Boyd Tonkin: A minister who banks on ideas

The week in books

In the past, the parties of the left used to wrestle earnestly with values and theories in their pursuit of a more just society. Conservatives, on the other hand, turned a sceptical eye on the purveyors of grand designs and abstract principles in their keen attention to the unruly human factor in policies and politics.

How things change. This week it was revealed that HSBC chairman – and ordained Anglican priest – Stephen Green, who emerged from the meltdown with his and his bank's reputation intact, will move into government as a trade minister in the House of Lords. Last year Green published a thoughtful and wide-ranging book, Good Value. It mounted a nuanced defence of free markets as an expression of "human universals". Yet it also denounced the "manifest failure of market fundamentalism", scolded the misdeeds of "casino capitalism" and advocated a "more tempered and more sober" financial system.

In January, this sage of the boardroom will join a coalition whose Business Secretary has already published his own sharp reflections on the downside of unfettered markets: Vince Cable's The Storm. Both well-versed in the moral critique of wild capitalism, Green and Cable, if they ever have the time, might share some riveting dialogues. Among their colleagues is David Willetts, the universities minister who this year – in The Pinch – published a rigorously researched study of the burden of baby-boomer privilege for coming generations.

Now look at Labour as two sons of a far-from-doctrinaire Marxist theorist, Ralph Miliband, enter the final stretch of its leadership race. When it comes to coherent visions in print, the whole movement seems to have suffered brain-death. Peter Mandelson's memoir was, of course, a thought-free zone. Infinitely saner and more entertaining, Chris Mullin's second volume of diaries (Decline & Fall) opts for a frank scrutiny of the fine detail of a government in crisis. Both junior Milibands would no doubt seek to restore theoretical credibility to their party. But the victor will face a Herculean mission.

For the fish rots from the head. And the ultimate proof of New Labour's abject evacuation of the battlefield of ideas comes in its creator's own testimony. From time to time during the Tony Blair era, high-minded commentators would express a spasm of excitement at the rumour that the PM's inner circle had drawn on the blueprints of an intellectual masterplanner.

Names, and ideas, swirled in and out of fashion and focus: Amitai Etzioni, the US guru of "communitarian" theory; Geoff Mulgan, the policy adviser who worked inside 10 Downing Street for seven years, finally as head of a "strategy unit"; and, of course, Tony Giddens, the LSE-based architect of the "Third Way" himself, later ennobled by Blair.

Consult Blair's A Journey. Unless I'm mistaken, not one of those thinkers appears even once in all its 718 pages. Media spinners, on the other hand, crowd almost every chapter. So much for the principles behind the "project".

True, early on Blair does offer a warm tribute to Peter Thomson, the Australian Anglican priest who at Oxford and afterwards schooled him in Christian socialism. Yet the Blairite attitude to the values that should underpin any administration stands out with gruesome clarity in an anecdote about Hans Küng, the liberal Catholic theologian he got to know via Thomson. Küng had invited Blair to lecture at Tübingen University on "rules and order" in a changing society.

"For the purposes of domestic consumption ... we had a passage in the speech about louts and on-the-spot fines": the notorious wheeze about marching thugs to cashpoints. "If we hadn't, as Alastair [Campbell] rightly pointed out, we were going to Europe for 'nul points' with the British electorate." Even Blair winces at the "Alastair tabloidery" that resulted.

That craven cynicism got them "nul points" at home anyway. For me, nothing in the book sums up New Labour's intellectual bankruptcy quite so vividly. Agree with them or not, one would fervently expect the government of Green, Cable and Willetts to think a bit more deeply. It could hardly be shallower.

The return of the native?

The book trade likes to buzz, and buzz it has with the titillating suggestion that Tim Waterstone (right) might swoop down in a venture-capital chariot to buy back the chain he founded in 1982. Much loose talk has recycled dated verdicts on the poor record of the senior management installed by HMV, the bookshops' owner since 1998. True, they used to be famously awful. But it's fair to say that things have perked up under a new MD, Dominic Myers, with more local autonomy and fewer Stalinist edicts. Yet the palsied hand of HMV still grips the brand. And what a double-act Waterstone and Myers – Tim and Dom – might eventually make.

Rules of the Man Booker game

When is a novel not a novel? Damon Galgut's Man Booker shortlisting for In a Strange Room takes the old conundrum out for another spin. When I judged the award, one of our shortlisted titles was Anita Desai's exquisite, semi-detached pair of novellas, Fasting, Feasting: self-contained works, but more (I believed) than the sum of their parts. In Galgut's case, his book's three separate but inter-connected narratives appeared first as standalone stories in The Paris Review. Perhaps his eerily accomplished tales of travel, displacement and disorientation did not begin as a single novel, but gradually evolved into one. It can happen. Meanwhile, short-story writers whose finest collections year by year fall foul of the Booker rules may still feel aggrieved by such anomalies. At least the extraordinary Alice Munro last year collected the Man Booker International award for career achievement. But should – on the Galgut principle – Kazuo Ishiguro have had a Booker chance with his themed package, Nocturnes?

Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
TVDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
The Baker (James Corden) struggles with Lilla Crawford’s Little Red Riding Hood

film...all the better to bamboozle us
Arts and Entertainment
English: Romantic Landscape

Arts and Entertainment
Laugh a minute: Steph Parker with Nigel Farage

Arts and Entertainment
Comic Ivor Dembina has staged his ‘Traditional Jewish Xmas Eve Show’ for the past 20 years; the JNF UK charity is linked to the Jewish National Fund, set up to fund Jewish people buying land in Palestinian territories

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?