By Keith Simpson MP
What a contrast between the Commons and Lords. MPs have been grumbling about the paucity of legislation and votes and the Lords the very opposite. We endure a Parliament that is totally and utterly dominated by Brexit and the divisions and rivalries that ensue.
The summer holidays will be a welcome break as colleagues flee to far parts of the world to relax, recharge their little grey cells and perhaps undertake a little reading.
As usual this reading list is merely a personal, friendly guide of books published over the last year on politics, history and war.
Mrs Simpson has suggested that colleagues would prefer fiction to relax and the last thing they wanted were “heavy” books as I proposed. I look forward to reading her “chic list” next year.
Some of us will recall reading Norman Gash’s short biography of Lord Liverpool. Much caricatured as a reactionary Tory Prime Minister, he has been due for a new appraisal and this can be found in William Anthony Hay Lord Liverpool A Political Life (Boydell Press).
Lloyd George is our forgotten wartime Prime Minister, overshadowed in the Second World War by his former junior, Winston Churchill. There are many biographies of Lloyd George, but Richard Wilkinson has written a good introduction which attempts to create a balance between conflicting opinions in Lloyd George Statesman or Scoundrel (I.B. Tauris).
In Fighters and Quitters Great Political Resignations (Biteback), Theo Barclay looks at several modern ministers who had to resign from Stonehouse to Huhne and their attempts to retain office.
Not necessarily in the premier league of political books, nevertheless David Cohen has made a reasonable stab at re-examining the relationship between Churchill and Attlee that has been covered in many other books – Churchill & Attlee (Biteback).
The South African leader Jan Smuts went from Boer guerrilla leader to sitting in Churchill’s War Cabinet. This is examined by Richard Steyn in Churchill’s Confidant: Jan Smuts, Enemy to Lifelong Friend (Robinson).
Probably one of the best political books, published this year is Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton Punch and Judy Politics An Insider’s Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions (Biteback). Well researched, well written, a must for every MP and hack.
Andrew Gimson has provided a series of amusing and telling books on politics and his Gimson’s Prime Ministers Brief Lives from Walpole to May (Square Peg) is an amusing bluffer’s guide.
Our former colleague, the Labour MP and journalist Tom Harris has written a powerful and emotional account of the happenings in Ten Years In The Death of the Labour Party (Biteback).
In contrast another view is taken by Francis Beckett and Mark Seddon in Jeremy Corbyn and the Strange Rebirth of Labour England (Biteback)
Accounts of Margaret Thatcher are usually gleaned from the memoirs of politicians and journalists. Caroline Slocock was a civil servant, not a Conservative and a feminist who became a junior Private Secretary at No 10 under Thatcher. Despite everything she grew to admire Thatcher, and although her account drifts into her own views People Like Us Margaret Thatcher and Me (Biteback) is well worth a read.
A wonderfully gossipy but insightful account of the Thatcher years in the late 1980s is provided by a senior foreign office mandarin based upon his diaries – Patrick R H Wright Behind Diplomatic Lines Relations with Ministers (Biteback).
For many conservatives the “Queen across the Border” who they look to for leadership but at present is unavailable is the feisty and opinionated Ruth Davidson and Andrew Liddle has written a useful biography in Ruth Davidson And the Resurgence of the Scottish Tories (Biteback).
Iain Dale, the political pundit, broadcaster and former managing director of Biteback Publishing has teamed up with Jacqui Smith, former MP and Home Secretary, to edit two volumes of every female MP ever elected to the House of Commons Volume One The Honourable Ladies Profiles of Women MPs 1918-1997 (Biteback) contains biographies of 168 female MPs. A good browsing book for those attending Party Conferences.
The border lands between England and Scotland were wild and brutal before James VI of Scotland became James I of England. The Marches, or the debatable land have received much historical and literary attention and this year have been looked at in two books. Rory Stewart, Justice Minister and writer has written a personal account walking over much of what is his constituency and a tribute to his elderly father in The Marches Border Walks with My Father (Vintage) and Graham Robb does a more traditional account in The Debatable Land The Lost World Between Scotland and England (Picador).
