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?

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