By Keith Simpson MP
We live in a time without precedent with all the old political certainties challenged and the reputation of politicians at an all time low. Exhausted by Brexit and the failure to deliver MPs are nervous and skittish with the Conservatives electing a new leader and Prime Minister and Labour in continuous turmoil over its own leader.
This summer and autumn will continue the chaos and confusion but for a few weeks colleagues can go on holiday and catch up on some stimulating reading. Once again this is a personal selection of books published this year on history, politics and war, with some to be published this autumn just before the Party Conferences. Relax and enjoy.
Charles Moore has finally completed his massive three volume biography of Margaret Thatcher which is reminiscent of the great Victorian biographies. Margaret Thatcher Volume Three Herself Alone (Allen Lane 3 Oct) deals with her final years as Prime Minister and then the rather sad period of retirement.
With the resignation of Theresa May as Leader of the Conservative Party – in the finest tradition of Tory leaders humbugged by the debate over the EU – Anthony Seldon in the style of his previous books about Blair and Brown has written May at 10 (Biteback 3 Oct).
We have waited some time for David Cameron’s memoirs which have been on the literary backburner. In these turbulent times it will be interesting to read his For the Record (William Collins 19 Sept).
As the politician who pulled the rug from under Boris Johnson’s leadership ambitions and recently failed to get the backing of MPs there is Owen Bennett Michael Gove A Man in a Hurry (Biteback).
Jacob Rees-Mogg is a caricature of a nineteenth century caricature and has used his influence from the backbenches. Now Michael Ashcroft has written Jacob’s Ladder The Unauthorised Biography of Jacob Rees-Mogg (Biteback).
Bernard Ingham was a press minder for Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister and has now published The Slow Downfall of Margaret Thatcher The Diaries of Bernard Ingham (Biteback) Rather disappointing and a touch of Mr Pooter.
Rachel Reeves the Labour MP for Leeds West has already written a good biography of Alice Bacon. Now her Women of Westminster The MPs who Changed Politics (I B Tauris) is not just a listing of the 491 women elected since 1919 but how they fought for both women’s rights and the great issues of the day.
Iain Dale and Jacqui Smith have already edited a previous volume of profiles of female MPs till 1997 and we will soon have the second volume The Honourable Ladies Profiles of Women MPs 1997-2019 (Biteback 26 Sept).
There is a resonance of current personalities and clashes over policy in Dick Leonard and Mark Garnett Titans Fox vs Pitt (IB Tauris) – not quite Johnson versus Hunt.
Wayne David is the Labour MP for Caerphilly and has been fascinated by one of his predecessors, a conscientious objector during the First World War, then a Labour MP and minister in the 1920s, and rejected pacifism in the face of fascism but died in 1939 aged only 53 – Morgan Jones Man of Conscience (Welsh Academic Press).
Peter Riddell is the former director of the Institute for Government and a political commentator for many years. Drawing on interviews with former ministers, ministerial diaries and a lifetime of working in Westminster, Peter Riddell reveals the pressures on these men and women in 15 minutes of Power The Uncertain Life of British Ministers (Profile Books). A must read for the new Prime Minister’s ministerial team.
Slated by many reviewers but worth a browse is Jacob Rees-Mogg The Victorians Twelve Titans Who Forged Britain (W H Allen).
King Henry VI has not had a good press. He inherited the crowns of both England and France and lost both, in the course of a life blighted by mental illness. In Shadow King The Life and Death of Henry VI (Head of Zeus), Lauren Johnson has written a credible and sympathetic biography.
The Olivier sisters were surprisingly emancipated, very beautiful, very determined and rather wild. Rupert Brooke was said to be in love with all of them. Sarah Watling has written what is a collective biography Noble Savages The Oliver Sisters, Four Lives in Seven Fragments (Jonathan Cape).
Max Beaverbrook was a dodgy Canadian financier and speculator who spent most of his adult life in Britain close to but critical of the Conservative Party Leadership. A close friend of Churchill he held ministerial office off and on and used his newspapers as weapons. A new biography which does not add a lot to previous ones is Charles Williams Max Beaverbrook Not Quite a Gentleman (Biteback).
British politics and appeasement in the 1930s is a well trodden historical path. Receiving very good reviews is Tim Bouverie’s first book Appeasing Hitler Chamberlain, Churchill and the Road to War (Bodley Head) Well written and in command of sources.
Covering a similar period is Robert Crowcroft The End is Nigh British Politics, Power and the Road to the Second World War (OUP).
