Boyd Tonkin: A real best-seller joins the Cabinet

The week in books
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The Independent Culture

Publishers and universities will have spotted that a solid Edinburgh historian with a handy –if interrupted – track-record of publication is available again. True, the author of one major political biography (of Clydeside Labour leader James Maxton) and two lighter collections of modern-history essays has found himself distracted by taxing public-sector jobs of late. But Gordon Brown will surely be open to offers to teach as well as write. Unlike almost all ousted premiers, he has the passions and proclivities to greet a switch to the library and lecture-hall not as an exile but a homecoming.

Sadly, in the coalition age that follows him, we can hardly look forward to a united front in defence of writers and readers – even though the Cabinet itself now boasts a genuine chart-topping author in the shape of Business Secretary Vince (The Storm) Cable. For much of the public spending that would protect the interests of the book world happens to fall in just those sectors where the axe will swing. Purchase budgets and branch networks in local libraries; resources for books in schools; even the trivial sums that the Arts Council and Department of Culture devote to literature: all will doubtless suffer searing pain in the fast-looming round of cuts.

Yet this week's grand alliance can still do much for the health of literature without impeding its deficit-reduction dash. First, it must stick to the promise by both governing parties not to slap VAT on books. However invisible, zero-rating – an anomaly by European standards - counts by a mile as the biggest state subsidy that reading in Britain ever receives. And, if print benefits from this vital waiver, why not e-publishing as well?

The new regime could at no extra cost take a tougher stance in questioning the digital ambitions of content accumulators such as Google and its rivals. We need a ful legal agreement over intellectual property in the electronic age: one that treats with respect the rights of authors to earn a decent livelihood in the digital domain.

The Digital Economy Act, which slipped under the legislative wire in April and comes into force in June, failed to finish the story about "orphan works" and who should profit from them. Too often, New Labour's answer to a request to jump by any hi-tech American behemoth with predatory designs was: how high? That must change.

As a writer and campaigner, Cable has some impressive anti-monopolist credentials. He should buttress them by seeking measures to revive town centres with a rainbow spread of small business and to put a cap on Tesco-style retail uniformity. That would help to shelter the very fragile plant of independent bookselling in Britain – as would a pledge to examine the unfair boost that excessive discount levels on books gives to the giant chains. In the US, that open-market heaven, preferential discounting of the kind that breaks the indies' hearts would be illegal.

More generally, the government can change the weather when it comes to freedom of expression. After 2001, New Labour repeatedly betrayed the liberal legacy within its own internal coalition. Shoddily-drafted scattershot laws over matters such as "incitement to religious hatred" and "glorifying terrorism" failed to protect a single citizen at the same time as they chilled the cultural climate. If you want to send a message, as US politicians liked to say, use Western Union. Don't meddle piously with the statute books to muffle the voice of risk-taking artists.

An especially low point arrived when in late 2004 a gang of rowdies tried to smash up the Birmingham theatre which planned to stage Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti's play Behzti (just revived in London, by the way). Home Offfice minister Fiona Mactaggart conspicuously refused to stand up for the rights of the playwright against the violence of the hooligans. Such moments told all who value free speech what New Labour thought about its merits. Let's hope they never come again.

Three writers go to Westminster

The trio of authors and first-time candidates I discussed here last month have all all written a successful script for their journey to Westminster. Louise Bagshawe, bestselling diva of raunchy romances, took Corby for the Tories. Also in the blue corner, travel writer and memoirist Rory Stewart held Penrith and the Border. For Labour, historian Tristram Hunt prevailed with a large majority. So the biographer of Friedrich Engels now represents Stoke-on-Trent Central. Most hearteningly, Hunt knocked back a challenge from the BNP in a seat where the party had nursed the highest of hopes. It polled a paltry 7.7 per cent.

Double vision with lens and pens

Congratulations to novelist-screenwriter-director Philippe Claudel. In a remarkable double coup, the French auteur has added the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize to the BAFTA he won for I've Loved You So Long. Writers do sometimes try their hand behind the camera lens: William Boyd and Hanif Kureishi have done so, with so-so results. Far rarer are sustained twin-track careers. Ousmane Sembene, the "father of African cinema", also shone in fiction; Pier Paolo Pasolini ranks as a poet and essayist as highly (some say higher) than as a director. It could be too that the rise of low-budget indie movies will make the parallel pursuit of a vision on page and screen more common: a pioneer here is prolific Chinese multi-tasker Xiaolu Guo. As for Ken Russell's eccentric ventures into fiction: silence is golden. Elsewhere, Mexican director Guillermo del Toro still threatens to complete a trilogy of vampire yarns along with his collaborator Chuck Hogan. Please, shut the crypt and stick to the day job.