5 Days in May – Andrew Adonis

When the general election in 2010 returned no overall control, Adonis had a pivotal role in trying to negotiate Labour into coalition. This looks at how the pieces fell, and what influence the Lib Dems had in the coalition was shaped.

Adonis writes well, giving a fast-paced book that contains depth and interest in what could otherwise be a very dry and dull set of negotiations. Then as he felt unable to publish at the time due to his political position, he takes the opportunity to include an epilogue as to how the coalition worked in reality.

An interesting read for anyone who wants an insight into contemporary politics.


A Woman’s Work – Harriet Harman

I’ve never actually had all that much patience for Harriet Harman, seeing her as yet another New Labour architect. But in A Woman’s Work, she takes the opportunity to set out her case, and highlight the compromises she took that in her belief improved the world around her.

Her memoirs run from the heartbreaking of struggling against the establishment during the Thatcher era, through to the ridiculous of Robin Cook’s assumption that she was having an affair, when in truth she had kept a promise to her son about a day out. Her lessons from this are:

Firstly, while children will never forget a broken promise, there’s always someone who can stand in for you at work. And secondly, that while it would, in the eyes of my colleagues, have been beyond the pale for me to be absent because of my children, falling down in my duties because of an affair was not only understood by my male colleagues but thoroughly approved of.

But throughout the strong clear message is that compromises are not ideal, but they are worth it if it means that Labour can get into power and start making changes for the betterment of society. When she unexpectedly finds herself as acting leader after Brown’s resignation, her speech is that

….we should be proud of our legacy and that it would endure.

We also get a ringside seat for the Blair/Brown troubles from a woman who was close friends with both, which provides valuable insight to how the power struggle there started, and how it would end. She is also how Ed Milliband first enters politics, along with providing mentoring support to so many of the women who are now household names.

But above all else she is in politics for feminism. To promote equal rights and be a leader who facilitates other women’s liberation. Her use of her whole career to this arena is impressive, and despite her claims that too little progress has been made, to see how much can be attributed to Harman directly or indirectly is inspiring.

The Wild Rover – Mike Parker

Unwell in bed earlier in the week I sent my (4 year old) son to fetch a book for me*. He was under  instruction to fetch the library book I am halfway through, but decided that looked boring, so instead chose a book with hills on the spine. This was one which had languished on the shelves for a while, but once I started it was fascinating.

We do a lot of walking, despite not being nearly old enough by Parker’s standards, and have often spent much of a walk speculating on the history of a path, looking for evidence and wondering how it would have been to have been obliged to walk those routes on a daily basis throughout the year.

Parker does get out in his boots and do an appropriate walk for just about every chapter, which range from the gloriously successful to absolute disaster. These walks tie the history to the current day, and make the book more about a project than simply an academic piece.

When Parker was discussing the history of access rights, and what the historic paths were, it was inspiring. However towards the end he did get steadily further into the recent history of the ramblers (Ramblers Associate as was) and government cuts. Whilst these will have a negative impact on footpath inspections and maintenance, it moves the book towards being a political statement.

I was also put off by the description that “… the path goes up and down like a whore’s drawers, through rickety steps…” There are other, better metaphors for up and down than language like that when it is out of place. I wouldn’t have objected to it so much had it been in the same section as the one on “Lovers’ Lanes”.

*his daddy was also home, but the 4yo wanted to reassure himself that I was ok. Once I’d had half his stuffed toy collection brought to me I decided to distract him into getting something I wanted.

Honourable Friends? Caroline Lucas

Lucas has used her rare perspective as both a member of parliament, and being outside the main political parties, to offer an insight into where there are weaknesses in our system, and who is exploiting this. Of course she does have a vested interest, she would like to see the Green party do better, and can’t do so under the current system, but her views are valuable. Crucially she sees both the strengths as well as the weaknesses, where she was made to feel welcome, and the system worked for her.

Of course this book is also a platform for her views, which are further on the green spectrum than my own, but in about the same place in classic socialism/liberalism. So to me this was an unchallenging read, and certainly did the Green cause no harm.

This is a valuable look at the Con-Lib coalition and why certain decisions were made from someone with a small amount of sway and a very close view of how they happened.

The Establishment – Owen Jones

Jones looks at where the power has collected in modern Britain. Who has influence, how they got it and how they are connected to each other.

This ‘bulldog spirit’, however, was summoned to defend the interests of the City; these interests were conflated with the interests of the nation as a whole.

Jones on Cameron

Most importantly, he looks at a world where the majority of actors believe they are doing the “right thing”, but because of how systems and social assumptions are set up this may not be the same as what the wider population would like. There is then the contradiction between population views and votes cast, in that for a lot of social policies polled views are to the left of what even the Labour party considers to be an acceptable policy, or one that falls into the Overton Window.

It is clear that this book is Jones’ effort to provide his own nudge to the Overton window, that if enough people talk about his sort of democratic ideas then over time they will seem less radical and more capable of being implemented.

