Before each parliamentary recess, Tory MP Keith Simpson sends out to his colleagues a reading list, prepared for his colleagues in the Shadow Foreign Affairs team. It's so good, I sought his permission to share it with you.
As we prepare to depart for our Christmas recess there is just time to provide books from a rich collection published since the summer, with the addition of one or two “golden oldies”. We must assume that the Prime Minister has issued a similar list to members of his Cabinet with a timetable for completion and the prospects of an oral examination in the New Year!
At the end of term there was the start of a stimulating debate on what if anything history can contribute to policy and government and interested parties should log on to www.historyandpolicy.org. But we should remember the cautious words of Hegel that “Peoples and governments never have learned anything from history or acted on principles deduced from it,” or Arthur Balfour’s shrewd observation that “History doesn’t repeat itself, only historians repeat each other.”
With that in mind dear reader let us consider the latest offerings from the world of publishing. Our parliamentary colleague Mark Oaten has written Coalition: The politics and personalities of coalition government from 1850 (2007) in which he concludes, rather honestly, that Britain is best governed by a strong single party with a strong opposition. Nevertheless, he outlines various “perms” for the Liberal Democrats in the event of a hung parliament at the next election.
Peter Oborne has written a blistering denunciation of politicians in The Triumph of the Political Class (2007) who have become full time professionals totally disconnected from their own supporters let alone the average voter.
Tony Benn has become something of a national treasure. John Betjeman without the bells and smells. His latest edition of diaries More Time for Politics Diaries 2005 – 2007 (2007) are a gentler, more reflective and sadder set of observations. Hard to believe he was once the scourge of the old Wilson/Callaghan Labour Party and nearly drove it permanently into the political wilderness. Several Labour survivors traumatised by the “purges” of that era have less than fond memories of the old trooper.
Antony Seldon has moved seamlessly from being the historian of the Labour Party to that of New Labour culminating as the new headmaster in his introduction of gals into Wellington College He has now completed his second volume of a biographical study of Blair Unbound (2007). Based on many anonymous interviews and inside information it combines narration with specifics and is a good first stab at Blair’s second and third terms. Not a book for Gordon Brown’s Christmas stocking and we await the Seldon treatment on him at some future date.
The former political journalist and successful novelist Robert Harris has travelled from supporter of New Labour to disillusioned critic. In The Ghost (2007) he cleverly narrates a tale of a former British Primer Minister, definitely not (!) Tony Blair, who employs a ghost writer to complete his memoirs with unintended consequences. A good read for New Year’s Day.
Clarissa Eden was much younger than Anthony Eden when she married him as his second wife. Still alive and very much alert she has been the guardian of her husband’s reputation. Now with the help of Cate Haste (aka Mrs Melvyn Bragg) and some diaries she has written a delightful memoir Clarissa Eden A Memoir from Churchill to Eden (2007) which gives a new perspective on Eden, Butler, Macmillan and the Suez Crisis.
It was thought that the heavyweight double decker political biography had died a publisher’s death, but OUP have generously allowed Angus Hawkins to write a two volume study of the 14th Earl of Derby, one of our briefest Prime Ministers, but without whom Disraeli could not have climbed to the top of the greasy pole. The Forgotten Prime Minister The 14th Earl of Derby, Volume 1, Ascent 1799 – 1851 (2007) is well worth a read.
Balfour was a patrician politician of many contradictions. His nicknames went from “Pretty Fanny” to “Bloody Balfour” in less than one parliament and he was more successful as a Cabinet minister before and after his lacklustre premiership of 1902-1905. R J Q Adams is an American historian who has recently written a biography of Bonar Law and now Balfour The Last Grandee (2007) further enhances his reputation.
Mike Jackson became something of a celebrity as a NATO general who refused to obey his American superior’s orders to remove Russian troops from Pristina airport. His face dominated by vast pouches under his eyes and a voice matured by nicotine and malt whisky he seemed to symbolise the Para general. Soldier The Autobiography, is authentic Jackson who served from private to general and ended his career as Chief of the General Staff. This memoir gives an insight into a very macho soldier who, nevertheless, read widely and understood peace support operations.
Although something in the style of a Chief Accountant’s annual report, Alan Greenspan, former long service head of the Fed, has written a memoir and period piece The Age of Turbulence (2007) with some interesting insights into Presidents and Congresses.
Arthur M Schlesinger Junior was a member of the court of J.F. Kennedy, and a distinguished historian. A previous volume of journals were too clinical and over edited. Since his death, Journals: 1952 – 2000 (2007) have been published without embellishments or pruning and are more authentic and enjoyable.
Alice Roosevelt Longworth was the attractive daughter of President Teddy Roosevelt. A chip off the old block, she was intelligent, vivacious, sexy, politically alert and with a caustic tongue that sounded down the decades. Stacey A Cordery’s Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker (2007) may hype up her influence, but it acts as a counterweight to the historiography of the Roosevelt-Truman era and if full of deliciously spiteful gossip.
