Guest Post by Keith Simpson MP
As we look forward to the Festive Season colleagues will be looking for interesting books to put in the stockings of loved ones and friends whilst ministers will be desperate to read anything rather than civil service briefs. This selection is personal and draws upon recently published books, historical, political and with some war and conflict. For books on cookery, sport and celebrity ghost written memoirs try your local supermarket.
Arthur Balfour held a series of senior ministerial offices as well as leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister. Probably the most intellectual holder of that office he moved in late Victorian and Edwardian political, cultural and sexual circles. Nancy W Ellenberger has written an elegant account in Balfour’s World Aristocracy and Political Culture at the Finn de Siècle (Boydell Press £26).
Today, Winston Churchill would never survive the parliamentary and public scrutiny of his finances and life style. He inherited from his father and mother an ability to spend, spend, spend, on everything from gambling to a life style well beyond his income. Churchill survived by extending credit, borrowing, financial gifts and his own prodigious output as an author. Others have touched on Churchill and his finances but David Lough has dug deep into the Churchill archives and the surviving archives of banks, financial institutions and publishers to write a fascinating book. Lough writes from experience as a former investment banker and the founder of a successful private wealth – management firm. No More Champagne Churchill and His Money (Head of Zeus £25) is a must read for any politician.
Previously, Michael Jago has written a biography of Clement Attlee and has now turned his pen to Rab Butler The Best Prime Minister Britain Never Had? (Biteback £25). The last serious biography of Rab was written by Anthony Howard in 1987 and had the advantage that the author knew his subject and was able to interview many of his contemporaries. Rab came from the middle class establishment, married money, was a Chamberlain appeaser, then 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.
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 this scope looking at an array of British politicians who were gay or he assumes were gay – some rather far fetched – in Closet Queens Some 26th Century Politicians (Little Brown £25).
Julian Amery was the son of the Conservative politician Leo Amery and his brother John was hanged for treason in 1945. Julian had a distinguished war serving in the Balkans and was an MP from 1950 to 1992 and held a number of ministerial offices. Although seen as right wing Amery was in favour of entry into the Common Market. A new, short account of his life is by Richard Bassett Last Imperialist A Portrait of Julian Amery (Stone Trough Books).
The outstanding biography of 2011 was Charles Moore Margaret Thatcher The Authorised Biography Volume One : Not For Turning. This is to be a triple deck biography and we now have the second volume, Margaret Thatcher Everything She Wants (Allen Lane £30) which has fewer surprises and revelations than the first volume.
We assume that political spin is a contemporary phenomenon but Paul Brighton demonstrates in Original Spin Downing Street and the Press in Victorian Britain (I B Tauris £25) that Peel, Palmerston, Gladstone and Disraeli all tried to manipulate the press.
For the political anoraks who cannot get through the Festive Season without a fix then the following can be recommended – Tim Ross Why the Tories Won The Inside Story of the 2015 Election (Biteback £12.99); Philip Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh The British General Election of 2015 (Palgrave Macmillan £30; Matthew Goodwin and Caitlin Milazzo UKIP inside the campaign to redraw the map of British Politics (OUP £19) and Dan Hodges One Minute to Ten Cameron, Miliband and Clegg. Three Men, One Ambition and the Price of Power (Michael Joseph £17).
SPQR – Senatus Populusque Romanus – ‘the Senate and People of Rome’ was the Romans’ own abbreviation for their state and is the title of Mary Beard’s latest book published by Profile Books at £25. She is a Professor of Classics at Cambridge, Classics editor of the TLS, recently bested Boris Johnson in a debate extolling Ancient Rome over Ancient Greece. Erudite, sceptical and at times funny this is a superb account of Roman history.
Christopher Tyerman is author of God’s War A New History of the Crusades and has now written How to Plan a Crusade Reason and Religious War in the Middle Ages (Allen Lane £25) Tyerman challenges accepted myths that the Middle Ages was a period of ignorance and unbridled violence. The Crusades involved belief, propaganda, diplomacy, intelligence, finance and above all logistics.
