Foreign Office Ministerial Reading List
As Coalition ministers and advisers prepare for the festive season there is an opportunity to catch up on books recently published and to put on one side those that might relieve the tedium of flying “austerity class” on “White Knuckle Airways”.
Amongst the rush of memoirs and instant analysis of the Blair/Brown governments and the General Election only a few really merit attention. Jonathan Powell, who served as Blair’s Chief of Staff has written The New Machiavelli How to Wield Power in the Modern World. He attempts to provide a political context to the Blair Government by drawing on Machiavelli. Apart from completing a devastating demolition job on Gordon Brown he analyses the problems faced by a Prime Minister in running No 10, relations with the civil service, cabinet members, Parliament, the media and life in general. Very superior in tone and a no apology defence of Blair, and a must read for ministers and their shadows!
Anthony Seldon has written biographies of Major and Blair, and now, in cooperation with Guy Lodge has written Brown at 10. This is the first serious attempt to analyse the Brown government and relies upon interviews with leading members of the staff inside No 10. A fair and objective account.
Lord Dannatt, as General Sir Richard Dannatt, was CGS under Blair and Brown and achieved notoriety for his outspoken public criticisms. His memoirs, Leading from the Front, shows a conventional, traditional soldier who epitomises the poor relations between some ministers and senior officers at the time. A damning rebuttal can be found in Jonathan Powell’s book.
Gordon Brown has avoided any autobiography or personal account on the lines of Blair and Mandelson, instead opting for the safer method of describing the recent economic crash and the need for new thinking at a global level – Beyond the Crash Overcoming the First Crisis of Globalisation, is one for George Osborne and Alan Jonhson.
The origins of and formation of the Coalition is addressed in two books. David Laws, a key member of the Lib Dem negotiating team, and then briefly Chief Secretary, has written 22 Days in May The birth of the Lib Dem – Conservative Coalition. Rob Wilson, the Conservative MP for Reading East, has attempted a broader analysis based on interviewing leading participants in 5 Days to Power The Journey to Coalition Britain.
Good diaries are a joy to dip into or read from cover to cover. Chris Mullin published two years ago A View from the Foothills and now his Decline and Fall Diaries 2005-2010 show the slow wind down to his retirement from the Commons, and whilst perceptive, and at times funny, has a sad endgame feel to it.
Bob Woodward has become the doyen of journalist/contemporary historians at documenting Presidential wars. What he did for Bush he has now repeated in Obama’s Wars The Inside Story. A depressing read of indecision and in-fighting, but then familiar to historians of Lincoln’s Washington. British Prime Ministers and the United Kingdom are noticeable by their absence.
The Cameron part of the Coalition government is less pragmatic and more interested in innovative thinking than has been assumed. One American guru who has stimulated their little grey cells is Richard Florida, an urban economist, who has argued in several books that the creative sector is the growth engine for Western economies. Colleagues wanting an insight into Mr Florida’s thinking should read his The Rise of the Creative Class (2003) and his recent The Great Reset.
Just occasionally, an academic polymath manages to go some way to explaining the development of world history. Ian Morris has written a stimulating and challenging book Why the West Rules – for Now The Patterns of History and what They Reveal About the Future. Something for members of the National Security Council.
Historical and political biography, has always been an easy option for politicians and officials and recently we have had some good examples of this genre. For over two hundred years Adam Smith has been idolised as the founder of modern economics, but as Nicholas Phillipson demonstrates in Adam Smith An Enlightened Life, Smith saw himself primarily as a philosopher rather than an economist.
There has been no shortage of biographies of Palmerston, but nearly all have been overwhelmed by the sheer length of his ministerial career and the louche private life he so much enjoyed. David Brown has immersed himself in the Palmerston archives and has written a serious biography Palmerston which covers the political life but still leaves something missing of the old reprobate himself.
It might be thought that yet another book on Lloyd George had little to say that was original. But that Grand Old Warhorse of the Labour Party, Roy Hattersley, would disagree. His The Great Outsider David Lloyd George, benefits from the author’s experience as a minister and knowledge of early Labour – Liberal history, even if the title of the biography doesn’t quite fit the evidence.
Macmillan, the old “One Nation Tory”, is coming back into fashion, not least in Downing Street. D R Thorpe, who wrote an outstanding biography of Eden, has now written a superb biography Supermac The Life of Harold Macmillan.
Zimbabwe has rather slipped down the list of the world’s trouble spots, but as Peter Goodwin shows in The Fear The Last Days of Robert Mugabe, the people of Zimbabwe have suffered under a brutal repression and he is convinced that any future elections will see the ZANU (PF) redeploy to return to power.
