Thursday, July 22, 2010

Keith Simpson's Summer Reading List

Every Summer, Conservative MP Keith Simpson, who is PPS to William Hague, produces a recommended reading list for his Foreign Office colleagues and Tory MPs. I am sure it will also be of interest to readers...


Under the Coalition Government ministers and MPs face an “austerity summer recess” of five weeks which will limit the opportunities to read anything other than policy papers, emails and political blogs. Colleagues should be aware that for the Foreign Office the months of July, August and September have in the past been periods of crisis and conflict, including the outbreak of the two European wars, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the recent conflict between Russia and Georgia.

This Foreign Office Ministerial reading list consists of a selection of recently published books, some “golden oldies”, and a few that will be published over the next two months and which look promising. This is only a suggested reading list and it is not the case that the Foreign Secretary will be quizzing colleagues or officials on what they have read.

Reading a good book not only stretches the “little grey cells” but can be therapeutic as one diplomat noted when observing Harold Macmillan as Foreign Secretary at a Conference in Geneva in 1955.

“Macmillan had his own technique for surviving these brain-numbing sessions…. when it was not his turn to speak, he would encourage the time to pass more agreeably and more quickly by reading a book placed on his knees out of sight under the conference table. I remember being very shocked at first, thinking that our Foreign Secretary should be taking his work more seriously; but after a time, I realised how wise he was and only wished I could do the same”. Now ministers and officials text and tweet during meetings.

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To put the coalition government into historical context colleagues should look at G R Searle Country Before Party Coalition and the Idea of “National Government” in Modern Britain 1885-1987 published in 1995. The former Liberal Democrat MP for Winchester, Mark Oaten, published in 2007 Coalition The policies and personalities of coalition government from 1850, which had a concluding chapter looking at possible options for the Lib Dems and at least one looked like a rough draft for their negotiating position this May.

For an overview of the history, culture and architecture of the Foreign Office Anthony Seldon’s coffee table book The Foreign Office is a good introduction. As a former Foreign Secretary and historian Douglas Hurd, with Ed Young, has written Choose Your Weapons The British Foreign Secretary: Two Centuries of Conflict and Personalities, which discusses the contrasting roles of a succession of foreign secretaries from Castlereagh and Canning.


Good history is a delight to read and Chris Skidmore, historian and author of Edward VI (2007) and now the MP for Kingswood, has written, a scholarly Tudor “who’s donnit,” Death and the Virgin about Amy Robsart the wife of Elizabeth’s favourite courtier, Robert Dudley.

Sir Robert Peel was never Foreign Secretary but held some of the greatest offices of state, including Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Prime Minister. In an age of Coalition governments his reputation has suffered from the belief that he split the Tory Party. Douglas Hurd recently wrote a biography and now Richard Gaunt has written a revisionist account Sir Robert Peel The Life and Legacy.

As a Whig Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister, Palmerston knew all about Coalition government and was in his own way a “liberal interventionist” and D.A. Brown has written a new biography Palmerston published at the end of September.

Lloyd George led a Coalition government 1916-1922 and split the Liberal Party and gave Coalition governments a bad name. Now Roy Hattersley, the former Labour Cabinet minister with experience of coalition politics, has written David Lloyd George The Great Outsider, to be published in September.

Labour politicians, conscious of leaders and Prime Ministers who have tarnished reputations, from Ramsay Macdonald to Blair and Brown, cling to Clem Attlee and the 1945 Labour Government as a beacon of reform. Attlee A Life in Politics by Nicklaus Thomas – Symonds provides a fresh look at this Labour leader and Prime Minister.

Martin Pugh’s Speak for Britain! A New History of the Labour Party provides a scholarly but readable history which should be required reading for all the Labour leadership candidates.

Philip Ziegler, the doyen of authorised and official biographies has now written Edward Heath, a door stopper of a book which really does look at his subject warts and all.