Much of our historical interpretation is still Eurocentric, although historians are challenging that, and in The Silk Roads A New History of the World (Bloomsbury £30), Peter Frankopan highlights the importance of the crucial area between the Black Sea and China, not least as a route for trade, military conquest, disease and cultural exchanges.
Christopher Duffy is a distinguished military historian who established his reputation writing about the armies of Frederick the Great and Maria Theresa. He then wrote The ’45 Bonnie Prince Charlie and the untold story of the Jacobite Rising. Duffy has now expanded this book using new sources in Fight for a Throne The Jacobite ’45 Reconsidered (Helion and Company £35). This is not just another “fife and drum” account of the ’45 but a reassessment of the Jacobites in a positive way and a discussion of the post – Culloden era. Something for any SNP stocking.
Frederick the Great’s reputation as the founder of modern Prussia and the warrior king meant he was admired by Hitler and became the symbol of German aggression to her neighbours. There are dozens of biographies of Frederick but all now have been surpassed by Tim Blanning’s Frederick the Great King of Prussia (Allen Lane £30). He has mastered original sources and is the first historian to categorically write that, accordingly to our contemporary definition, Frederick was homosexual.
Ferdinand Mount, adviser to Margaret Thatcher, journalist and author has written a book about his family’s – 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 to the books of William Dalrymple.
Éamon de Valera was head of the Irish government on three occasions having survived the Easter Rising in 1916 and led the anti-Treaty forces in the 1920s. A single minded nationalist he was, nevertheless, a thoroughly unpleasant man. In Éamon de Valera A Will to Power (Faber £20) Ronan Fanning shows that de Valera had supreme self confidence and whose vision of an independent Ireland meant it became a romantic, rural, backward idyll.
Originally published in German, Nicholas Stargardt’s The German War A Nation Under Arms 1939-45 (Bodley Head £25) attempts to describe how ordinary Germans reacted to the war and what sustained them until the final days of 1945. The book is based upon first hand testimonies of men and women from all walks of life and political opinions through letters and diaries and the Nazis own equivalent of opinion polls.
Hitler was a boor, and his advisers and propagandists worked hard to present him as a man of culture and taste whose residences could and did appear, in the British magazine Homes and Gardens in 1938. In Hitler at Home (Yale £25) Despina Stratigakos considers Hitler’s three main residencies, the old Reich Chancellery building in Berlin, his apartment in Munich and the Berghof above Berchtesgaden. Architecture, interior design and landscaping were all significant.
After Stalin’s death, his inner circle – those who survived – wrote themselves out of his history, especially the terror. But as Sheila Fitzpatrick shows in On Stalin’s Team The Years of Living Dangerously in Soviet Politics (Princeton £25) the core team consisted of between four and ten people who behaved as a social group even more than a political one. Based upon Russian archives, letters, diaries and interviews, Fitzpatrick has written a fascinating account of Stalin and his cronies. Something for the Shadow Cabinet.
Maisky was the Soviet ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943 when he was recalled to Moscow, arrested, tortured but released and eventually rehabilitated. His diaries are to be edited into three volumes and the first, edited by Gabriel Gorodetsky, is entitled The Maisky Diaries Red Ambassador at the Court of St James’s 1932-1943 (Yale £25). Maisky comes across as a perceptive, humorous affable diplomat with interesting observations on Churchill, Chamberlain, Eden, Lloyd George and Labour political and literary figures. Maisky remained as ambassador for eleven years surviving the purges because his observations must have been thought valuable by Stalin, although he frequently told him what he wanted to hear.
Max Hastings, distinguished military historian and journalist with a formidable output, has turned his pen to The Secret War Spies, Codes and Guerrillas (William Collins £30) in which he examines in a critical way espionage and intelligence by the combatant powers. Hastings is not impressed by the overall value to their war efforts.
Robert Service has written biographies of Lenin and Stalin and has now published The End of the Cold War 1985-1991 (Macmillan £25) For those of us who lived through the Cold War, its eventual chaotic but peaceful end came as a surprise. Drawing on a vast array of sources Service examines how this came about.
