As part of Prospect's Books of the Year special, we round up the best books about politicsby Prospect Team / December 7, 2019 / Leave a comment
This year saw not one but two main Brexit deadlines breached with plenty of parliamentary shenanigans. Thus the prize for most optimistic title goes to Vernon Bogdanor for Beyond Brexit (IB Tauris). Bogdanor argues authoritatively that after the UK leaves the EU it will lose constitutional protections—and so we will need a codified text. Valuable on the backstory is Kevin O’Rourke’s A Short History of Brexit (Pelican). As an Irish historian who divides his time between a French village and All Souls College, Oxford, O’Rourke is a quintessential Remainer; but he’s not blind to the EU’s supranational ambitions. The consequences of these ambitions are the subject of James Meek’s thoughtful essay collection Dreams of Leaving and Remaining (Verso). A visit to Grimsby in 2015 reveals resentment of Brussels fishing policy. Cadbury’s workers are abandoned when their factory moves to Poland. Brexit, it turns out, never just meant Brexit.
David Cameron writes in For the Record (William Collins) that he has many regrets about his six years as PM: botched NHS reform; intervention in Libya; no intervention in Syria. But the 2016 referendum is not one of them. His book is a catalogue of what-ifs. One is intriguing: he was tempted to require Leave to get 40 per cent of all registered voters, which would have resulted in a Remain victory. In an alternate universe, we would be heading into a 2020 election with the baton passed to George Osborne. Instead Cameron must cope with seeing Boris Johnson get the top job, a man he describes as “full of jealousies and paranoias,” who may or may not have trashed his rooms at Oxford.
Cameron’s successor, Theresa May, has said she is more likely to write an Alpine murder mystery than an account of her 1,106 days in office. Instead we have Anthony Seldon and Raymond Newell’s May at 10 (Biteback). Re-living her tortuous stint makes oddly gripping reading. Fiona Hill, one of her close advisers, is damning on the 2017 election campaign: “There was no leadership. The campaign was dull. It was going nowhere. It was utterly, utterly draining.” May is the book’s absent centre. What did she want? We still don’t know. And perhaps neither did she.
One of May’s positive legacies was boosting the number of female Tory MPs. Labour MP Rachel Reeves’s Women of Westminster (IB Tauris) tells the important story of women’s slow march through parliament from 1919 to 2019. Even now, we are nowhere near gender equal.
One of the few light moments in the final volume of Charles Moore’s magisterial biography of Margaret Thatcher, Herself Alone (Allen Lane), is when Barbara Cartland tries to intervene with the Iranians on behalf of fellow novelist Salman Rushdie. But not even Cartland could save our first female PM during her 1990 downfall. Thatcher’s increasing euroscepticism pushed her deputy Geoffrey Howe to resign. In hindsight, that autumn set us on a path to Brexit. Truly, she is still the ghost at the Tory feast.
If 2018’s Trump books were gossipy, the 2019 ones were forensic. James D Zirin argues in Plaintiff in Chief (All Points) that for the president the law is simply a way of destroying your adversary. But as law professor Neal Katyal makes clear in his timely Impeach (Canongate), Trump may not relish having Congress expose his foreign policy modus operandi. The evidence collected by Barry Levine and Monique El-Faizy in All the President’s Women (Trapeze) should keep prosecutors busy. Trump is an alpha male—while dating Ivana, he threw a hissy fit when she turned out to be a better skier. More serious are the 26 new allegations of unwanted sexual contact documented here. “These abuses took place over the course of decades and were far from secret,” they write. It’s a story familiar from that of Jeffrey Epstein, the sex-offender Trump said was a “terrific guy” and “a lot of fun to be with.”
US diplomat Richard Holbrooke was hardly a model of marital probity. But as George Packer explores in Our Man (Jonathan Cape), Holbrooke put his talents to good effect in securing peace in the former Yugoslavia, and was attempting to do the same in Afghanistan when he died in 2010. He had a righteous belief in US power, now unfashionable. But who’s in charge really does matter.