Another nine months before the General Election and, probably, barring accidents, no more ministerial reshuffles following this summer. Historically, July, August, September have been months of crisis in international affairs, and this summer we commemorate the centenary of the First World War. Parliamentary colleagues who are already yearning for sun and sand may seek escapism in bodice ripping novels, or what Lloyd George referred to as “shilling shockers”. But the more discerning of us, and I include husbands, wives and partners, often seek more substantial literary fare. As usual this selection is personal, and mainly consists of books published this year with an emphasis on history, military history and politics – a sound basis for any political career, and maybe, it would have benefited Tony Blair, if as it is alleged, Roy Jenkins had mused that it would have helped him as Prime Minister if he had read history rather than law at university. Maybe.
Mentioning Roy Jenkins highlights one of the very best political biographies this year. John Campbell has written biographies of F E Smith, Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher. Whilst Jenkins was still alive he wrote a short, rather uncritical biography. Given access to the Jenkins family papers and interviews with many contemporaries, his Roy Jenkins: A Well Rounded Life (Jonathan Cape £30) is a tour de force, and whilst a biography of admiration is not hagiography.
Attlee is always rated highly as a Prime Minister by British political scientists and has been well served by biographers including Kenneth Harris, Frances Beckett and Thomas-Symonds. So perhaps not much more to add? Well Michael Jago in Clement Attlee: The Inevitable Prime Minister (Biteback £25) has discovered some new sources and has admirably reworked old ones to show that that whilst Attlee was lucky, he has experience, determination and grit. One for Ed Miliband.
Christopher Sandford is a prolific biographer, whose books include the Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, Imran Khan and Steve McQueen. Based upon official papers and private correspondence his Harold and Jack The Remarkable Friendship of Prime Minister Macmillan and President Kennedy (Prometheus Books £15) purports to cast new light on the many layered relationships between Macmillan and Kennedy. One for Obama and Cameron?
The Times journalist Ben Macintyre has written several well received books on spying and espionage in the Second World War. A Spy Among Friends Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal (Bloomsbury £20) is more than another biography of Philby, but a study of a man who betrayed his family and friends and lived a life of deceit which enabled him to operate at the centre of British and American intelligence.
It could be claimed that Eleanor, the daughter of Karl Marx, was the first modern feminist. Rachel Holmes has written a dazzling and intensely partisan biography Eleanor Marx A Life (Bloomsbury £25) of an exceptional woman, who was secretary and researcher to her father, but wrote and campaigned on political and social issues in her own right.
For those parliamentarians unfortunate enough to have fallen foul of the law and thus served Her Majesty under constraint, there is always the opportunity to keep a diary and write about those experiences – Jeffrey Archer and Jonathan Aitken being two examples. Now the former Labour MP Denis MacShane has followed that example and written Prison Diaries (Biteback £20).
Born into a relatively privileged background but at the shabby gentility end of the social spectrum, Jean Trumpington had a fairly basic education followed by the land army, Bletchley Park, commercial life in New York, wife of a public school headmaster, Cambridge City Councillor, then a life peer and a minister in Thatcher’s government. Jean Trumpington has lived life to the full which comes through with vim in her delightful book Coming Up Trumps A Memoir (Macmillan £16.99).
American politicians who write or have written for them, their autobiographies fall into two categories – those who are at the end of their careers and wish to establish a reputation and retaliate against those who have done them down, and those who use their autobiography as a manifesto for higher office. Hilary Rodham Clinton Hard Choices (Simon&Schuster £20) falls into the second category, but with some interesting, usually positive comments about American and world politicians. A must for Simon Burns.
Many of the books written about Parliament are scholarly but tedious to read. The Labour MP and gadfly Chris Bryant has decided to write about Parliament through its Members, and has published earlier this year Parliament The Biography Volume One (Doubleday) which covered the period from the early middle ages to the early nineteenth century. He has been keen to demolish many old myths about Parliament and its Members. His second volume of Parliament The Biography (Doubleday £25) covers the period of reform from the early nineteenth century to Thatcher. Entertaining, opinionated and partisan.
