In this age of austerity selecting a good book to read over the Christmas recess is both value for money as well as virtuous. This selection of books is mainly ones published since the summer with the addition of a few golden oldies.
The Foreign Office is rather sensitive about diplomats writing “kiss and tell” books. Our former ambassador in Washington during the Blair Years was Sir Christopher Meyer, and in his book DC Confidential (2005), he criticised the whole Blairite approach to foreign policy and the special relationship. Now in Getting Our Way 500 Years of Adventure and Intrigue : The Inside Story of British Diplomacy, Meyer takes nine episodes in British diplomatic history and considers them against the three pillars of our national interest – security, prosperity and values. This is the book of the TV series to be shown in the New Year. It is very much a Palmerstonian interpretation of British foreign policy and should be read by the Conservative Shadow Foreign Affairs Team.
In British Foreign Secretaries in an Uncertain World 1919-1939 (2009), Michael Hughes examines the careers of each of the interwar foreign secretaries examining how they approached their role and how influential the Foreign Office was under each foreign secretary in determining British foreign policy.
Can a guide to diplomatic practice written in 1917 still be of value and relevant today? Yes, because it has been regularly updated – this is the sixth edition – and is well worth having as a work of reference. Sir Ivor Roberts is the editor of Satow’s Diplomatic Practice originally written by Sir Ernest Satow (1843-1929) who in his retirement distilled his experience into a diplomatic guide which remains the most widely used in embassies around the world. Well worth dipping into for descriptions of how diplomacy is structured and organised, with advice to diplomats to “listen more than you talk; stay calm in every circumstance; and don’t show off that you are privy to secrets”. At a price of £110 this will be a book read via the House of Commons library rather than purchased.
The British Security Services, known as MI5, were until recently, a deniable organisation and surrounded by myths. Quite rightly a decision was made to appoint Professor Christopher Andrew, the doyen of intelligence historians, to write what is for all intents and purposes the official history. In Defence of the Realm The Authorised History of MI5, Andrew has had access to their archives and has written a fascinating account of an organisation that has changed dramatically over the past decades.
Between 1993 and 2001, the American academic Taylor Branch, interviewed Bill Clinton seventy-eight times. The President’s side of those conversations formed the basis of his own memoir whilst Branch, immediately after each session, recorded his take not only on the content of their conversations but on Clinton’s demeanour and mood. In The Clinton Tapes Wrestling History in the White House, Branch talked Clinton through foreign, domestic as well as personal crises.
Manuel Castells is an academic sociologist who commutes between Spain and the USA and who has published books and articles on the communications revolution. In Communication Power he argues that the media have become the space where power strategies are now played out through the internet and mobile communications. This is changing the balance of power between individuals, institutions and the state. He illustrates his thesis with case studies ranging from how China and Russia attempt to control information to internet based political campaigning such as Obama conducted in the Presidential Campaign.
Using history to support analysis of contemporary issues is not new. The strategic analyst Edward Luttwak turned his doctoral thesis into The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire in 1976. He argued that the Romans successfully moved from a forward linear defence to a mobile defence in depth. Leaving aside the question of whether there ever was a Grand Strategy for the whole of the Roman Empire, Luttwak’s book provoked a stimulating debate amongst scholars of Ancient history as well as a framework for a NATO debate which looked to flexible mobile defence to counter a more powerful Warsaw Pact. Now he has finally published a kind of sequel in The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire in which he argues that the Byzantine Empire outlasted its Western Counterpart by almost a millennium. Luttwak concludes this was because the Byzantines understood a strategy that combined political, economic, military and diplomatic skills. They were skilful negotiators but even more skilful manipulators, adept at pitting opponents against one another. Once again he has written a scholarly book with a theme that seems relevant to an Obama administration faced with serious challenges and powerful rivals.
Tim Bale's The Conservative Party From Thatcher to Cameron is a good guide to what happened to the Tories over the past fifteen years. More narrative than analysis it is a timely reminder on what happens to a political party that has become arrogant in government and turns inwards on itself before coming to its senses under a new leader.
Alistair Cooke has for some time been the historian emeritus of the Conservative Party. A former deputy director of the Conservative Research Department, he has now edited Tory Policy Making The Conservative Research Department 1929 -2009. A series of essays many of them by former members of the CRD including David Cameron. In its Golden Age, from 1945 until the late 1970s it produced original research and more recently has concentrated on policy. In the works of Oliver Letwin the current Chairman, “if names were chosen for accuracy rather than continuity, we would call the CRD not the Research Department but the Analysis Department”.
British interest in the Napoleonic wars is usually restricted to Nelson and Wellington with insufficient attention paid to the war in the east. Napoleon’s disastrous campaign in Russia is looked at from the Russian perspective in Dominic Lieven’s Russia Against Napoleon, The Battle for Europe 1807-1814.
