Prospect’s books of the year 2023: Politics & Reportage

From understanding 13 years of Tory government to contextualising the conflict in Ukraine
December 6, 2023

A number of books this year have come to bury the Conservative government, not to praise it. After 13 years of Tory rule, and with a general election due next year, there’s a real sense that this is it. The end. A time for decade-spanning retrospectives, rather than of-the-moment hagiographies. 

Best of these books—and, in fact, an exemplar of its kind—is The Right to Rule by Ben Riley-Smith, the political editor of the Daily Telegraph. Lots of Westminster-y books by Westminster-y people are well-sourced and engagingly written, and Riley-Smith’s shares those qualities. But it distinguishes itself with the clarity and cleverness of its analysis. This will become a set text on the era of Cameron to Sunak.

Another highlight is Rory Stewart’s Politics on the Edge. Stewart, the diplomat turned politician turned podcasting superstar, is an endearing mix of self-aggrandising (he clearly wants to be prime minister) and self-effacing (he understands that he’s a bit… idiosyncratic). But the moral and technical seriousness of this book should not be ignored: in his time in parliamentary politics, Stewart discovered a lot that needs mending—and he has plenty of ideas for doing so.

What else needs fixing after 13 years of Conservative government (and, in truth, much mismanagement before then)? Kieran Yates’s All the Houses I’ve Ever Lived In is a telling account of the housing crisis and what it’s meant for young people in particular. Meanwhile, Behind These Doors considers a different sort of accommodation—prisons—and shows how it has fallen into neglect and dysfunction. The fact that its author, Alex South, is a former prison officer helps to place both it and us on one of the British state’s most terrible front lines.

There is a sense of the front line about Madeleine Bunting’s The Seaside, too. Our coastal communities are not only situated where land meets water, but also where social decline meets ageing populations, and where incoming immigrants meet (in some cases) hostile receptions. Bunting scans this terrain with a reporter’s eye for a story and a holidaymaker’s eye for fun and diversion—because, let’s not forget, the seaside is also where fish meets chips.

There is little comfort to be found in a pair of books about the contaminated blood scandal that afflicted the NHS and other health systems around the world from the 1970s to the early 1990s. Caroline Wheeler’s Death in the Blood  benefits both from her decades of reporting on the story and her role in campaigning for justice for those who received poisoned transfusions in the UK. Cara McGoogan’s The Poison Line is a brilliant act of investigative cartography, tracking the virus-ridden blood packs from their source (a prison in Louisiana) to patients in the US, the UK and beyond.

Remaining in the US, Monica Potts’s The Forgotten Girls is a modern classic on deprivation and the fine margins that exist between a life of plenty and one of relentless hardship. As Tom Clark (former editor of Prospect) wrote in his review, “In the rich world, only in America is it routine for established citizens to see life and limb threatened due to a lack of medicines or other basic means of survival.” 

Struggles elsewhere are recounted by Tahir Hamut Izgil’s Waiting to Be Arrested at Night, on China’s oppression of the Uyghurs, and Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s A Stranger in Your Own City, on his home country of Iraq and its awful, insecure fate in the years after America’s war on terror.

Then there is, of course, Ukraine. The best account of the ongoing conflict—its preconditions and its present-day horrors—is Ukrainian historian Serhii Plokhy’s The Russo-Ukrainian War. Meanwhile, Ian Garner’s Z Generation shows how the amoral leadership of Vladimir Putin has corrupted the hearts and minds of young people in Russia.

Is there a global leader who can stand up to these challenges? Read Franklin Foer’s The Last Politician and you’ll come out of the experience with a fuller and perhaps more generous understanding of the current president of the US, one Joseph Robinette Biden Junior.

Read more

Books of the year 2023: Ideas
Books of the year 2023: Lives
Books of the year 2023: History