And yet more books on Churchill? Every form of Churchill’s life, interests, family, relationships and career are being steadily covered. I await with interest Churchill and His Dentists (joke). But to be fair several of the latest studies cover crucial areas of Churchill’s wide ranging interests. Vincent Orange has been an historian of the RAF and biographer of senior RAF officers and in Churchill and His Airmen Relationships, Intrigue and Policy Making 1914-1945 (Grub Street £25) shows Churchill’s fascination with flying and air power.
Churchill disliked conventional education but read and wrote widely, and enjoyed the company of authors, actors and film makers. This side of Churchill’s personality had a powerful impact on how he saw himself as a politician and a minister which Jonathan Rose examines in The Literary Churchill Author, Reader, Actor (Yale University Press £25).
Edward Thring was a well known nineteenth century headmaster and for thirty-four years was head of Uppingham School which he developed from a small grammar school to a significant public school. No establishment man he, as he fought prejudice and ignorance and developed a broad curriculum and child – centred teaching methods through two influential books. Later in life he became deeply interested in educational opportunities for women. Nigel Richardson has now written the first modern biography Thring of Uppingham Victorian Educator (The University of Buckingham Press £25). One for Michael Gove and Tristram Hunt.
Timothy Heppell has written several books on the modern Conservative Party, and now in The Tories From Winston Churchill to David Cameron (Bloomsbury £18.99) has written an accessible history and analysis.
Rob Wilson, Conservative MP and PPS to the Chancellor, wrote a very good study on the formation of the present Coalition. In The Eye of the Storm (Biteback £20) he considers how politicians and ministers deal with political and personal crises, including Charles Clarke, Jacqui Smith, William Hague, Jeremy Hunt and Vince Cable.
With the rise and success of UKIP, Revolt on the Right Support for the Radical Right in Britain (Routledge £14.99) by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin is the “must read” book of the year in British politics.
In their time, both David Davis and Gerald Kaufman have written “bluffer’s guides” on how to be a minister. Now former Labour Cabinet Minister John Hutton with Leigh Lewis, has brought their experiences up to date with his own How To Be a Minister (Biteback £18.99) A must for ambitious thrusters in the Conservative Parliamentary Party 2010 intake.
Throughout the twentieth century and before, hundreds of determined British women defied social conventions of the day in order to seek influence and adventure abroad , travellers, explorers, business women, advocates of reform and women’s suffrage, and as wives and partners of diplomats, soldiers and colonial officials. Yet until 1946, no British woman could officially represent her nation abroad, and the prejudices of Whitehall and the Foreign Office were reflected in many other countries. This is well documented in Helen McCarthy Women of the World The Rise of the Female Diplomat (Bloomsbury £25) One for the Foreign Secretary and the Permanent Secretary.
Famously, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians (1918) ridiculed the great ones of the nineteenth century. Now W Sydney Robinson, who recently wrote a well received biography of the Victorian investigative journalist W T Stead, has written The Last Victorians A Daring Reassessment of Four Twentieth Century Eccentrics (Robson Press £20). They are William Joynson-Hicks 1866-1932, the moralising Home Secretary; W R Inge (1860-1954), the gloomy Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral; John Reith, 1889-1971, the moralising and intemperate founder of the BBC, and Arthur Bryant (1899-1985), the ultra patriotic popular historian and journalist.
Kwasi Kwarteng, Conservative MP for Spelthorne is the author of Ghosts of Empire Britain’s Legacies in the Modern World (2012). He is fascinated by the historical pattern – at least from the sixteenth century – of war waging, financial debt and fluctuations between paper money and the gold standard which he explores in War and Gold A Five Hundred Year History of Empires, Adventures and Debt (Bloomsbury £25).
Another MP who is a distinguished historian is Tristram Hunt, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central and Shadow Secretary of State for Education, and sparring partner at the despatch box with Michael Gove. Biographer of Friedrich Engels and author of Building Jerusalem The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City (2005) he has now written a well researched, stimulating and original book Ten Cities That made an Empire (Allen Lane £25) in which he examines the history, culture and development of ten of the most significant cities of the British Empire – Boston, Bridgetown, Dublin, Cape Town, Calcutta, Hong Kong, Melbourne, New Delhi and Liverpool.
