The summer reading list of Keith Simpson MP is a thing of wonder and looked forward to at Westminster. Keith has kindly agreed to let Reaction republish this year’s list here.
The electorate and MPs are exhausted after a six week election campaign which resulted in no one party achieving an overall majority. The government continues with DUP support, with an enthused Labour Party and the SNP licking their wounds. An autumn election prospect enthuses some and depresses many. The summer recess allows parliamentary colleagues to recharge their flat batteries, and what better way than with a good book.
Once again, I have selected a range of political, historical and books on conflict to stimulate the little grey cells. A personal choice but, on the whole, an interesting group.
Margaret Thatcher awaits the third and final volume of Charles Moore’s massive Victorian style biography. For those who want a more condensed biography with excellent analysis then David Cannadine Margaret Thatcher A Life and Legacy (OUP) is just the ticket.
John Major still pops in and out of public debates on politics and a series of essays examining his political beliefs and government can be found in Kevin Hickson and Ben Williams An Unsuccessful Prime Minister? Reappraising John Major (Biteback).
Chris Patten divides Conservative opinion and has produced great criticism from the right wing of the Party. An erudite man, he has written several books and memoirs and in First Confession A Sort of Memoir (Allen Lane) he outlines his philosophy and comments on political contemporaries.
Ann Clwyd has been a doughty parliamentarian and a great advocate of lost causes in foreign policy as well as coping with family tragedy. Her memoir Rebel With a Cause (Biteback) is a good read.
It is commonly believed and true in reality that most Prime Ministers become their own Foreign Secretaries. This thesis is examined in Sam Goodman The Imperial Premiership The Role of the Modern Prime Minister in Foreign Policy Making 1964-2015 (Manchester University Press).
The role of the Cabinet Secretary if now one much debated and viewed with suspicion by many politicians. A massive study of theme has been undertaken by Ian Beesley The Official History of the Cabinet Secretaries (Routledge) at great length and at a prodigious price.
At a more reasonable price and looking at a wider and more lengthy period is Anthony Seldon and Jonathan Meakin The Cabinet Office 1916-2016 The Birth of Modern Government (Biteback).
A recent Cabinet Secretary who served Thatcher, Major and Blair and is active in the House of Lords is Robin Butler and his biography At the Heart of Power from Heath to Blair (Biteback) is by Michael Jago.
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Sacked by Theresa May as Cabinet Secretary for Education and an ardent Remainer is Nicky Morgan whose book Taught Not Caught Educating for 21st Century Character (John Catt Educational Ltd) is published in September.
Sophie Ridge is a senior reporter and presenter for Sky News and has written a wide ranging book concentrating on the British experience of The Women Who Shaped Politics (Coronet).
Sayeeda Warsi was active in the Coalition Government as a minister and had advised Cameron on ethnic minorities. She has written a thoughtful book The Enemy Within A Tale of Muslim Britain (Allen Lane).
Chris Bryant is a Labour MP languishing on the backbenches who is not reluctant to seek publicity. The author of several books including two volumes on parliament, his provocative study entitled A Critical History of the British Aristocracy (Doubleday) is published in September and will be on the Momentum reading list.
It does appear that the study of history in our schools comes down to the Tudors and Nazi Germany. Keith Lowe has written many books and has turned his eye on to how the Second World War changed our lives and its long term influence in The Fear and Freedom How the Second World War Changed Us (Viking).
Winston Churchill met near political death on a number of occasions and a less robust man would never have survived the Dardanelles failure of 1915. Christopher M Bell in Churchill and the Dardanelles (OUP) uses original sources to examine Churchill’s role and then his great literary struggle post-war to justify his actions.
Thomas E Ricks believes that Churchill and Orwell were two men who had the greatest influence and on our understanding of freedom which he outlines in Churchill and Orwell The Fight for Freedom (Gerald Duckworth and Co).
Guy de la Bedoyere is an historian of ancient Rome and has written several very readable books. The role of the Emperor’s Praetorian guard has fascinated historians as well as many dictators, not least their role in legitimising or overthrowing their ministers. Using original sources and written in a lively style is Praetorian The Rise and Fall of Rome’s Imperial Bodyguard (Yale).
On the whole, Machiavelli has had a bad press as a totally cynical and manipulative adviser and author. A more sympathetic portrait is given by Erica Beamer in Be Like the Fox Machiavelli’s Lifelong Quest for Freedom (Allen Lane).
That great political survivor of the French Revolutionary, Bonapartist and then Bourbon restoration is Charles de Talleyrand. He ended his long political career as a French diplomat as France’s ambassador to London in the 1830’s. Linda Kelly has written a short admiring book outlining Talleyrand’s merits and achievements in Talleyrand in London The Master Diplomat’s Last Mission (I.B. Tauris).
In an earlier account the writer John Keay was dismissive of the early nineteenth century traveller and soldier Alexander Gardner who practised his trade in India. Now Keay has recanted and based on new research has written a fascinating biography The Tartan Turban In Search of Alexander Gardner (Kashri House).