D. R. Thorpe has many political histories and biographies to his credit including Eden, and in September his Supermac The Life of Harold Macmillan will be published. It is thought that Macmillan is admired by Prime Minister Cameron.

Dominic Sandbrook, historian and journalist, has already published Never Had It So Good 1956-1963 and White Heat 1964-70 which in each case brilliantly brought together political, social and cultural history. In September he publishes a third volume State of Emergency The Way We Were : Britain 1970-1974.

Hugh Trevor-Roper’s reputation never survived his authentification of the forged Hitler Diaries. A formidable historian, wartime intelligence officer and author of The Last Days of Hitler his academic and personality disputes with rivals were legendary. Adam Sisman’s biography Hugh Trevor-Roper is an excellent read.

Insider accounts of the Blair/Brown governments in the form of diaries and memoirs have been increasing over the past few months. Alastair Campbell has published a revised version of his diaries, which may mean they are unexpurgated. The Alastair Campbell Diaries Volume One, Prelude to Power, which should be read in conjunction with Peter Mandelson The Third Man Life at the Heart of New Labour. Gordon Brown’s pollster, Deborah Mattinson, has published Talking to a Brick Wall. We have to wait until September for Tony Blair’s A Journey and Anthony Seldon’s Brown at No10.

Contemporary political history is dominated by diaries and memoirs and the former junior foreign office minister Chris Mullin has already delighted us with his edited diaries A View from the Foothills. At the end of August he will publish another selection Decline and Fall Diaries 2005-2010.

As Balfour, former Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, has alleged to have said “History doesn’t repeat itself, historians repeat each other”. Nevertheless, an historical perspective is useful to current practitioners as we blindly grope our way through a dangerous world. Victor Hanson is a prolific writer on ancient history and has edited Makers of Ancient Strategy From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, which could well be on Mayor Boris Johnson’s Summer reading list.

Colin Gray established his reputation twenty years ago as the High Priest of nuclear deterrence during the Cold War. A useful read for Peter Ricketts and our National Security Council is his National Security Dilemmas Challenges and Opportunities published last year.

As we attempt to understand and harness new technologies William Rosen provides us with an historic example in The Most Powerful Idea in the World A Story of Steam, Industry and Invention.

Charles de Gaulle landed in Britain seventy years ago and became the legend of Free France. Jonathan Fenby’s The General Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved, concentrates on his return to power in 1958, an account which is less familiar to British readers.

Moral equivalence in war is a theme taken up by many writers given the passions and violence aroused. Michael Burleigh, who has written extensively on Nazi Germany, does not believe there was moral equivalence between the USA and UK as against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan and he forcefully argues his case in Moral Combat A History of World War II.

Disappointingly, there are rarely good books analysing recent conflicts which draw together the political, diplomatic, intelligence, military and cultural aspects. Fortunately, Andrew M. Dorman did just that last year when he published Blair’s Successful War British Military Intervention in Sierra Leone, which should be a “must read” for ministers and officials, particularly those working on the Strategic Defence and Security Review.

The history of attempting to prepare for conflict prevention and then conflict resolution is not that good. As the late Michael Quinlan, formidable intellectual Whitehall Warrior and Permanent Secretary at the MOD in the 1980s observed,

“In matters of military contingency, the expected, precisely because it is expected, is not to be expected. Rationale: What we expect, we plan and provide for ; what we plan and provide for, we thereby deter; what we deter does not happen. What does happen is what we did not deter, because we did not plan and provide for it, because we did not expect it”. Exactly!

The role of intelligence in foreign, defence and security policy has suffered from the natural desire of government to be discreet and the publication of sensational accounts by outsiders. More open government and recent scholarship has at least provided us with an historically accurate basis for any assessment. Bletchley Park was the jewel in the crown of British signal and human intelligence during the Second World War. Sinclair McKay has published The Secret Life of Bletchley Park The History of the Wartime Code-breaking Centre by the Men and Women Who Were There, which rightly looks at the experiences of a few of the 10,000 people who worked there.