The role of a British settlers, entrepreneurs, businessmen, colonial governors and slaves, and the part they played in establishing a dominance in the West Indies and enriching the United Kingdom was graphically told by Matthew Parker in The Sugar Barons Family, Corruption, Empire and War (2012). Adopting a longer and wider historical perspective is Carrie Gibson’s Empire’s Crossroads A History of the Caribbean From Columbus to the Present Day (Macmillan £25).
Paddy Ashdown, Liberal Democrat Peer, former Party Leader, former Royal Marine Commando, former international diplomat, is author of A Brilliant Little Operation The Cockleshell Heroes and the Most Courageous Raid of World War 2 (2012). Published to coincide with the seventieth anniversary of D-Day he has now written The Cruel Victory The French Resistance, D-Day and the Battle for the Vercors 1944 (William Collins £25), which deals with the tragic circumstances of the allied special forces and the French resistance at Vercors who were successfully attacked and brutally crushed by the Germans in the summer of 1944.
The international conference held at Bretton Woods in July 1944 and hosted by the USA saw them establish a new financial order which lasted for over thirty years. The meeting was dominated by the personalities and intellectual arguments of the senior US delegate Harry Dexter White and the senior UK delegate John Maynard Keynes. This conference and its consequences is examined by Ed Conway in The Summit The Biggest Battle of the Second World War (Little, Brown £25). This is the second major book in just over a year on Bretton Woods, the earlier being by Benn Steil The Battle of Bretton Woods (2013).
Books on the Gestapo range from personal reminiscences, mainly of victims, general illustrated books recycling secondary sources and known as “military pornography”, and scholarly accounts. Translated form the German The Gestapo Power and Terror in the Third Reich (OUP £19.99) by Carsten Dams and Michael Stolle traces the history of the organisation, its personnel and how it was used as an instrument of coercion and terror in Germany and occupied Europe, and how many of its people escaped punishment after the war and were able to work for either the American, British, or Soviet intelligence services and the West German and East German political police.
High in the mountains of the southern Massif Central in France is the small, remote village of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. Along with other villages they sheltered and helped Jews, communists and resisters during the Nazi occupation. There were those who collaborated and supported Vichy but the majority did not. Caroline Moorehead has spoken to villagers and those they sheltered and searched the archives to write Village of Secrets Defying the Nazis in Vichy France (Chatto and Windus £20).
British foreign policy is haunted by the legacy of appeasement, and how its interpretation and implementation in the interwar period tainted it forever as a method of diplomacy. This is examined by R Gerald Hughes in The Postwar Legacy of Appeasement British Foreign Policy Since 1945 (Bloomsbury £22.99) and influences our current debates on the Ukraine and Syria.
British military operations since the end of the Cold war have spanned the full spectrum of military commitments from the limited ones such as Sierra Leone and Libya to intense and drawn out campaigns like Iraq and Afghanistan. The RUSI has produced an edited volume based on workshops and a conference edited by Adrian L Johnson Wars in Peace British Military Operations since 1991 (RUSI £20). The political and strategic aspects are addressed and should be one for the members of the Foreign Affairs and Defence Select Committees.
An Intimate War An Oral History of the Helmand Conflict 1978-2012 (C Hurst and Co £25) is an account of the last thirty-four years of conflict in Helmand Province seen through the eyes of the Helmandis. The author Mike Martin was a TA officer and a Pashto speaker who interviewed dozens of Helmandis to get a different perspective of the conflict in Afghanistan. Media reports and rumours around the Whitehall bazaars claimed the MOD was not best pleased with his account. Government, like many professions and businesses, is susceptible to kicking difficult problems into the long grass. The former Labour Cabinet Minister Charles Charke, experienced government under Blair and has been fascinated by the habit of Whitehall to prevaricate and avoid taking difficult decisions. In The Too Difficult Box The Big Issues Politicians Can’t Crack (Biteback £25) he has edited a series of lectures by former ministers and experts on all the big issues frequently avoided, from Europe, national security, climate change, pensions, banking regulation, immigration, Lords reform, to assisted dying, just to mention a few. Proactive and stimulating as an editor, Charles Clarke shows what a loss he is to the political world.