Although the origins of the First World War is a well trodden historical path, Miranda Carter has written an engaging account in The Three Emperors Three Cousins, three empires and the road to World War One.
The impact of the First World War on society, specifically the sheer number of casualties, including those from Spanish flu, is addressed by Juliet Nicolson in The Great Silence : 1918-1920 Living in the Shadow of the Great War. Today we are concerned about how families are affected by casualties from Afghanistan and this book is a timely reminder of an earlier and more horrendous conflict.
The Oxford academic Robert Service has written several acclaimed biographies including Lenin and Stalin. His Trotsky A Biography, is the first full biography of Trotsky in English for over fifty years. He demolishes the myth that Trotsky was the pure and idealistic counterpart to the evil Stalin.
In the category of “Boys Own” stories that of Freddy Spencer Chapman must be one of the best. An explorer and naturalist he had travelled in the Arctic and the Far East before the Second World War. After the fall of Singapore in 1942 he led stay behind parties in Malaya and worked with Chinese communist guerrillas against the Japanese. His hardness and sheer endurance is the theme of Brian Moynihan Jungle Soldier The True Story of Freddy Spencer Chapman.
Is it possible to write anything original about Churchill in the Second World War? Max Hastings has done so and in Finest Years Churchill as Warlord 1940-45, shows Churchill with all his strengths and weaknesses. This book compliments Andrew Roberts Masters and Commanders and should be compulsory reading for Shadow Ministers needing to learn about relations between politicians and senior military officers.
Afghanistan still dominates a lot of political discourse and there has been a plethora of books about the military aspects of the conflict. Now available in paperback is David Loyn Butcher and Bolt Two Hundred Years of Foreign Engagement in Afghanistan which is an excellent introduction to the modern period. John Ure’s Shooting Leave Spying and Central Asia in the Great Game examines some of the colourful British personalities who operated in Afghanistan.
The significance of China as a world power is beyond question and Martin Jacques convincingly argues in his latest book When China Rules the World The Rise of the Middle Kingdom and the End of the Western World that the rise of China, India and other Asian powers means that, for the first time, modernity will no longer be exclusively western. China is a “civilisation-state” whose characteristics, attitudes and values long predate its existence as a nation state, and its rapidly growing power will mean it will change much more than the world’s geo-politics.
Much of what is written about modern Iran is from a western perspective. The Persians Ancient, Medieval and Modern Iran is an authoritative and comprehensive history written by a distinguished Oxford academic, Homa Katouzian, who writes from an Iranian rather than a Western perspective, integrating the cultural, literary, historical, political and social elements.
A golden oldie well worth reading is Mark Allen Arabs (2006). The author was a career diplomat and senior member of SIS with a deep knowledge and understanding of Arabs. His book acknowledges the many different identities within the Arab world and discusses the importance of family, religion and Arab values.
If Allen’s book is a useful introduction Eugene Rogan The Arabs A History is a substantial study of modern Arab history. Rogan documents the humiliations suffered by Arabs not only from outsiders and non-Arabs, but also from their own Arab rules and would be leaders. One excellent feature of this book is the use of Arab accounts to give an impression of how the Arabs have experienced their own history.
Finally, there are a number of “stocking fillers” which make admirable presents for family and friends or could be placed in the downstairs loo. The magnificently bewhiskered Senior Clerk in the House of Commons, Mr Robert Rogers, has written Order! Order! A Parliamentary Miscellany which is a wonderful selection of facts, quotations and anecdotes about parliamentary and parliamentarians including one of my favourites, “Walder’s Law”. David Walder was a Conservative MP until his death in 1978 and a prolific writer of novels and history books. His law was that the first three people to speak at a meeting of the Conservative 1922 Committee on any subject whatever were mad.
Frank Johnson was a parliamentary and political journalilst as well as a much respected sketch writer. His widow has now compiled and edited Best Seat in the House The Wit and Parliamentary Chronicles of Frank Johnson.
Many Beard is Professor of Classics at Cambridge University, author of books such as The Roman Triumph (2007) and Pompeii The Life of a Roman Town (2008). She is Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement and author of the blog ‘A Don’s Life’. Some of her blog entries along with readers comments she has now edited into an entertaining paperback A Don’s Life which ranges over university life, politics, culture and peppered with classical analogies and quotations. On Roman humour she repeats the joke of the man who went to have his hair cut and the barber asked him “How would you like it cut?” He replied “In silence”. I had always assumed this story was associated with one of my very senior and at times short tempered parliamentary colleagues – but then he did have a classical and legal education.
Keith Simpson MP
Shadow Foreign Office Minister.