Ditto for Nicholas Milton Neville Chamberlain’s Legacy Hitler, Munich and the Path to War (Pen& Sword 30 Sept).
Andrew Roberts who is rightly an established historian with many books to his name including what is now the best one volume biography of Winston Churchill (Boris please note) has now published a wide selection of essays entitled Leadership in War Lessons from Those Who Made History (Allen Lane 7 Nov)
What is probably the best one volume history of the British Imperial Armed Forces in the Second World War and what motivated them to fight is Jonathan Fennell Fighting the People’s War The British and Commonwealth Armies and the Second World War (CUP).
The reputation of Tony Blair and his government is still being assessed and divides the Labour Party. A useful guide is Jon Davis and John Rentoul Heroes or Villains The Blair Government Reconsidered (OUP).
Kenneth Rose wrote the Albany Column in the Sunday Telegraph for many years and was a great gossip and social networker. D R Thorpe edited a year ago the first volume of his diaries and soon we will have Who Loses, Who Wins The Journals of Kenneth Rose Volume Two 1979-2014 (Weidenfeld and Nicolson 14 Nov).
Another useful book to cheer up any depressed Labour colleagues is David Kogan Protest and Power The Battle for the Labour Party (Bloomsbury).
Books on Churchill, his family, friends and entourage continue to appear and Cita Stelzer has already published Dining with Churchill Policy Making at the Dinner Table, and now looks at the reminiscences of the women who were his secretaries in Working With Winston The Unsung Women Behind Britain’s Greatest Stateman (Head of Zeus). It confirms his reputation as a focussed, unrelenting workaholic.
Leo McKinstry has done a lot of research into the relationship between Attlee and Churchill and how they worked together in the wartime coalition – Attlee and Churchill Allies in War, Adversaries in Peace (Atlantic Books 3 Oct).
David Stafford has written several books on Churchill and also on SIS and SOE during the Second World War. In Oblivion or Glory 1921 and the Making of Winston Churchill (Yale University Press) he considers how Churchill revived his political reputation after the First World War.
The world of secret intelligence and war continues to fascinate historians and there have been several good books published this year. David Kenyon’s Bletchley Park and D-Day (Yale University Press) is a fine account and corrects a number of assumptions made by earlier authors.
Richard Sorge was a man with two homelands, with a German father and a Russian mother. A communist, an effortless seducer who used his charm to manipulate people. As a journalist in Japan at the beginning of the war he had direct access to the German embassy and provided the Soviets with important intelligence. Caught by chance he was eventually executed. Owen Matthews has written a good biography in An Impeccable Spy Richard Sorge, Stalin’s Master Agent (Bloomsbury).
Another remarkable agent was the American Virginia Hall, who despite a wooden leg, worked for SOE in France and escaped German attempts to arrest her. Sonia Purnell has written a fascinating biography A Woman of No Importance The Untold Story of WWII’s Most Dangerous Spy (Virago Press).
As a Conservative MP and Shadow Spokesman Airey Neave was murdered in the House of Commons by the IRA. His wartime exploits were well known, prisoner of war, escape from Colditz and then running M19 coordinating help for escaping POWs. In The Man Who Was Saturday The Extraordinary Life of Airey Neave (William Collins) Patrick Bishop shows that after the war Neave never fully settled down.
In Secret Alliances Special Operations and Intelligence in Norway 1940-1945 (Biteback 12 Nov) Tony Insall shows how SIS and SOE operated in Norway and their intelligence successes and failures.
Now to consider some recent history books that are ideal for summer holidays or to cope with the stress of Party Conferences. In The Shadow of Vesuvius A Life of Pliny (William Collins) Daisy Dunn looks at both Pliny the Younger and his uncle, admiral of the fleet, national historian and a polymath who died from the effects of the volcanic eruption at Vesuvius. Erudite but based on a wide range of sources should provide some dog Latin quotes for Boris.
As an archaeologist and historian Jodi Magness has written a challenging book about the royal palace and fortress at the time of the Roman siege in Masada From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth (Princeton University Press).
In Chaucer A European Life (Princeton University Press) Marion Turner looks at the European cosmopolitan world in which Geoffrey Chaucer lived and wrote. By exploring the places Chaucer visited the buildings he inhabited, the books he read, and the art and objects he saw, the author shows how a wine merchant’s son became the poet of The Canterbury Tales.
Christopher Tyerman is a distinguished historian of the Crusades and has now written a well-illustrated history and gazetteer The World of the Crusades (Yale University Press).