Morality and conflict may seem like an oxymoron, but good men and women, especially the most thoughtful in the armed forces, have tried to put limits on what can be unlimited violence. Now Charles Guthrie, former Chief of the Defence Staff and Tony Blair’s favourite military adviser, but not on Gordon Brown’s Christmas card list, and Michael Quinlan, the former formidably erudite Permanent Secretary at the MOD, have written a slim volume, Just War The Just War Tradition: Ethics in Modern Warfare (2007).
Many of us fear that strategy is the missing element in both US and UK government thinking. It is frequently mistaken for policy. Professor Hew Strachen has forcefully opined on this in his recent articles in the IISS Survival Journal. A variation of his thoughts can be found in his Carl von Clausewitz’s On War: A Biography (2007). Clausewitz has had an uneven reputation ranging from Prussian nineteenth century demi-god to underpinning Nazism to providing an understanding of the nature of war and deterrence. To a generation of West Point Cadets he was simply known as “Dead Karl”. This book will stimulate the little grey cells and should help those of us groping toward developing a UK National Security Strategy.
The Special Relationship has been in and out of the political divorce courts off and on for decades. Kathleen Burk’s monumental Old World, New World The Story of Britain and America (2007) gives a readable account of this relationship, which disappointingly rather peters out over the past two decades.
Piers Brendon has written with great brio a wonderfully panoramic and stimulating book on The Decline and Fall of the British Empire 1781-1997 (2007). A theme well quarried about by other authors, nevertheless, he brings new insights into a phenomena that still lingers on in Whitehall and the Commonwealth.
As the US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton became a hero to many Americans and a hate figure to international diplomats. Wrongly caricatured as a neo-con, he is in fact an old fashioned conservative Republican. His memoir, Surrender is Not an Option Defending America at the United National (2007) is all that the title promises. Some of his most caustic comments are about British diplomats and the Foreign Office’s way of doing business. A caricature but accusations of “appeasement” always make King Charles Street nervous.
The continuing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to dominate the international community. Apart from questioning policy and strategy we are slowly re-learning the lessons of understanding local history, culture and traditions, and rethinking the classical experiences of counter-insurgency operations. William R Polk is a distinguished Arabist and an adviser to previous democrat administrations.
His Understanding Iraq (2005) and still in print became a much in demand book for US military and civilian personnel. Now he has written Violent Politics A History of Insurgency, Terrorism and Guerrilla War, from the American Revolution to Iraq (2007).
The University of Chicago has republished an official US doctrinal manual and made it a best seller. The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (2007) is the product of several years of study bringing together the expertise of military, academic and official experience. One of the senior officers who drove through this manual was none other than General David Petraeus, now implementing the surge in operations in Iraq. This is not a prescriptive manual but offers a framework for operations. Pity a counterinsurgency doctrine wasn’t resurrected and implemented before 2003.
Greg Mills is an applied academic with considerable experience of conflict in Africa. He became a Special Adviser to General David Richards in Afghanistan and has written a perceptive account From Africa to Afghanistan With Richards and NATO to Kabul (2007).
The former medical doctor and Callaghan foreign secretary David Owen has written The Hubris Syndrome Bush, Blair and the Intoxication of Power (2007) in which he argues that personality combined with power leads to hubris and inevitable decline.
Astonishingly, nobody has seriously looked at the origins and history of summits. David Reynolds Summits Six Meetings that shaped the Twentieth Century (2007) fills the gap. Reynolds takes us from Munich 1938 to Camp David in 1978 with an analysis of how to approach summits and what to get out of them.
Historical depth and context are admirably served in Francis Robinson The Mughal Emperors and the Islamic Dynasties of India, Iran and Central Asia 1206 – 1925 (2007). This is a superb book that provides a wonderful introduction to the historic world of Islam and is required reading.
The history of the Soviet Union is profoundly depressing. Over the past decade, with the release of government, party and private archives, historians have documented the depths of suffering. Orlando Figes The Whisperers Private Life in Stalin’s Russia (2007) shows how the arrest and purges impacted on the lives of the families left behind and the subterfuge and deceptions practised by millions.
Professor Sir Michael Howard has been the doyen of the historians of war. A distinguished war record, academic successes, a founder member of the IISS and a writer with sensitivity and spirit. His recent collection of essays are a delight. Liberation or Catastrophe? Reflections on the History of the Twentieth Century (2007) complement his autobiography Captain Professor a Life in War and Peace (2006).
Written up in our summer book list but now a timely read is Paddy Ashdown’s Swords and Ploughshares Building Peace in the 21st Century (2007) based partly on his experience as High Representative in Bosnia and unwittingly a job application for a similar post in Afghanistan.
Finally a “golden oldie”, which is almost impossible to obtain secondhand. Alan Bullock wrote the first two volumes of his biography of Ernie Bevin taking his hero’s life up to 1945. Published in 1960 and 1967 he had to wait another sixteen years before foreign office papers were released thus completing the third volume Ernest Bevin Foreign Secretary 1945 – 1951. This fine biography shows the international challenges faced by Attlee’s government and the role of the tough, prejudiced but formidable foreign secretary, who would never have been caricatured by the phrase “Gosh, the world’s a scary place”. Required reading for David Miliband – Prime Minister please note.