With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War upon us the reader is spoilt for choice with an avalanche of books covering every aspect. This summer is a good time to catch up not least because of instability in so many areas of the world. A good overview can be found in Hew Strachan (ed) The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War (OUP £25) which pulls together an international team and the latest research. Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers How Europe Went to War in 1914 (Penguin £10.99) is less judgemental on Germany, whilst Max Hastings Catastrophe Europe Goes to War 1914 (William Collins £9.99) is an unapologetic case for the righteousness of the British decision to go to war, but scathing in criticism of the allied political and military leadership. The impact of the war and its legacies is superbly dealt with by David Reynolds The Long Shadow The Great War and the Twentieth Century (Simon & Schuster £25).
For those who have visited or are intending visiting one of the cemeteries of memorials maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission then the role of the first Director General Fabian Ware and the decision to establish these cemeteries is covered by David Crane Empires of the Dead How One Man’s Vision Led to the Creation of WWI’s War Graves (William Collins £8.99).
Former foreign secretary David Owen is fascinated by what he sees as a “mind frame” at the Foreign and War Offices before 1914 which locked Britain into political and military relationships with France and Russia and is developed in The Hidden Perspective The Military Conversations of 1908-1914 (Haus Publishing £21).
Tim Butcher is an author journalist and explorer and in The Trigger Hunting the Assassin Who Brought the World to War (Chatto & Windus £18.99) he examines the young Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The author literally retraces Princip’s childhood and youth across the Balkans and seeks to understand his background and motivation. It maybe inappropriate given the consequences of the assassination but I am reminded of Spike Milligan’s favourite fantasy newspaper headline “Archduke Franz Ferdinand Found Alive!” First World War a Mistake!”
Thomas Otte is a distinguished diplomatic historian who has written, The Foreign Office Mind The Making of British Foreign Policy 1865-1914 (Cambridge University Press £22.99) and has now published July Crisis The World’s Descent into War Summer 1914 (Cambridge University Press £22.99). In this magisterial account the author argues that to understand how and why Europe descended into world war one must recognise the near collective failure of statecraft and diplomacy by the political leaders and diplomats of Europe. One for the FCO and the Cabinet Office.
Although the overwhelming majority of British parliamentarians supported the Liberal government’s decision to go to war on 4 August 1914, there were voices who opposed it, including Arthur Ponsonby the Chair of the Liberal Foreign Affairs Committee. His role and views are examined by Duncan Marlor in Fatal Fortnight Arthur Ponsonby and the Fight for British Neutrality in 1914 (Frontline Books £25).
The role of the public schools in nurturing a cultural and military atmosphere of leadership provided a source of thousands of young men who served mainly as officers in the First World War. In Public Schools and the Great War (Pen & Sword £25) Anthony Seldon and David Walsh have attempted to correct the myths and caricatures whilst detailing the extensive casualties school by school. Alexandra Churchill has taken this further in Blood and Thunder The Boys of Eton College and First World War (The History Press £20).
A lot of popular history was written at the time and more recently looking at the casualties suffered by sportsmen. The annual Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack published during the war included a roll of honour, and by 1919 Wisden had carried almost 1,800 obituaries. Mistakes were made which have now been corrected by Andrew Renshaw (ed) in Wisden on the Great War The Lives of Cricket’s Fallen 1914-1918 (Wisden £40) which is a mine of information.
Max Egremont has written, amongst others, biographies of Siegfried Sassoon and Arthur Balfour. In Some Desperate Glory The First World War the Poets Knew (Picador £20) Egremont combines part group biography of eleven war poets, part history, part poetic anthology. He goes beyond the collective of “war poets” to examine them as individuals in all their complexities.