And of course in a supposedly democratic system, the potential for change is the real power.

Politics: A Very Short Introduction – Kenneth Minogue

I am quite a fan of the OUP very short introduction format. Its satisfying to pick up a book which both assumes no prior knowledge but also intelligence. This combines nicely with a low page limit and pocket-sized form so that you are only committing an hour or two’s worth of reading to a subject for which you might not necessarily want begin reading about at length.

My reading has however been tracking my rising increase in politics for some time. It is after all field which has so much influence on our lives, security and choices, but also one where individuals making decisions today can shape the world we live in. This is true both of the politicians and the aggregate data of voting decisions of every franchised person combined.

I like that Minogue acknowledges current issues on welfare and Europe, in both a current and historical sense.

Power has always found its balance, but the costs have been great. That is why so many Europeans have favoured transposing this whole endeavour into a new key, and creating a unified Europe by agreement rather than conquest.

Minogue was a well-respected academic, known for his conservative views. These do come across in places, and he both acknowledges that every generation has thought it has the best system and morals so far, whilst placing an argument that the current Western two-party system is the best available.

The historical position of much of politics is considered, and one part in particular caused me to think of “In the game of thrones you win or you die.”

Staking one’s life in the game of politics remained a deadly option until the middle of the eighteenth centenary… In the modern world it is only despotisms which have recourse to the firing squad or the noose.

I Never Promised You a Rose Garden – Jon Crace

I must have moved to a safe seat, because I haven’t really noticed much in the way of election fever this year. But I noticed it in the bookshop the other week in the form of a stand of political books. I Never Promised You a Rose Garden struck me as perfect: a cynical look back at the last five years of coalition government and how it has played out.

Crace definitely delivers on what the cover of this book promises, an informed look at what was pledged on a sunny afternoon in the Rose Garden and how that has developed over this parliament’s term. He is unforgiving of all parties, not simply those in power, and undertakes an examination of where the balance of power has lain.

The big issues that have dominated this parliament are all examined, from Scotland to immigration to the Big Society (BS) to austerity along with how changes have been driven. But the message is impartial, other than to extol that everyone should use their vote.

Has anyone else been reading political books before the election?

The Last Vote – Philip Coggan

At the Hay Festival last spring, I heard Coggan talk about this book. It sounded sufficiently intriguing to add to the mental tbr list, and later on I finally ordered it from the Guardian bookshop. Months later still it eventually arrived (wasn’t a preorder so I’m unlikely to use them again).The Last Vote

Unfortunately Coggan is an economics journalist and it shows. There is little discussion about any motivations aside from the economic ones, both for democracy and explaining why it may currently be in peril. Whilst economics is of course a key driver, there must be other things to explore in this.

I may of course be jaded from having just read The Undercover Economist, and in need of a bit of a different topic though!

There are also a few cases of “bad statistics” lurking in this book, such as a graph that compares economic growth and trust in government between different countries, ignoring the impact that very different cultures and political climates may have on this. Change within countries over time would surely be more valid than comparing disparate countries in a snapshot.

However far it wanders from its core argument though, the need for people to vote to legitimise government remains one close to me, especially in the run up to a UK general election.

the Elephant – Sławomir Mrożek

The Elephant is a collection of short stories in the form of parables to illustrate the surreal nature of life in an European police state. Mrożek uses metaphors involving animals for some of the stories, to show how people were treated as animals by their own government.

The image of political dissidents being trapped in cages is far more vivid for the parable of how dissenting views were treated than just the knowledge that they were censored. It gives a real sense of how it would feel to be unable to talk freely about politics, the government and individuals in powerful and privileged positions.

Being of an age that means I cannot remember the time before the Berlin Wall fell, the idea that half of Europe was under this type of government in the modern age is something that needs remembering especially in the light of the move towards anger in politics.

Dare to be a Daniel – Tony Benn

Its difficult to tell what Benn was aiming to produce with Dare to be a Daniel. The introduction calls it a prelude to his published diaries (all eight volumes). It gives both a selection of his essays and speeches a look at his life before beginning his political life, and how his family life and early experience shaped his socialist, pacifist and republican tendencies which shaped 50 years as a member of the House of Commons, including standing down from a hereditary lords seat.

The title of the book is based on the lines of a hymn sung in childhood “Dare to be a Daniel, Dare to stand alone”  and how this influenced his attitude towards the changing nature of politics and economics.

I enjoyed the stories of family life and the look at a privileged upbringing immediately prior to and throughout the Blitz. They painted an image of a time and a particular type of political belief which showed how the socialist state was built in the aftermath of the Second World War. More interesting however was the collection of speeches made to the House arguing for greater British independence, international peace and the need for social justice.

There are large gaps in this autobiography, which leaves me wanting to read his full set of diaries, and it is important to bare in mind that by its very nature it will reflect well on the subject”s beliefs and actions. However I think that seeing the perspective that individuals have of themselves is important to understand why they took the options they did.