IoS Books of the Year 2012: Politics

This year was a long time in politics

John Rentoul
Sunday 16 December 2012 01:00
Jack Straw: Served 13 years in the Cabinet and has an ear for an anecdote
Jack Straw: Served 13 years in the Cabinet and has an ear for an anecdote

Here they come, the stragglers of the New Labour years. Jack Straw, who served in Cabinet for the whole 13 years, published his memoir Last Man Standing (Macmillan, £20), and Alastair Campbell reached the fourth and final volume of his huge unexpurgated diaries, The Burden of Power (Hutchinson, £25), covering his last two years, 2001-03. Straw has an ear for anecdote and quotation, and is honest about his difficult early life; self-justifying but also self-aware about his record, including as Foreign Secretary during the Iraq war. Campbell's diaries, which also cover the war and its immediate consequences, attracted less attention than they deserved, coming at the end of a five-year publishing cycle. This was the most important volume, the most revealing of the psychological flaws of the Blair-Brown relationship, and it completes the essential primary text for contemporary historians.

William Keegan's fine and blessedly short attempt at early revisionism of Gordon Brown's premiership, Saving the World? (Searching Finance, £9.99), rounds off the Labour period well. He argues that Brown did a good job of managing the banking crisis, and it is certainly hard to be sure that another leader would have avoided a more serious recession.

Also this year, a late stray from the land of Conservative memoirs. Edwina Currie in her Diaries: Volume II, 1992-1997 (Biteback, £20) offers a side-light on the John Major government, with the added piquancy of their past affair, but her self-absorption makes her a poor observer.

And we had some politics with a longer perspective too. The great Peter Hennessy produced Distilling the Frenzy: Writing the History of One's Own Times (Biteback, £18.99), which is like one of those "The Making Of …" documentaries about the writing of his own series of books about Britain, its prime ministers, its civil service and its secret services since the war. He has compiled one of those unexpectedly engaging collections. In Events, Dear Boy, Events (Profile, £25), Ruth Winstone selects entries from 60 diarists, mostly politicians but also novelists, journalists and Nella Last, a housewife recruited by Mass Observation during the war, to tell an unusual story of British political history from 1921 to 2010.

Then there were the books arguing about today's politics and laying claim to the future. The best was Andrew Adonis's Education, Education, Education (Biteback, £12.99). Some of it recounts, with dry humour, Adonis's time as a reforming adviser and minister, but his purpose is polemical: to argue for the changes he thinks are needed and which he says have been vindicated by his academy programme. Academy-sceptics have no choice but to read it and to answer his arguments.

On the challenge of the euro crisis, which will shape British politics whether we want it to or not, Vicky Pryce's Greekonomics (Biteback, £12.99) is a good clear guide. Nick Cohen's You Can't Read This Book (Fourth Estate, £12.99) makes a powerful case against threats to free speech. And Matthew Flinders, in Defending Politics (OUP, £16.99), makes the unfashionable argument that people who give vent to easy hostility towards politicians should remember how lucky they are to live in a democracy. It is a good message to remember when reading these books.

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