Books of the year 2014: Politics, from Margot Asquith's Great War Diary to Winston Churchill

This year's offerings tackle sex in high places scandal, career crises and the British Establishment

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The Independent Culture

It has been a poor year for political scandals, making the 2014 crop of books on British politics short on naughtiness. Philip Cowley, the Nottingham academic, has edited a series of fun essays entitled Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box (Backbite, £14.99), but I am sorry to report that fascinating and quirky though it is, there is almost no sex. It is alleged in one of the essays that people think that Conservatives are more into spanking and cross-dressing than is normal, but no empirical evidence is cited.

There is sex in Head of State, by Andrew Marr (Fourth Estate, £18.99) – "they bucked like deer and squirmed like eels. And after that vice-versa…" And there is also some ghoulish mucking about with a prime minister's dead body. There is murder and intrigue in The Madness of July, by Jim Naughtie (Head of Zeus, £7.99), but both are novels, so they do not count.

For a proper sex in high places scandal, we are forced to turn to Anne de Courcey, Margot at War (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20). Though Margot Asquith, nee Tennant, is its main character, her husband's scandalous obsession with young Venetia Stanley is inevitably centre stage. That scandal features more opaquely in that other fascinating compilation, Margot Asquith's Great War Diary 1914-1916, lovingly edited by Michael and Eleanor Brock (Oxford University Press, £30). For my money, the most interesting passage in this intriguing tome describes how Henry Asquith talked a middle aged Winston Churchill out of taking an idiotic decision that would have meant that he had thrown away his career, just like his impetuous father before him. Having enlisted in the army, Churchill was bored with soldiering and wanted to quit and go back into politics, while the war continued.

Churchill has been the subject of many published biographies, including the new and much publicised The Churchill Factor, How One Man Made History by Boris Johnson (Hodder & Stoughton, £25). Most of the interest this work has provoked is in the supposed similarities between author and subject. So far, I would say Johnson has been less erratic as a politician than Churchill at Johnson's current age, in 1921, while Churchill, on current showing, was the better historian. The inaccuracies in this new biography were mercilessly exposed in a review by the historian, Richard Evans.

The last politician to publish a life of Churchill was Roy Jenkins, whose well-rounded life has been beautifully chronicled in Roy Jenkins: A Well-Rounded Life, by John Campbell (Jonathan Cape, £30), who was the country's premier political biographer even when Jenkins was alive. If you want to go directly to the bit about Jenkins and Tony Crosland having a gay fling, it is brief, and it is on page 33. And that is enough about sex.

Tony Benn, that prolific writer and diarist, is also dead, so all we have from him this year is a posthumous selection, entitled The Best of Benn, put together by Ruth Winstone (Hutchinson, £20), who worked with him for years, transcribing and editing his diaries. The first entry records Benn's excitement at hearing about the D-Day landings when he was 19; the last is a letter to his grandchildren as death drew near.

If Benn had lived, I just know that his book of the year 2014 would have been The Establishment, by Owen Jones (Allen Lane, £16.99) formerly of this paper, whom Russell Brand calls "our generation's Orwell". Like the popular writer that he is, Jones gives his readers what they want. He tells them that there is a self-preserving, self-renewing establishment ruling Britain, protecting a status quo which is "as irrational and it is unjust", and which only a democratic revolution could put right. Benn was fired up by the same discovery in the late 1960s; some other visionary, I dare say, will proclaim it in another 50 years.

Alan Johnson was a genuine case of someone who was not born into the Establishment, but worked his way into it by a mix of ability, charm and good judgement. Old colleagues have wished he would return to full time politics, he has found a new niche as a writer. In 2014, he produced Please, Mr Postman (Bantam, £16.99), the second volume of his extraordinary life, covering his years as in Slough as a postman.

The former Labour MP Dennis MacShane has described living somewhere worse even than Slough, namely Belmarsh Prison. Actually, though I have lived and worked in Slough I have never been banged up in Belmarsh, but I know it is worse because the awfulness of it is laid bare in Prison Diaries by MacShane (Biteback £20) a casualty of the expenses scandal. One reviewer suggested that there are two ways to read the book: as a prolonged whinge by a man who believes he was unjustly imprisoned, or as a vivid account of what it is like to be inside.

The most interesting academic work on British politics this year was Selina Todd's The People, the Rise and Fall of the Working Class 1910-2010 (John Murray, £30), which draws heavily on archives and face to face interviews to recapture what it was like to be a working class Brit in the twentieth century. For light entertainment, the story of the polls winner Viv Nicholson is scattered through the book in which people describe their lives. There was something alarmingly contemporary about the first hand accounts of the 1930s. True, officers from Public Assistance Boards do not now march into the homes of the unemployed and order them to sell their belongings, but the underlying argument about whether welfare recipients deserve the money they receive from public funds, or can be trusted to spend it responsibly, are grimly familiar. The book's weakness is at the end, when the definition of the 'working class' becomes fuzzy, and rather than sharpen it, she sets out to demonstrate that we live in an unequal society.

I should also mention three books thrown up by the Scottish Referendum – The Scottish Question, by James Mitchell (Oxford University Press, £25), who argues that the Scots can be a nation without a state, Independence: An Argument for Home Rule, by Alasdair Gray and others (Canongate, £9.99) who say no they cannot, and My Scotland, Our Britain, by Gordon Brown (Simon & Schuster, £20). You know what he thinks.

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