Prospect’s best books of 2021: politics and reportage

From pandemic failures to life in Karachi
December 9, 2021

Politicians might have failed us during the pandemic but thankfully journalists didn’t. Failures of State (Mudlark) by Sunday Times reporters Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott catalogues a shocking series of unforced errors by the government—from the failure to lock down quickly enough in March 2020 to dumping elderly patients with Covid into care homes. The authors are damning about Boris Johnson, who dithered when he needed to be decisive and listened to his backbenchers more than he did the scientists. 

Things were even worse in the US—and it wasn’t just Donald Trump. As Michael Lewis shows in The Premonition (Allen Lane), the healthcare system failed to work. In the crucial early weeks there was no unified response, even though experts like Charity Dean, a public health officer in California and hero of Lewis’s story, could see what was happening. The most compelling parts of Lawrence Wright’s The Plague Year (Allen Lane) show vaccine developers at Moderna tantalisingly close to developing the jab but terrified of making a mistake. In Oxford, researchers were on a similar path—their heroic story is told in Vaxxers (Hodder) by Sarah Gilbert and Catherine Green, the two women who worked on the AstraZeneca vaccine that has saved so many lives. 

According to many who worked with him, Britain missed the talents of senior civil servant Jeremy Heywood during the pandemic. His widow Suzanne Heywood’s What Does Jeremy Think? (William Collins) presents him as an outsider who asked awkward questions . While her account is inevitably partial, it is striking that four prime ministers he worked for—Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May—all attended his memorial service. Gavin Barwell writes honestly in Chief of Staff (Atlantic) about the problems May faced during her short-lived premiership. Early chapters provide careful analysis and describe Barwell’s efforts to rebuild a strategy. In the second half, there is chaotic urgency as the Brexit negotiations falter and the Tory Party turns on the prime minister. For the other side read My Secret Brexit Diary (Polity) by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator who never stopped thinking of Brexit as a grand illusion—to the detriment of building bridges with the UK.

In The Impossible Office? (Cambridge) Anthony Seldon outlines what would make things easier for a British prime minister—previous experience of government helps. Still, PMs are often in a stronger position than they think. As Steve Richards describes in his entertaining The Prime Ministers We Never Had (Atlantic), few plotters and pretenders have ever grabbed the crown. For a waspish account of low ministerial office try In the Thick of It, the diaries of Alan Duncan (William Collins). According to Johnson’s former deputy at the Foreign Office, our current prime minister is “a clown, a self-centred ego, an embarrassing buffoon, with an untidy mind and sub-zero diplomatic judgment.” Ouch. 

Simon Akam puts the British Army under the microscope in The Changing of the Guard (Scribe). The initially successful invasion of Iraq in 2003 brought “a sense of licence and mayhem,” writes Akam. What followed was a series of humiliations in Iraq and Afghanistan that the army tried to gloss over or suppress. 

During the two decades between 9/11 and the storming of the Capitol in Washington on 6th January 2021, something went badly wrong in America. In Wildland (Bloomsbury), Evan Osnos tries to find answers through a series of character portraits—including of a former marine from West Virginia and a wealthy hedge-fund manager.

Pakistan has long been destabilised by the war on terror. In Samira Shackle’s Karachi Vice (Granta) we hear the stories of residents and their histories of migration, which stretch from partition to the Bangladesh war of independence and the rise and fall of the Taliban. The group’s resurgence was the big news story of 2021; but we’ll have to wait until 2022 for the definitive account of the fall of Kabul.

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