Bletchley Park’s successor, GCHQ, has had to reinvent itself after the Cold War and faces new challenges from global terrorism. Richard J Aldrich is an academic historian of intelligence, and using open sources, but with a little help from friends within the system has written GCHQ the Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secretary Intelligence Agency, which is less sensational than the sub title would have us believe.

Recently, Christopher Andrew published the authorised history of MI5 which was based on its archives and brought the history right up to date. In September Keith Jeffery, who has also had complete access to archives, publishes MI6 The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949. Some people might speculate on why this history stops in 1949?

The doyen of Whitehall historians is the magnificent Peter Hennessy. He has now republished with new material his The Secret State Preparing for the Worst 1945-2010, which is based on official documents and interviews with ministers, officials and advisers who prepared for nuclear war and now global terrorism.

Sir David Omand, the Maurice Hankey of his generation has served in Whitehall, and has had real hands on experience as a manager and consumer of intelligence. In his Securing the State he examines in detail how secret intelligence helps governments to deliver security, but also risks raising public concerns over its methods.

Twenty years ago Army Staff Colleges still taught counter-insurgency based upon colonial experience and Northern Ireland. Then it went out of fashion until Iraq and Afghanistan concentrated minds. Countersurgency is back in fashion and understanding the relationship between the political, development aid, cultural, social and military as well as the time line is absolutely crucial for success. David Kilcullen, a retired Australian army officer with hands on experience and an adviser to General Petraeus had published The Accidental Guerrilla last year and has now published a useful succinct version Countersurgency.

The rise and rise of Barrack Obama from Senator and Presidential candidate to President continues to fascinate. A good background account is David Rennick The Bridge The Life and Rise of Barrack Obama, whilst for those interested in preparing for and winning elections Mark Halperin and John Heilemann Race of Lifetime How Obama Won the White House, provides a useful guide.

James Mather’s Pashas Traders and Travellers in the Islamic World is the first full length study since 1935 of the Levant Company, the organisation that oversaw both England’s trade and diplomacy with the Ottoman World. This is a wonderful account and a major contribution to our understanding of Britain’s relationship with the Mediterranean and the world of Islam.

Robert Hardy is a BBC Overseas Service Journalist who has worked on the Islamic World for more than thirty years. In The Muslim Revolt he ranges widely over the Islamic World and this is a valuable handbook. In a controversial book, the former UK diplomat Alastair Crooke has argued that the West has drawn the wrong dividing line between “moderate” Islam and the more extreme “Islamism”. In Resistance The Essence of the Islamist Revolution, he suggests that the real dividing line is between Islamism and al-Qua’eda.

For those seeking a quick, well written “Bluffer’s guide” to the current conflict in Afghanistan, then Victoria Schofield’s revised edition of her 2003 Afghan Frontier At the Crossroads of Conflict, is a good start.


Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef was a found of the Taliban in 1994, a Taliban minister and a former inmate of Guantanamo Bay, but who now lives “reconciled” in Kabul. Two researchers have edited Zaeef’s memoirs My Life With the Taliban. He remains a fervent believer in the Taliban cause and there is little optimism here for a negotiated peace.

Philip Barclay was a junior British diplomat in Harare in 2006-9 and has written an account based on his experiences Zimbabwe Years of Hope and Despair. Barclay writes in detail about the bloody 2008 election and suggests that most Zimbabweans are desperate for international intervention.

In War Games, the Dutch journalist Linda Colman who has considerable experience reporting from Africa’s war zones, has written a devastating account of the cynicism and corruption of the aid industry and many of the warlord recipients of aid.

Stefan Halper, a former foreign policy veteran of the Nixon, Ford and Reagan administrations, has written a provocative polemic in The Beijing Consensus How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the 21st Century. Halper challenges a western consensus that the developing world would prosper by adopting the model of liberal democracy and free markets. Not so he argues, and suggests that Beijing’s intention is to promote a brand of authoritarian capitalism that undermines the post-war settlement of the western dominated international infrastructure. Food for thought.

