As a break from election campaigning for the Local Government and European elections colleagues may wish to stretch their little grey cells with this reading list of books published almost exclusively since Christmas.
Diaries kept by members of the Blair government or their apparatchiki are of mixed quality with Alistair Campbell’s one of the more fascinating and now complemented by Chris Mullin’s A View from the Foothills. A very good read, a blend of personal, political and quixotic but a real insight into the life of a junior minister. A must for Conservative aspirants.
Published on the 20 April to coincide with Margaret Thatcher’s election victory in May 1979 is Richard Vinen’s Thatcher’s Britain The Politics and Social Upheaval of the Thatcher Era. The author aims to explain Thatcherism to a generation under the age of thirty.
Books of collected essays are not always a success but Simon Lee and Matt Beech (eds) have met the challenge in The Conservatives under David Cameron Built to Last?
The debate about the balance between the rights of the individual and responsibilities of the state have played a significant part in Parliamentary debates during the Blair/Brown governments. Dominic Raab, who has been on the staff of both David Davis and Dominic Grieve, addresses these issues in The Assault on Liberty What Went Wrong with Rights.
Foreign Office mandarins of the old school – Eton, Oxford and the Guards –are certainly a dying if not a redundant breed. Men of formidable self confidence if not always judgement they helped formulate and process foreign policy in the latter half of the twentieth century. Gladwyn Jebb played an important role during this period, although his obvious disdain for those who did not meet his intellectual and professional standards prevented him from reaching the most senior position in the Foreign Office. In an outrageously priced book Sean Greenwood and Hugh Thomas do full justice to the man in Titan at The Foreign Office Gladwyn Jebb and the Shaping of the Modern World.
The “Sainted” Vince Cable has established himself as the “wise” muse of politicians opining on the economy. Although his own record over the past year has been carefully massaged Vince Cable has written an interesting critique in The Storm The World Economic Crisis and What It Means.
There are many myths about the Labour landslide in 1945, including the fact that the Conservatives were less well prepared because many of their full time agents were in the armed forces. Andrew Thorpe has done some serious archival research and in Parties at War Political Organisation in Second World War Britain, looks at party organisation, campaigning and resources. A copy should be made available to Chairman Pickles.
During the 1950s government departments were encouraged to give history a formal input into the policy making process, an exercise which appears to have withered on the Whitehall vine. Peter Beck in Using History, Making British Policy (2006) looks at the experiences of the Foreign Office and the Treasury in trying to integrate history into the policy making process.
Sadly, earlier this month the charming, highly intelligent and formidable Whitehall warrior Michael Quinlan, an outstanding MOD PUS died of cancer. Known in his time as “The Prince of Darkness” because of his ability to develop policy on nuclear weapons and deterrence, Michael Quinlan published shortly before his death Thinking About Nuclear Weapons Principles, Problems, Prospects, which should be read by all colleagues interested in this subject.
One aspect of the current economic crisis that receives insufficient attention is the political consequences. All kinds of analogies, some of them spurious, are made about the banking crisis of 1929-1931 and the ensuing depression/slump. Philip Williamson, who has written extensively about Stanley Baldwin, integrates the political and economic in National Crisis and National Government, British Politics, the Economy and Empire 1926-1932 (1992).
Interpretations about the fall of the Roman Empire have regularly appeared since Gibbon’s masterpiece. It is tempting to read across to contemporary history with analogies with the United States. Adrian Goldsworthy The Fall the West The Death of the Roman Superpower, is a good canter through this period of history, whilst James O’Donnell’s The Ruin of the Roman Empire The Emperor Who Brought it Down, The Barbarians Who Could Have Saved It, interprets events through the lives of Theoderic, Justinian and Gregory.
Thomas Wright had the inspired idea in Oscar’s Books of exploring Wilde through his books and reading. Timothy Ryback had a similar aim in Hitler’s Private Library in which he has traced the surviving volumes of Hitler’s library looted from his various residences and bunkers at the end of the war. By examining Hitler’s books, many of which contain the Führer’s marginalia, Ryback attempts to translate Hitler’s reading into reading Hitler’s mind. Perhaps we should commission essays to be written on the libraries of Brown, Cameron and Clegg?
Is it really possible to say anything new or interesting about Winston Churchill? Rather surprisingly amongst the annual output of insipid and “scissors and paste” volumes there are a few new interpretations and insights into the great man. The distinguished American military historian Carlo d’Este, author of Decision in Normandy and Patton has written Warlord Churchill at War 1874-1945.
Tristram Hunt, historian emeritus to New Labour, has ranged widely over the historical landscape, producing books on the English Civil War and the Victorian City. In The Frock-Coated Communist The Revolutionary Life of Friedrich Engels, Hunt explores the contradictions of a German who lived most of his life as a wealthy bourgeoisie in England, and without whose financial support Karl Marx would have found it difficult to continue his literary output, and who co-authored with Marx The Communist Manifesto.
There is a danger that the proliferation of books on terrorism and counterinsurgency are regarded by politicians as being too technical and mainly of interest and value to military buffs. But amongst the dross are some serious books which politicians would do well to study, not least because the current threats are diverse and complicated and require sophisticated responses including political, social, cultural and even anthropological knowledge and awareness.
Daniel Marston and Carter Malkasian have edited Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare (2008) which provides a useful introductory bluffer’s guide. Thomas E Ricks has published previously Fiasco which looked at the Coalition invasion of Iraq and its immediate aftermath. A very well connected Pentagon correspondent he was able to interview many of the leading participants. Now in his book The Gamble General Petraeus and the untold Story of the American Surge in Iraq 2006-2008, he gives a sophisticated account of how a relatively small number of serving and retired officers in the US armed forces along with civilian defence experts developed an alternative operational strategy in Iraq, better known as the Surge. The Gamble should be read in conjunction with David Kilcullen The Accidental Guerrilla Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. A former Australian officer who began to develop new thinking on insurgency and counter insurgency and who has been an adviser to General Petraeus.
The House of Wisdom How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation by Jonathan Lyons is a stimulating study of the development of scientific knowledge and its adaption by the Arabs in the early modern period and how this influenced the Christian European World.
The war waged by the Jews in Palestine against both the Arabs and the British 1945-48 saw atrocities committed on all sides. David Cesarini Major Farron’s Hat Murder, Scandal and Britain’s War Against Jewish Terrorism, 1945-48, looks at how Roy Farron, a much decorated British war hero, led an undercover counter-gang to eliminate Jewish insurgents and was accused of murdering a young Jewish activist.
Rather a journalistic and anecdotal book on the Middle East is Patrick Tyler A World of Trouble America in the Middle East, but he does highlight the woeful ignorance of many senior American politicians, officials and academics about this important region.
Paul Collier is a distinguished Oxford academic specialising in the political and economic development of poor countries. An earlier book was The Bottom Billion Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can be Done About It, and he has now published War, Guns and Votes Democracy in Dangerous Places.
Hans Fallada was the pen name of Rudolf Ditzen, a German writer popular under Weimar and then in and out of favour under the Nazis. Dependent on drugs and alcohol he was lucky to survive the Nazi period. Shortly before his death in 1947, he wrote a novel about a German working class couple executed for distributing hand written anti Nazi postcards in wartime Berlin. Only now translated into English as Alone in Berlin this is an outstandingly good novel of the lives of a group of ordinary Germans living in a block of flats in wartime Berlin including both Nazis and resisters, and even the Gestapo are more than one dimensional figures.
Thursday, April 02, 2009
Keith Simpson's Easter Reading List
Three times a year, Tory MP Keith Simpson produces a recommended reading list for his fellow Conservative MPs. Here's his latest one.