Iain Dale takes a look at the political books which have captured our attention over the last year.
The last twelve months has provided a bumper crop of political books. Naturally the General Election has had something to do with that, and now that it’s over we can look forward to all the post election analysis tomes, of which there will be many.
But the year has also had its disappointments. Perhaps Life in the Jungle by Michael Heseltine (Hodder, £20), has been the biggest. Hezza had a real opportunity to provide a real insight into the Thatcher years, yet by the end of the book (if you actually got that far) you were left very little wiser. By contrast, Paddy Ashdown’s first volume of diaries (Penguin, £25) I found absolutely riveting. Peter Riddell of The Times told me that this is one of those rare books that make you look at the whole New Labour project in a different light, and I certainly agree with that. I’m told the second volume (coming out in September) will be explosive.
The big biography of the coming autumn will be former Speaker Betty Boothroyd’s memoirs, Madam Speaker (Random House, £25.00). They have paid an advance of £750,000 for the pleasure of publishing this book, so we are expecting some juicy bits, although I fear we may be a tad disappointed. Linda McDougall’s long awaited biography of Cherie Booth, Cherie: The Perfect Life of Mrs Blair (Politico’s, £17.99) may well also rattle a few cages in Downing Street. Alan Clark’s second volume of diaries, Into Politics (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20.00) proved a real disappointment last autumn, whereas Gyles Brandreth’s Breaking the Code: Westminster Diaries (Phoenix, £7.99) has been a surprise hit. It became one of those books that sold through word of mouth. I certainly rank it as one of my top five books of the last few years. Woodrow Wyatt’s three volumes of diaries (Macmillan, £7.99) are another riveting read, although I fear they haven’t had the sales they merit. Wyatt was one of the most brilliant people I have ever met, and the insight the books give into the mindset of Margaret Thatcher and her Ministers is unrivalled.
My favourite biography of the last year is Keith Joseph (Acumen, £25.00) by Mark Garnett & Andrew Denham. It is a truly masterful piece of work. The research was extensive and while reading it you really felt as though no stone had been left unturned. If you read one political biography in the next few months, make it this one. It will leave many of your preconceptions about Keith Joseph in pieces.
One of our bestselling sections at Politico’s is the humour section. This year has seen comparatively few hunour books released but I can certainly spot a new trend in funny books on George W Bush. The Bush Dyslexicon (Transworld, £6.99) is a good compilation of goofy quotes and mistakes by the new US President, but I can’t help feel that it will never really be able to match the quality of my very own Bill Clinton Joke Book (Robson Books, £3.99) – at least in the bad taste department. The brilliant Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell has also released a book called Chairman Blair’s Little Red Book (Methuen, £6.99) which has a blue cover – apparently that’s the whole point! Perhaps my favourite cartoon book of the year has been compiled by Alan Mumford for the Centre for the Study of Cartoon and Caricature at the University of Kent, Stabbed in the Front – Cartoons in British General Elections Since 1945 (CSCC, £14.95). Full of fascinating narrative describing the impact of various cartoons on the election campaigns and packed with brilliant cartoons, it’s a real treasure trove of contemporary and historical political humour.
One of the disappointing features of the past election was the lack of proper guides. The Guardian Companion to the Election (Grove Atlantic, £12.99) and the Politico’s Guide to the General Election (Politico’s £12.99) and Robert Waller’s Almanac of British Politics (Routledge, £32.50) all covered the statistical field well, but there was only one book, Did Things Get Better? By Polly Toynbee and David Walker (Penguin, £6.99) which sought to examine the policy areas. In 1997 Penguin published a series of three books analysing why one should vote for each of the parties and there were at least three other guide books. Presumably we can put this down to the fact that everyone felt they knew the result of this election in advance.
As we enter the post election twighlight zone we can look forward to the publication of the Times Guide to the House of Commons (Times Books, £40.00), which will hopefully not have the many mistakes of the last edition. Rallings & Thrasher’s Britain Votes series has been replaced by the Electoral Commission’s first book Election 2001: The Official Results (Politico’s, £25.00). This contains all the constituency results and some fascinating statistical tables, together with the Commission’s first thoughts on the issues it will be examining before the next election. Essex University’s Professor Anthony King will be publishing Britain at the Polls (Chatham House, £14.95), while David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh will be penning the British General Election of 2001 (Palgrave, £18.99) in their Nuffield series, which comes out in December. BBC’s Nick Jones kept a day to day diary through the election which will be published in September as Campaign 2001: An Election Diary (Politico’s, £9.99) and MORI’s Bob Worcester and Roger Mortimore will be Explaining Labour’s Second Landslide (Politico’s £20.00).
The surfeit of books looking at Labour’s record in government was best exemplified last year by Andrew Rawnsley’s brilliant Servants of the People (Penguin, £16.99). This book read like a thriller and was brilliantly – and relentlessly – promoted by its author. Admittedly, he was very lucky in his timing but the book spoke for itself, engendering a substantial amount of envious comments from the other political lobby journalists. John Rentoul’s updated biography of Tony Blair (Little Brown, £20.00) also received rave reviews for its thoroughness, while Julia Langdon’s Mo Mowlam (Little Brown, £16.99) was a good seller too. She’s now about to set about a book on Gordon Brown. In September the Today Programme’s Jim Naightie will be publishing a book on the relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown called “The Rivals”. He has received a rumoured £300,000 advance, so it had better be a corker! Nick Jones has produced a third book on the relationship between the media and New Labour called The Control Freaks (Politico’s, £18.99) which caused several Cabinet Ministers a moment of discomfort when it was serialised in the Mail on Sunday, while Antony Seldon’s Blair Effect (Little Brown, £14.99) is masterly work analysing every facet of Labour’s first term through the words of nearly 30 essays by top political commentators. Perhaps one of my least favourite books of the year was Tom Bower’s Paymaster (Simon & Schuster, £16.99) on the life of former Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson. Bower specialises in hatchet job books and I have always wondered how an author can gain any serious pleasure from writing books of that nature.
Political fiction is undergoing a bit of a fallow spell at the moment. Most big publishers just will not take on books with political plots. Little Brown are an honourable exception as they publish the novels of Douglas Hurd and Edwin Currie. Currie’s books should not be underestimated. They have a real pace to them and her latest parliamentary bonkbuster This Honourable House (Little Brown, £9.99) is no exception. Ann Widdecombe’s Clematis Tree (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £6.99) was one of the surprise hits of the year, selling 20,000 copies in hardback. She did a signing at the Tory conference, selling more than 400 copies, although her sales technique left me somewhat baffled. “No sex, no swearing, no violence,” she shrieked at the top of her voice. “Ann,” I said, “that’s not the way to get the punters in!” I was wrong. They loved her. Now that she is retiring from frontbench politics we can look forward to several more books from her. My favourite novel of the last twelve months is one that I published myself by the Mail on Sunday’s political editor, Simon Walters. Second Term (Politico’s, £16.99) is the story of Labour government trying to win a second term of office but being undermined by spin doctors. Ring any bells? The number of episodes in this novel that have actually come true have to be read to be believed.
But my book of the year is Peter Hennessy’s The Prime Minister (Penguin, £25.00). This huge work is a must for every serious bookshelf. Its size is perhaps a little intimidating but the quality of writing and informed and incisive analysis is beyond comparison. This is one of those rare books which is able to cross the border between serious academic writing and anecdotal gossip. In Hennessy’s case we know that the gossip is irrefutable as he has the best sources in the business.