An outstanding debut biography is Sophie Thérèse Ambler’s The Song of Simon de Montfort England’s First Revolutionary and the Death of Chivalry (Picador) who was a reformer, rebel and scourge of the Plantagenets.
For colleagues suffering from withdrawal symptoms with the conclusion of Game of Thrones then for a rollicking account of sex and violence with a dash of politics look to Paul Strathen The Borgias Power and Fortune (Atlantic Books).
Based on new evidence the distinguished historian Geoffrey Parker has written a magisterial biography Emperor A New Life of Charles V (Yale University Press) ruler of Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and much of Italy and Central and South America.
Philip Mansel has written widely on French history and in King of the World The Life of Louis XIV (Allen Lane) he has produced the most up-to-date biography of this hypnotic, flawed figure in English.
At Holt in Norfolk we have a public school that was named after its sixteenth century founder Thomas Gresham who was a financial genius and wheeler dealer. In Gresham’s Law The Life and World of Queen Elizabeth I’s Banker (Profile Books) John Guy has been able to explore thousands of pages of original papers.
William Dalrymple has a profound knowledge and understanding of India and the British involvement. In what undoubtedly will be a book challenging some complacent British opinions The Anarchy The Relentless Rise of the East India Company (Bloomsbury) is a cautionary tale of the rise of the first global trading company and its use of corruption and corporate violence.
The Amritsar massacre of Indian civilians in 1919 had an enormous impact on Indian nationalism and divided opinion in Britain. Kim A Wagner has written what is probably the definitive account in Amritsar 1919 An Empire of Fear and the Making of a Massacre (Yale University Press). This should be read alongside Anita Anand’s The Patient Assassin A True Tale of Massacre, Revenge and the Raj (Simon & Schuster). She examines the Amritsar Massacre and looks at the life and motivation of Udham Singh who twenty years later in London gunned down a former senior civil servant responsible for the Amritsar district at the time.
Ten, fifteen years ago British politics was dominated by the most recent conflict in Afghanistan. Now it appears on the margins of our news. For a scholarly, but readable history of the country then Jonathan Lee Afghanistan A History from 1260 to the present (Reaktion Books) is an informative read.
Perhaps your reviewer will be indulged for suggesting a book of local history of interest to him. The late Chris Barringer was a much-respected historian and field walker in Norfolk. Published after his death is the magnificent A History of Norfolk (Carnegie Publishing), beautifully illustrated and looks at the development of landscape, the environment and people. Definitely “NFN” in the best interpretation of that phrase!
Simon Heffer is a journalist and historian who has published already two substantial books on late Victorian and Edwardian Britain. Now he has turned his attention to the impact of the First World War and how society changed in Staring at God Britain in the Great War (Random House).
David Laws was a Liberal MP and an important lynchpin in the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition. His published diaries are excellent and he has now written Who Killed Kitchener? The Life and Death of Britain’s Most Famous War Minister (Biteback). Kitchener was killed in 1916 when the destroyer he was on was sunk. Using files recently released David Laws debunks many of the myths surrounding Kitchener’s death.
Robert Caro is the author of a monumental and exhaustive biography of LBJ. There is still a final volume to appear. Caro has promised his autobiography, but as a literary way station he has written Working: Researching, Interviewing, Writing (Bodley Head). It is about how he went about and goes about his painstaking, meticulous research that has established his reputation as a writer.
Richard Holbrooke was an American diplomat and fixer for over thirty years in Washington and in the world where America wanted to operate. He was never at the very top of the Washington political establishment but was a serious figure as George Packer shows in Our Man Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century (Jonathan Cape).
The relationship between China and Japan is close but fraught, and the memories of the Japanese war in the last century are vivid. Ezra F Vogel is an eminent scholar of East Asia and his China and Japan Facing History (Harvard University Press) considers key periods in the relationship and argues for closer cooperation.
Max Hastings is a formidable military historian who has written extensively about the Second World War and has now turned his attention to Chastise The Dambusters Story 1943 (William Collins).
The former Labour foreign secretary Jack Straw has always been interested in Iran and how to bring it more fully into the international order. Given current tensions his book is fortuitous – The English Job Understanding Iran and Why It Distrusts Britain (Biteback).
Rory Stewart has had a wide-ranging career of experiences beyond his current role as an MP and minister. During the Conservative Party’s Parliamentary leadership votes he failed to persuade enough colleagues but had by far the most interesting campaign. Three books he has written in the past are worth looking at – Occupational Hazards My Time Governing in Iraq; The Places in Between and The Marches: Border Walks With My Father. Down but by no means out.