Diarmaid MacCulloch has written extensively on Tudor history, religion and politics and in the autumn we look forward to his Thomas Cromwell A Life (Allen Lane) which will appeal to all those parliamentarians obsessed by the power and influence of the civil service.
Lady Antonia Fraser is well known as a prodigious authoress and now as a sprightly lady in her eighties has written a well researched and readable book The King and the Catholics: The Fight for Rights 1829 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).
Amongst my parliamentarian colleagues there are old Etonians who write books – Kwarsi Kwarteng, Rory Stewart and Jesse Norman. Jesse Norman is very much at the philosophical end of the spectrum and published some time ago a biography of Edward Burke. Now he has written a revisionist biography of Adam Smith What He Thought and Why it Matters (Allen Lane) a must for the SNP.
James Pope-Hennessy was something of an upmarket hack writer who was murdered at home. He wrote the authorised biography of Queen Mary which was well received on publication. He kept notes on many of the interviews he carried out with Royal relatives, courtiers and friends and Hugo Vickers has edited them in The Quest for Queen Mary (Zuleika).
Edward VIII abdicated as king because he was determined to marry the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. Edward loved America from his youth and Americans were fascinated by him as Ted Powell shows in King Edward VIII: An American Life (OUP).
Christopher Andrew is a Cambridge historian who has dedicated his academic life to the study of intelligence. Inducted into the Security Service he wrote the authorised history. He has become convinced that those who operate within the intelligence and security agencies are ignorant of the history of intelligence. In The Secret World A History of Intelligence (Allen Lane) he attempts to correct that and shows how intelligence organisations have flourished and declined. At nine hundred and sixty pages this may be something for the kindle version.
It would be easy for the modern reader to conclude that women had no place in the world of early modern espionage, but Nadine Akkerman through extensive archival research demonstrates the role of women spies and agents. Her study Invisible Agents Women and Espionage in Seventeenth Century Britain (OUP) makes for a fascinating read.
In Enemies Within Communists, the Cambridge Spies and the Making of Modern Britain (William Collins) Richard Davenport-Hines examines the extensive recruitment of spies and agents by the Soviet Union and how Blunt, Burgess, Cairncross, Maclean and Philby were used and the sheer extent of their activities.
Gill Bennett worked for the FCO and is the author of the excellent book Churchill’s Man of Mystery Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence (2009). Now she has written The Zinoviev Letter The Conspiracy that Never Dies (OUP) and how it became a symbol of dirty tricks and humiliated the first Labour government in 1924.
Donald Maclean was a star diplomat, and establishment insider and had access to diplomatic and military secrets in the 1930s and 1940s. He was also a Russian spy, driven by passionately held beliefs, whose betrayal and defection to Moscow with Guy Burgess shocked the establishment. Roland Philipps has written an excellent study in A Spy Named Orphan The Enigma of Donald Maclean (Bodley Head).
The old Soviet Union infiltrated hundreds of young men and women in to Western universities to acquire intelligence – such “sleepers” are still active today working for Putin’s Russia. Svetlana Lokhova looks in detail at the role of Stanislav Shumovsky who in 1931 enrolled as a student at the US MIT and helped to acquire the secrets of the Manhattan Project. Well worth a read is her The Spy Who Changed History The Untold Story of How the Soviet Union Won the Race for America’s Top Secrets (William Collins).
During the Second World War there were a minority of British people, former members of the BUF and Nazi sympathisers, who hoped for a German victory. In Agent Jack The True Story of M15s Secret Nazi Hunter (Weidenfeld & Nicolson) the journalist Robert Hutton looks at the role of one rather quiet but resourceful M15 agent at the heart of Operation Fifth Column.
The Times journalist Ben Macintyre has made a speciality of writing excellent books on spying and also Special Forces. In The Spy and the Traitor The Great Espionage Story of the Cold War (Viking) he shows how SIS recruited a senior KGB officer and were able to smuggle him out of the Soviet Union in 1985.
As the UK’s political and military power has been reduced since 1945 much has been made of our niche intelligence resources and the excellence of our Special Forces. Such covert action is examined by Rory Cormac in Disrupt and Deny Spies, Special Forces and the Secret Pursuit of British Foreign Policy (OUP).