Emma Larkin who has been travelling to and secretly reporting on Burma for years, has written a compelling account of the impact of the 2008 cyclone and the incompetence and corruption of the military regime in responding to this disaster – Everything in Broken The Untold Story of Disaster Under Burma’s Military Regime.
History provides context to politics even though Arthur Balfour noted, “History may not repeat itself, but historians repeat to each other.” Challenging a number of conventional assumptions and with analogies to recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan is UnRoman Britain Exposing the Great Myth of Britannia by Miles Russell and Stuart Waycock.
Helen Castor had established her reputation as a historian with Blood and Roses The Paston Family and the Wars of the Roses. Now in her She Wolves The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth she examines four examples of English queens who attempted to rule as well as reign – Matilda, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Isabella of Valois and Margaret of Anjou. Magnificent.
Orlando Figes has established his reputation as historian of Russia, and it is this aspect of his latest book Crimea The Last Crusade which is significant. Much of what is known about the British and French side, and the military history, is well documented. But Figes brings to life the Russian perspective which has been missing from so many previous accounts.
Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire combined serious biographical history with just a touch of the bodice ripper. Now in a blockbuster of a history at nearly one thousand pages – enough reading for several long haul austerity flights – she has written about the American Civil War. A World on Fire An Epic History of Two Nations Divided is based on official archives, memoirs and diaries of over one hundred Americans who came to live in Britain, and British officials, journalists and volunteers who lived in and in many cases fought for either the Union or the Confederacy. She has managed to integrate the politics, strategy, and events of the war with the individual and personal.
Charles Townshend, who has written widely on insurgency and counter-insurgency in Ireland, has now turned his attention to the Middle East. In When God Made Hell The British Invasion of Mesopotamia and the Creation of Iraq 1914-1921 he looks afresh at the reasons behind British intervention and the course of a forgotten campaign. Apart from some totally inadequate maps, this could prove of interest to members of the Iraq Inquiry.
Alastair Noble, an historian at the FCO, has turned his doctoral thesis into a book – Nazi Rule and the Soviet Offensive in Eastern Germany 1944-1945. A damning indictment of Nazi Party officials who failed to protect and evacuate German civilians and hundreds of thousands of prisoners.
One part of Europe which literally drew the short straw of history in the period 1917 to 1945 includes the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine and Belarus. Civil War, the Stalin purges and occupation, the Nazi War and so-called liberation have scarred this area. In Bloodlands Europe between Hitler and Stalin, Timothy Snyder documents the appalling experiences of the peoples of this region.
Philip Mansel has an established reputation as a historian and travel writer including Constantinople City of the World’s Desire 1453-1924 (1997). His Levant Splendour and Catastrophie on the Mediterranean describes the history and culture of Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut which were both cosmopolitan and centres of nationalism, although eventually Smyrna was burnt, Alexandria Egyptianised and Beirut damaged by civil war.
Two “stocking filler” books include Hugh Hunter Our Man in Orlando, Murder, Mayhem and Madness in the Sunshine State, based upon his experiences as British Consul in Florida, and Matthew Parris and Andrew Bryson Parting Shots The undiplomatic final words of our departing ambassadors. Until 2006 a British ambassador leaving his post would write a valedictory despatch often circulated widely across Whitehall. Sometimes it included critical comments about the host country, and sometimes about the FCO and ministers The valedictory despatch was effectively restricted after 2006 following the leak of comments from one despatch about the “bullshit bingo” of the new management consultancy culture in Whitehall. Now, in a kind of controlled Wikileak, Parris and Bryson have edited some of these despatches by using FOIs to obtain from the National Archives a rich and amusing collection originally presented on Radio 4. They are rather dated and in some cases very contrived and overwhelmingly written by men.
Finally, a “golden oldie” from the library is The Diaries of Sir Alexander Cadogan 1938-1945 (1971) edited by David Dilkes. Alec Cadogan was Permanent Secretary at the FO in the days when it helped to be the younger son of an earl. Acerbic, waspish and a formidable worker, Cadogan loathed Members of Parliament. In one wonderful outburst after a visit to the House of Commons he wrote “Silly bladders! How I hate Members of parliament! They embody everything that my training has taught me to eschew – ambition, prejudice, dishonesty, self-seeking, light-hearted irresponsibility, black hearted mendacity”. Fortunately that is not the view of today’s diplomats.
Keith Simpson MP
PPS to the Foreign Secretary