Last month some of us were fortunate enough to hear the distinguished American journalist and biographer Robert Caro talk about the acquisition and exercise of power. He was in the UK to help publicise his first book which appeared in the USA in 1974 but has only now been published here. The Power Broker Robert Moses and the Fall of New York (The Bodley Head £35) is a mammoth biography of 1,246 pages. 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 and the poor. From this Caro went on to write his yet incomplete multi volume biography of LBJ.
Henry Kissinger has been revered as well as reviled and now Niall Fergusson has written the first of a two volume biography Kissinger 1923-1968 The Idealist (Allen lane £35). As his official biographer Fergusson has written a glowing but not uncritical account and shows how Kissinger’s European roots and his study of the Concert of Europe helped shape his approach to contemporary international relations.
Dwight Eisenhower has usually been categorised as in the second eleven of American Presidents – a competent administrator rather than a statesman. Irwin Gellman has sought to challenge this interpretation and with it Eisenhower’s relationships with his Vice President Richard Nixon in The President and the Apprentice Eisenhower and Nixon 1952-1961 (Yale £25)
John le Carré, or David Cornwell as his given name, has made a reputation as the master of the spy novel genre, based on the British intelligence and security services, and combining fact with fiction, and a theme of personal betrayal. Cornwell’s father was scheming, duplicitous and a fraudster given to conceal his behaviour and life, and his novelist son has gone out of his way to leave personal false trails of his own life. Now Adam Sisman has written the authorised biography of this complex man, John le Carré The Biography (Bloomsbury £25). We await the autobiography next year.
The fictional characters in his spy novels, along with Ian Fleming’s James Bond, have done more to influence public opinion about our intelligence and security agencies than all the official histories and memoirs combined.
Central to le Carre’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy is the existence of a Soviet mole at the centre of SIS. This was based upon the activities of moles such as Philby, Maclean and Burgess. The latter had been seen as having had a supporting role given his louch life style and drunkenness. Now Andrew Lownie in Stalin’s Englishman The Lives of Guy Burgess (Hodder & Stoughton (£25) has through meticulous research shown the extent of Burgess’s penetration of the British establishment and his central importance to Soviet intelligence.
Baroness Park of Monmouth was a daughter of the Empire and a graduate of Oxford University whose wartime service was in cyphers for British intelligence before having a career in SIS and then becoming Principal of Somerville College, Oxford. Quite a remarkable career for a woman at a time when there were few above secretaries and clerks in SIS. Her life and career, although the latter may not contain all the details, has been written up by Paddy Hayes in Queen of Spies Daphne Park Britain’s Cold War Spy Master (Gerald Duckworth & Co £20).
The uses and abuses of intelligence and the dangers of group think form the basis of Why Spy? The Art of Intelligence (C Hurst & Co £25) by Brian Stewart and Samantha Newbey. Brian Stewart served in intelligence in the field and in London for over fifty years while Samantha Newby is an academic specialising in intelligence studies. Although Brian Stewart’s experience is now historical, he looks at issues directly relevant to today. He died shortly after this book was published. His son is Rory Stewart, the Conservative MP, author and minister who has had some experience of aspects of his father’ life.
Now for some stocking fillers. Andrew Gimson, journalist, biographer of Boris Johnson, has written a primer and refresher of facts, figures and anecdotes about our monarchy in Gimson’s Kings and Queens Brief Lives of the Forty Monarchs (Square Peg £11).
Quentin Letts, parliamentary and theatre sketch writer for the Daily Mail, has turned his pen to a novel The Speaker’s Wife (Constable £17) The novel centres upon the Church of England and the House of Commons and whilst satirical has a moral purpose. Spot the fictional characters and their resemblance to contemporary figures.
The House of Commons has been the poorer since the elevation of Sir George Young to the Other Place. An old Etonian, One Nation Tory, the Bicycling Baronet, who has served off and on in front bench positions for over thirty years, culminating as Chief Whip. Like many MPs Sir George wrote a weekly column for his local paper, first in Acton and then in Hampshire. Keeping Young The Everyday Life of an MP is a selection from these columns which are at times both serious and hilarious describing the life of an MP at the constituency level which will be familiar to many. Copies of his book may be obtained from his Lordship, care of the Other Place, for a negotiated price.
Keith Simpson MP