The question of how far a state should authorise its agents to go in seeking and using secret intelligence is one of the big unresolved issues of public policy for democracies today. This is examined in Principled Spying The Ethics of Secret Intelligence (OUP) by David Omand, former senior mandarin and director of GCHQ and Intelligence expert Mark Phythean.
Accounts of postwar Britain have been dominated by a theme of political, educational and industrial decline. Correlli Barnett’s books in the 1970s and 1980s lambasted trades unions and employers and became must reads for government ministers. Now David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation A Twentieth Century History (Allen Lane) is a revisionist examination of the thesis of decline and provides a stimulating and alternative account.
Peter Heather published a serious book several years ago on The Fall of the Roman Empire which mainly covered the Western Empire. Now he has completed his study in Rome Resurgent War and Empire in the Age of Justinian (OUP).
Ron Chernow is a veteran American historian and biographer, and has achieved fame and fortune through the adaptation of his biography of Alexander Hamilton as a hit musical. His Grant (Head of Zeus) is a readable and magisterial biography of the General US Grant and his time in office as President. A warts and all book which leaves the reader admiring Grant as a soldier, politician and very humane man.
Translated from the German Pandora’s Box A History of the First World War (Harvard U.P) by Jörn Leonhard is a magisterial history of the war away from the usual Anglocentric accounts.
For much of the war on the Western Front 1914-1918 the British Army faced the Bavarians. Fortuitous for historians as most of the Prussian military archives were destroyed in bombing and fighting in 1945. A senior member of the Bavarian Royal Family held senior command appointments and Jonathan Boff has exploited the archives in Haig’s Enemy Crown Prince Rupprecht and Germany’s War on the Western Front (OUP).
The distinguished historian of Nazi Germany is Robert Gellately and his The Oxford Illustrated History of the Third Reich (OUP) draws heavily on recent research and challenges many old assumptions.
The study of slavery and Britain’s role in exploiting and then abolishing it has received much attention. In time for the Party Conferences is Christopher Petley White Fury A Jamaican Slaveholder and the Age of Revolution (OUP).
For those seeking a short, authorative and readable book on Ireland then look no further than John Gibney A Short History of Ireland 1500-2000 (Yale UP)
Understanding the Middle East in today’s context requires knowledge of its history and the role of the British, French, Russians and Americans during the Second World War. Reading Ashley Jackson Persian Gulf Command A History of the Second World War in Iran and Iraq (Yale UP) meets that requirement.
Jonathan Fenby is a journalist and historian and in Crucible Thirteen Months that Forged our World (Simon&Schuster) he writes a gripping account of the crucial year of 1947 and 1948.
The Bolshevik imprisonment of the Romanov Royal Family and attempts to negotiate their release is well worn historical subject. But Helen Rappaport in The Race to Save the Romanovs The Truth Behind the Secret Plans to Rescue Russia’s Imperial Family (Hutchinson) uses new evidence and offers new explanations.
Our old Liberal opponent Paddy Ashdown has written several good books on military operations during the Second World War. In time for the Party Conferences he has now written Nein! Standing Up to Hitler 1933-1945 (William Collins)
The distinguished military historian Anthony Beevor, author of books on Stalingrad and Berlin has now turned his pen to Arnhem The Battle for the Bridges (Viking) and B Montgomery and B Horrocks are firmly in the dock. He uses with special effect Dutch archives to show how they paid the price for Allied failure.
Your reviewer indulges himself in his fascination with Franklin D Roosevelt with two new books which look at important aspects of his policy. Sebastian Edwards American Default The Untold Story of FDR, the Supreme Court and the Battle Over Gold (Princeton UP) and Susan Dunn A Blueprint for War FDR and the Hundred Days that Mobilized America (Yale UP).
The Year 1983 saw the USA and the Soviet Union nearly coming to war and how miscalculation and paranoia dominated Soviet political and military thinking. This is ably covered by Taylor Downing 1983 The World at the Brink (Little Brown).
For the real political anorak and those colleagues who have yet to get a life apart from Brexit then look no further than Robert Saunders Yes to Europe! The 1975 Referendum and Seventies Britain (CUP) which is the very best account of the earlier referendum.
