins of the war and the importance of the Eastern Front. A book of immense scholarship and engaging readability.
Stalin, like Hitler has been the subject of numerous biographies, including some of the best by Robert Service and Stephen Kotkin. For those who want to understand Stalin the man and the dictator based upon his own archives and those of the Central Committee then Stalin A New Biography of a Dictator (Yale University Press £25) by Oleg V Khlevniuk is a must. The author has had almost complete access to the archives despite a clampdown by Russian authorities under Putin. Khlevniuk demolishes many myths, but shows how Stalin acquired and exercised ruthless power and was probably responsible for the imprisonment and execution of a million Soviet citizens a year. Putin is fascinated by Stalin, who has been steadily rehabilitated.
Rosemary Sullivan is an author of books on culture and the biographer of Elizabeth Smart. It takes the skills of a good biographer to write about Stalin’s Daughter The Extraordinary and Tumultuous Life of Svetlana Alliluyera (Fourth Estate £25) With access to KGB, CIA and Soviet government archives, as well as Svetlana’s daughter, Rosemary Sullivan has written a sensitive biography about Stalin’s daughter who, after his death, had to come to terms with his brutality, not least to her own family. In 1967 she defected to the USA where ultimately she died in poverty. How do the children of mass murderers come to terms with such a parent?
What do George Osborne and Gordon Brown have in common, apart from both being “Imperial” Chancellors? Their admiration for the American biographer Robert Caro, now aged 79, whose monumental multi-volume biography of LBJ is still to be completed. His first major book in 1974 was the 1,246 page biography of The Power Broker Robert Moses and the Fall of New York, now published in the UK by The Bodley Head at £35. Robert Moses was not a politician but New York City’s master planner who ruthlessly exercised power to demolish and rebuild the City and marginalise ethnic minorities. This biography, as the subsequent volumes on LBJ, are based on an incredible amount of detailed research and in depth interviews with hundreds of people who knew or worked with Moses. Caro is fascinated by those who acquire and exercise power, and although I suspect that George Osborne has read the original American edition, he will happily re-read this British edition and recommend it to young thrusters on the Conservative, Labour and SNP benches. A biography to be seen carrying in the House of Commons.
Writing of the ruthless acquisition and exercise of power naturally leads to Frank McLynn Genghis Khan The Man Who Conquered the World (Bodley Head £25) The author as an historian has ranged widely previously over subjects ranging from Marcus Aurelius to Villa and Zapata. Genghis Khan was born on the Mongolian Steppe and his life straddled the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries. Ruthlessness, an iron discipline, real leadership and the use of terror (genocide) on a vast scale saw him demolish the old Chinese empire before subjugating Central Asia and Persia. His legacy is still debated in successor countries including China and Iran.
In the nineteenth and twentieth century geopolitics was all the rage amongst certain academics and governments but taken to an ideological extreme under the Nazis, understandably got a bad name. But the geographical and environmental position and context of nation states is crucial for their political and economic security. Tim Marshall, journalist, writer and broadcaster, best known for his reporting of foreign affairs and security, has written a timely reminder of the importance of geopolitics in Prisoners of Geography Ten Maps That Tell Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics (Elliott & Thompson £16.99) A good bluffer’s guide for the members of the newly elected Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committees.
Given the current political instability and conflict in the Middle East and the Mediterranean the historic perspective is useful. Noel Malcolm Agents of Empire Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth Century Mediterranean World (Allen Lane £30) is a masterful study of the conflict between the Christian states of Western Europe on the defensive against a Muslim superpower. There was widespread conflict and piracy, but also complex relationships across the religious and dynastic divides.
There is a danger that in Britain we look upon the contribution of India in two World Wars in a nostalgic way and from a British perspective. But the reality was more complex and Yasmin Khan demonstrates this in her masterly study The Raj at War A People’s History of India’s Second World War (The Bodley Head £25). In military terms the old Indian Army made a massive contribution to the British war effort – but the heroes in 1946 were the former members of the Indian National Army recruited by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore. India was divided on religious, caste and regional grounds and the war accelerated the demand for independence with the Bengal famine being a particular horror and seemed to epitomise British, and particularly Churchillian indifference.
At a more personal level the Indian journalist Raghu Karnad has reconstructed the military service and battle experience of a grandfather and two great uncles in Farthest Field an Indian Story of the Second World War (William Collins £18.99).
The old Imperial Austrian Army has been caricatured as a joke by some historians, summarised by Tulleyrand’s dismissive aside that the Habsburg Army had “an unfortunate taste for being beaten”. But as Richard Bassett shows in For God and Kaiser The Imperial Austrian Army (Yale University Press £25) its cohesion depended in the Hapsburg monarchy and an intricate balance between the ethnic recruits of the Empire. It may have been beaten on numerous occasions but it was rebuilt, reformed and staggered on until broken during the First World War.
Christina Lamb is a distinguished journalist specialising in foreign affairs and author of several books. She has intimate knowledge of Pakistan and Afghanistan and has watched with incredulity how the West managed to miscalculate in its interventions in the region. Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World (William Collins £25) is based upon her own experience and conversations with decision makers in many countries. Her conclusions are gloomy about how the ignorance and failure of the West has resulted in the spread of terrorism throughout the Islamic World.
Max Hastings, distinguished military historian, and author of many books on the Second World War, has turned his attention to a much written about subject. In The Secret War Spies, Codes and Guerrillas (William Collins £30, 10th September) he examines espionage and intelligence on a global basis, bringing together American, British, German, Japanese and Russian histories.
In an age of email intercepts and drone strikes many assume that the role of the traditional spy or agent has passed. Stephen Grey disagrees and in The New Spymasters Inside Espionage from the Cold War to Global Terror (Viking £20) argues that despite the advances in electronic espionage and counter espionage the human source is still crucial.
Gordon Corera is the BBC’s security correspondent and in his Intercept: The Secret History of Computers and Spies (Weidenfield & Nicholson £20) he shows how the code-breaking of the Second World War led to the birth of modern electronic espionage in the Cold War and then to the War against terrorists and now cyber warfare. Information isn’t knowledge and the need to counter terrorism and state and industrial espionage has major implications for privacy and civil liberties.
Graffiti is as old as man, and many people associate it with the political and personal graffiti entombed in the ruins of Pompeii or with fond memories of messages and drawings left on school desks or loo walls. Leaving your mark was something that throughout history prisoners etched in their cells. Matthew Champion is an expert on medieval English church graffiti and is based at the University of East Anglia and lives in my constituency. In Medieval Graffiti The Lost Voices of England’s Churches (Ebury £12.99) the author explains how all sorts of people from masons, architects, pilgrims and worshippers graffitied medieval churches. Based mainly on churches in East Anglia, and especially my very own Norfolk, Matthew Champion has written a fascinating book which is a cultural and social history of the period. Well worth including in the holiday travel bag and a must read for Dominic Grieve, aficionado of round tower churches, Caroline Spelman, Second Church Commissioner and Ann Treneman, who haunts church cemeteries.
The Rt Hon Keith Simpson MP