David Hart is a veteran Middle East correspondent based in Beirut. Previously he wrote The Gun and the Olive Branch The Roots of Violence in the Middle East, and now his Beware of Small States Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East, is a good analysis.

In a rambling, anecdotal book ranging over history, economics and anthropology, the Columbian philosopher Oscar Guiardiola – Rivera predicts the imminent Hispanic takeover of the United States some time before 2050. His What If Latin America Ruled the World? How the South Will Take the North in the 22nd Century, is an interesting and stimulating book.

Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights advocate specialising in Burma and has just published Than Shwe Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant. This book explains General Than Shwe’s rise to power from postal clerk to brutal dictator and life in Burma under his rule.

Attempting to understand the financial crash over the past two years and the political fallout is a priority for politicians and there has been a rich variety of books in this subject. Just reprinted is Adam Fergusson’s When Money Dies. The Nightmare of the Weimar Hyperinflation, originally published in 1975. Adam Fergusson later served as an adviser to Geoffrey Howe in the 1980s, and Warren Buffet, the World’s most successful investor has recommended it as a warning of the dangers posed by Europe’s current financial crisis.

Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay, is written by John Lanchester a novelist and literary critic who began writing about global banking two years ago and the modern phenomenon of the transference of the power and wealth from sovereign countries to supernational financial institutions, selling products few can understand. This is a wonderful bluffer’s guide for dummies, especially economically illiterate politicians.

The economist and reviewer Michael Lewis has written two books which get to grips with financial institutions and the culture of risk and greed. His Liar’s Poker examined the world of investment banks and now The Big Short Inside the Doomsday Machine, he analyses the latest financial crash and whether it can happen again.

Stephen D King is the global economist at HSBC, and his Losing Control The Emerging Threats to Weaken Prosperity, benefits from his experience as an economist and the breadth and depth of his analysis. Put simply, his thesis is that globalisation, which the West thought would help make it rich, may well end up doing the opposite. But he is not all doom and gloom and he does have solutions, some of which will make uneasy reading for the coalition, such as the UK opening its borders to immigration rather than putting in place restrictions and quotas.

Finally, for colleagues desperate for some form of literary escapism from the serious volumes suggested above, two novels will provide entertainment and relaxation. Sandra Howard, wife of Michael Howard the former Conservative Party Leader, has written her third novel, A Matter of Loyalty, which is a romantic thriller and includes a female Home Secretary.

Louise Bagshawe is now MP for Corby and has written fourteen novels, many of which are murder mysteries. A genre known as “chick-lit” or in our grandfather’s days “bodice-rippers” but, we are told not quite “black lace”, her latest novel, Desire, is therefore quite suitable for any foreign office minister or official.

Keith Simpson MP
PPS to the Foreign Secretary

6 comments:

Sandy said...

Has Keith Simpson really got the time on his hands to type this tosh?

Wrinkled Weasel said...

It is a pleasant revelation to discover that at least one MP has read a book with no footnotes in it.

Right Hon. said...

Can I suggest a book for Prime Minister Cameron:
The Second World War, Volume 2: Their Finest Hour by Winston Churchill
Covers 1940 and is a damn good read.

doctorhuw said...

If this is an austerity list, I'd hate to see one when he had money to burn.

davidncl said...

Can I recommend the reading list posted by Steve Baker MP here: http://www.stevebaker.info/tag/books/

Reading this lot would result in you understanding what was going on.

Unsworth said...

I got half way through this and nearly lost the will to live. Where do these people find the time a) to write all this stuff and b) to read all this stuff?

I can read pretty fast and accurately, having done a great deal of extremely complex proof-reading in my time, but there are limits to human endurance and to my attention span.

I thought these guys were all frenetically busy, all the time. Seems not.