The great Israeli political survivor is Bibi, the current Prime Minister and supplicant to Donald Trump. Anshel Pfeffer has written the best account to his rise and fall and rise in Bibi The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu (C. Hurst & Co).
Three books have been published on the experience of the British suffragettes which are a good read. Jane Robinson Hearts and Minds The Untold Story of the Great Pilgrimage and How Women Won the Vote (Doubleday); Fern Riddell shows the more violent side of the movement in Death in Ten Minutes Kitty Marion : Activist, Arsonist, Suffragette (Hodder & Stoughton) and Patricia Fara shows the role of women in war time service in A Lab of One’s Own Science and Suffrage in the First World War (OUP).
Leon Werth was a Jewish writer who left Paris in 1940 and hid out in a village in the Jura Mountains. His account of life during the war is in Deposition A Secret Diary of Life in Vichy France (POUP).
John Julius Norwich, the son of Duff Cooper and Diana Cooper has been a prolific writer, and shortly before he died he published France A History from Gaul to De Gaulle (John Murray) which is a personal, anecdotal but a wonderful read.
Without doubt the biography of the year must be Julius Jackson A Certain Idea of France The Life of Charles de Gaulle (Allen Lane). A stimulating read with a balanced assessment which delves into the contrary character of Charles de Gaulle.
Jackson shows that the spirit of de Gaulle still pervades France and has been an influence on President Macron, the man who broke the old party system. Sophie Pedder has written a sympathetic biography Revolution Française Emmanuel Macron and the Quest to Reinvent a Nation (Bloomsbury Continuum).
Rupert Christiansen City of Light The Reinvention of Paris (Head of Zeus) is a fascinating account of the fifteen year project by Emperor Louis Napoleon to knock down the old cluttered streets of Paris and create the Paris we know today. This development was ruthlessly driven through by the incorruptible prefect of the Seine Department Baron Haussman.
Maureen Everson has lived on the French Riviera and has loved the development of new houses and estates from the 1920s and how it became a popular area for the fashionable to live and love. Riviera Dreaming Love and War on the Cote d’Azur (TB Tauris) is a work of nostalgia overtaken by mass development after the 1960.
T E Lawrence continues to fascinate historians, journalists and those who have travelled across the Middle East. Apart from his own writings there are numerous biographies of Lawrence of Arabia. In Behind the Lawrence Legend The Forgotten Few who Shaped the Arab Revolt (OUP) Philip Walker explores the role of Colonel Cyril Wilson and dozens of junior officers who carried out intelligence and diplomatic work and helped sustain Lawrence and his operations in Arabia. A fascinating and excellent read.
James Barr is a young author who published Setting the Desert on Fire T E Lawrence and Britain’s Secret War in Arabia, 1916 – 1918 in 2008. He has now written Lords of the Desert Britain’s Struggle with America to Dominate the Middle East (Simon&Schuster) in which he explains Britain’s declining influence underpinned by the rivalry with the USA.
David Lough has written a ground breaking book No More Champagne Churchill and His Money (2016). In the autumn he will publish Darling Winston Forty Years of letters between Winston Churchill and his mother (Head of Zeus) which will be full of revelations about Churchill’s character.
In 1943 Doris Miles was appointed as a private nurse to Churchill who was stricken with pneumonia. During her time with Churchill she wrote regular letters to her husband serving with the Royal Navy. These letters were full of observations and comments about Churchill and his circle, and her daughter Jill Rose has edited them in Nursing Churchill Wartime Life from the Private Letters of Winston Churchill’s Nurse (Amberley).
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is a much respected organisation that for one hundred years has maintained tens of thousands of graves and memorials to the dead of two World Wars. In the early autumn Catherine Lawson’s A Guide to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (Third Millennium) is published and illustrates the history with extracts from the archives and explores the CWGC’s main sites.
Portugal is a popular holiday destination for British tourists and there has been a long and historic connection between our two countries. The capital Lisbon has survived earthquakes war and espionage and Barry Hutton has written a vivid history in Queen of the Sea A History of Lisbon (C Hurst & Co).
Enjoy the summer break and return in September to the Palace of Varieties for more hard pounding!