Thank goodness for political diaries and letters, especially in the period before there were official cabinet minutes. In the era of the First World War several members of the Liberal Cabinet kept diaries whilst Asquith who was infatuated with the young Venetia Stanley wrote her gushing letters, sometimes two or three times a day and in Cabinet meetings. During the war he mentioned political and military decisions and commented on leading personalities. Michael and Eleanor Brock edited these as H H Asquith Letters to Venetia Stanley (OUP £18) in 1982. Finally they have edited a part of Asquith’s wife Margot’s war time diary – Margot Asquith’s Great War Diary 1914-1916 The View From Downing Street (Oxford £30). This volume is valuable not least for the one hundred page introduction and commentary. Margot was vivacious, opinionated, extravagant and frequently wrong, but her diary entries can be both amusing and perceptive. She appears to have tolerated her husband’s infatuation with Venetia Stanley.
Jerry White is a historian of London with several books to his credit. In Zeppelin Nights London in the First World War (Bodley Head £25) he uses official papers, and letters and diaries to show how the war changed London. Everything from the size of the population, the internment of aliens, the growth of war industry, better wages and more work for the working class, the enlistment of men and casualties, wounded and hospitals, and on the zeppelin and gotha air raids.
Given the current situation in Iraq, the historical context is crucial and Ian Rutlege Enemy on the Euphrates The British Occupation of Iraq and the Great Arab Revolt 1914-1921 (Saqi Books) provides just such a basis from the Arab perspective and gets the reader beyond the Western front.
Imperial Germany made military and commercial investments in the Ottoman Empire and German archaeologists and historians were active in the Middle East and Central Asia frequently doubling as spies. During the First World War the Germans and Turks attempted to forment an Islamic revolt in British territories, particularly the Indian Empire as well as Afghanistan. Jules Stewart’s The Kaiser’s Mission to Kabul A Secret Expedition to Afghanistan in World War I (I B Tauris £20) considers the secret mission led by von Hentig and von Niedermayer to persuade the Emir of Afghanistan to attack British India. Britain saw this as a credible threat and moved to counter it. One for Rory Stewart.
The cataclysmic nature of the First World War and its impact on the old European order and its consequences is brilliantly addressed by Adam Tooze The Deluge The Great War and the Remaking of Global Order 1916-1931 (Allen Lane £30).
Finally, many of you will have visited the battlefields and cemeteries of the Western Front or plan to do so, maybe this summer or autumn. There are several excellent battlefield guides, but one about to be published written by a school teacher and aimed specifically at school trips is Gareth Hughes Visiting the Somme and Ypres Battlefields Made Easy A Helpful Guide Book for Groups and Individuals (Pen & Sword Military £12.99)
Speaker Bercow has always been a very keen, competitive tennis player and coach. He has written Tennis Maestros The Twenty Greatest Male Tennis Players of All Time (Biteback £20). Perhaps he will write a second volume on the twenty greatest female tennis players of all time?
Did the ancient Romans smile, laugh, tell jokes? According to the magnificent Professor Mary Beard, a national treasure, there was no word for smile, but they laughed and told jokes unburdened by any modern concept of political correctness. None of the double entendre of Frankie Howerd’s slave Lurcio in the wonderful TV series “Up Pompeii!” As Mary Beard shows in Laughter in Ancient Rome On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up (University of California Press £19.95) Roman humour could be coarse, cruel and lacking in subtlety. It is thought that Enoch Powell, a classicist, was thinking of an old Roman joke when the talkative House of Commons barber asked him how he would like his haircut? “In silence”, was the reply. One for Boris Johnson I think.
Ann Treneman the Times parliamentary sketch writer has written a fascinating if at times macabre book Finding the Plot 100 Graves to Visit Before You Die (The Robson Press £12.99). She accepts it is a personal choice and is open to suggestions regarding omissions. I have suggested she includes the gravestone of Parson James Woodforde the eighteenth century diarist who was rector of Weston Longville in my Norfolk constituency.
Sandra Howard, a personality in her own right and a novelist is wife of the former Conservative leader Michael Howard. Her novels include A Matter of Loyalty, Ex-Wives and Glass House. Now her latest novel Tell the Girl (Simon & Schuster £12.99) must have some autobiographical basis as the main character is a successful career model who returns to the USA to relive weekends mixing with Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe and JFK and Jackie. Just the antidote to all those books on the First World War.
Keith Simpson MP
PPS to the Foreign Secretary