UK Politics

Books of 2010: the coalition and new Labour analysed

Image caption For students of the coalition and its future, there are a growing body of first-hand accounts to leaf through

A fascinating year in politics has generated enough political books to keep even the most determined politics nerd occupied well into 2011.

Students of the Blair-Brown years can spend many happy hours tabulating the various accounts of New Labour's infighting.

They can chose from the Blair and Mandelson memoirs, the Alastair Campbell Diaries and various journalistic accounts by the likes of Steve Richards and, in particular, Andrew Rawnsley.

But for me one of the most vivid and fascinating volumes to emerge from that era is Jonathan Powell's The New Machiavelli: How to Wield Power in the Modern World.

Strictly speaking, it's not a memoir, but an attempt to apply the cold political wisdom of the sage of renaissance Florence to the 21st Century.

But it is awash with fascinating anecdotes about the Blair-Brown relationship, and the dynamics of politics in a media age.

Labour's fall

For a reminder of just how horrible life in the last Parliament was, try the second volume of Labour backbencher Chris Mullin's diaries Decline and Fall.

Reading his descriptions of the sudden implosion of colleagues' careers in the expenses scandal, of the endless cycle of plotting and disaster which beset the Brown government, and the inexorable plod towards defeat at the polls, was a bit like going through one of those flashbacks to captivity in Vietnam that litter the Rambo movies.

This was a clear-eyed, unsparing account of a slow-motion debacle. Horrible but compulsive.

And for the definitive account of the denouement, turn to Dennis Kavanagh and Phillip Cowley's The British General Election of 2010.

This is the latest in the Nuffield General Election studies - but don't imagine it's a dry-as-dust academic tome.

If you want to know how the parties planned for the 2010 election, what happened when those plans collided with "events, dear boy" and how new factors like the leaders' debates and internet campaigning played out, this is the book for you.

Birth of a coalition

As for what happened next, books are starting to emerge on the formation of the coalition.

In particular there is 22 Days in May - Lib Dem coalitionist David Laws' account of the tense talks which created this country's first peace-time coalition since Stanley Baldwin, and of his brief spell in the Cabinet before he was felled in an aftershock of the expenses scandal.

The prose may be a bit antiseptic, but the story is more than dramatic enough to make up for it, and it provides some fascinating insights into the nature of the new government.

Image caption The dying days of New Labour were documented in a selection of books

You can glimpse one possible future for the coalition in Which Way Up? by Nick Boles - a policy prospectus for the new government by the uber-Cameroon policy wonk and now Conservative MP.

He sets out an agenda which would last well beyond the next election, and unlike a lot of policy tomes, this is an engaging and readable offering.

It also hints at a long term pact with the Lib Dems or even the absorption of like-minded Liberals into a broadened Conservative Party.

Realignment of the right, as opposed to the age old Liberal dream of realignment of the left?

What may be the beginnings of that process can be seen in a rollicking account of recent Tory history - Tim Bale's The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron.

This analyses the decline from the glory days of the Iron Lady, the long years in the wilderness, and David Cameron's attempts to "decontaminate" his party and lead it back to power.

This is history according to the Cameroon modernisers - and it will particularly upset those who take the opposite view that a return to traditional Conservatism would have won them the last election.

But Tim Bale has clearly enjoyed a lot of insider access and his description of the internal battles to reshape conservatism are vital to an understanding of the present Tory leadership.

Spies and nuclear threat

If you want to get away from current politics, there's plenty of new history and biography out there.

For those who like the blackest possible humour, I can recommend The Secret State, Peter (now Lord) Hennessy's frankly terrifying look at Britain's preparations for nuclear war, preparations which, mercifully, were never needed.

Some of the planning had an almost comic element -- ensuring the prime minister's driver had fourpence on him so that he could make a call to bomber command from some roadside phone box, and unleash the v-bombers against Russia, if the Soviets were so ungentlemanly as to start a war when Mr Macmillan was not in Downing Street.

Image caption Edward Heath is portrayed as isolated and abrasive in a new biography

Officials noted he could always reverse the charges if he didn't have fourpence in his pocket.

There's the "spot the mushroom cloud" game played by war planners in a highly-classified in-house magazine, in which contestants were invited to work out where a bomb would have to go off, in order to produce a particular pattern of nuclear fallout. Chucklesome stuff.

But the reader will soon be sobered by a tour through the now redundant Command bunker from which what was left of Britain would have been governed by a handful of ministers if, in Macmillan's poetic phrase, "London fell silent".

I gather Lord Hennessy is now contemplating a novel set there, against the background of a nuclear war scare.

For those fascinated by fiction about the secret world of Her Majesty's Secret Service, from Rudyard Kipling's Kim, through James Bond and George Smiley, to the be-gelled protagonists of Spooks, there's a chance to glimpse the reality in the historian Christopher Andrew's huge tome Defence of the Realm: the Authorised History of MI5

This is not, in any sense, light reading, but it is a useful antidote to the fiction.

The Russians, it seems, were not quite the cunning master-spies of fiction. MI5 was pretty relaxed about Soviet courtship of Labour MPs and shrugged a corporate shrug when an emissary of the Labour leadership passed them a list of suspected secret communists within the party ranks.

History of protest

Another veteran historian, Phillip Ziegler, offers a new biography called simply Edward Heath - and his portrait is all the more devastating because his approach is pretty sympathetic.

He charts the transformation from hale-fellow-well-met chief whip to isolated and increasingly abrasive party leader and prime minister. This is not a hatchet job, but the picture that emerges is an impossible man who retained a few friends despite himself.

Finally, after several weeks in which demonstrations have raged around Westminster, David Horspool, History Editor of the Times Literary Supplement, demonstrates that there is nothing new about violent protest in England.

He traces a deep national streak of vindictive bloody-mindedness in his new book English Rebel

He starts with the Norman Conquest and the surprisingly long-lived resistance after 1066.

He then takes in the Peasants Revolt, a good example of what happens when the English detect a breach of some half understood national covenant, before moving on to Cromwell, the Chartists, the Peterloo massacre and the Suffragettes, and, eventually the Poll Tax.

This long parade of anarchic anger is a handy antidote to the idea that the English would simply be too embarrassed to kick up a fuss and rebel like other nations.

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