Sadly killed in a car accident having delivered her manuscript, Elisabeth Brown Pryor has already written a critique of Confederate General Robert E Lee before moving to Lincoln. In Six Encounters with Lincoln A Presidency Confronts Democracy and Its Demons (Viking) Pryor through a series of vignettes gives a real warts and all analysis of President Lincoln.
The Koh-i-Noor diamond is now in the Tower of London but its history has fascinated the public. In Koh-i-Noor The History of the World’s Most Infamous Diamond (Bloomsbury) William Dalrymple tells the history of the gem and in the second part Anita Anand tracks how the diamond travelled from India to the British Royal Family. A history of beauty, greed, duplicity, murder and deception – everyday experience for the average MP!
As we move between sunshine and rain in today’s London and contemplate the massive structural problems of the Parliamentary estate a good read putting this in perspective is Rosemary Ashton One Hot Summer Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli and the Great Stink of 1858 (Yale).
Recent Maritime archaeology and technology has found and excavated the remains of the Royal Navy ships Erebus and Terror sent in the middle of the nineteenth century to discover the northwest passage. Coupled with the folk memories of local people a book will accompany an exhibition at the National Maritime Museum – Gillian Hutchinson Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror Expedition (Adlard Coles).
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century impoverished British peers sought wealthy US brides to save their estates. The writer Anne de Courcy has had the original idea of looking at this theme through the experiences of the American brides in The Husband Hunters Social Climbing in London and New York (Weidenfeld and Nicolson).
Lynne Olson has written four books on Britain and the Second World War and now in Last Hope Island Britain Occupied Europe and the Brotherhood that helped turn the tide (Random House) she describes how Britain was the base for European resistance to the Nazis.
Khrushev’s Secret Speech in February 1956 opened the way for the Russian people to assess Stalin and the Great Terror. In Moscow 1956 The Silenced Spring (Harvard) Kathleen E Smith looks at what this meant for writers, students, scientists and former gulag prisoners.
The Labour Party welcomed the Russian revolution of 1917 and enthusiastically supported the Soviet great experiment. In 1929 the Labour government privately recognised the purges but blocked an inquiry. This sad tale is told by Giles Udy in Labour and the Gulag Russia and the Seduction of the British Left (Biteback).
Peter Clarke has written widely about political history and war and now brings his research together in The Locomotive of War Money, Empire, Power and Guilt (Bloomsbury).
One of the eccentric and brilliant agent runners MI5 had before, during and after the Second World War was Maxwell Knight. He reads like a character from a John le Carré novel and now Henry Hemming has written a fascinating biography M Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster (Preface Publishing).
Robert Bickers is an historian of Sino-British relations and has written excellent studies of the old, corrupt Shanghai. In Out of China How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination (Allen Lane) he attempts to correct the Communist Party narrative of Chinese history without undermining the Chinese struggle against foreign domination.
We know about the British double-cross system during the Second World War where captured German agents played the radio game against Berlin. Less well known is how successful the Germans were in Holland, Belgium and France using captured British agents. There was also the threat from Soviet agents in Germany and in occupied Europe. The Gestapo desk officer who coordinated the German fight was then used by MI6 after his capture. Stephen Tyas has written an intriguing study of SS Major Horst Kopkow From the Gestapo to British Intelligence (Fronthill Media).
H.R. McMaster is a serving US three start general and now National Security Adviser to President Trump. Throughout his career he was not afraid to criticise the system and twenty years ago wrote a devastating critique of US Vietnam operations – Dereliction of Duty Lyndon Johnson, Robert McNamara, the Joint Chief of Staff and the Lies that Led to Vietnam (Harper).
US Government and their think tanks use history, not always in the most effective way. Doing the rounds along the Washington Beltway is Graham Allison Destined for War Can America and China Escape Thucydides Trap? (Houghton Miflin) A little reading matter for Boris Johnson?
With British military activity in Iraq and Afghanistan downgraded from a few years ago it is hardly surprising that these no longer dominate the media or political debate. But there are still books being written about these operations and Tim Riply has produced a serious critique of Operation Telic The British Campaign in Iraq 2003-2009 (Telhic-Henrick Publications).
If you want to get away from the nostalgia industry of the merits of the British Empire then Shashi Tharoor’s Inglorious Empire What the British Did to India (C Hirst & Co) pulls no punches.
Elected in 2015 to the surprise of the professionals at CCHQ, the former gunner and marine Johnny Mercer has homed in on how we treat our veterans. He has now written his memoir We Were Warriors – One Soldier’s Story of Brutal Combat (Sidgwick and Jackson) which is one of the best personal accounts of soldiering in Afghanistan.
Updating General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War of forty years ago is Paul Cornish and Kingsley Donaldson 2020 : World of War (Hodder & Stoughton) which is from the RUSI stable.
Maud Russell was the daughter of German Jewish immigrants and married a wealthy banker. They bought Mottisfont Abbey and lovingly restored it. Maud kept a diary and her friends included Duff and Diana Cooper, Cecil Beaton, Rex Whistler and her intimate friend Ian Fleming. Edited by Emily Russell A Constant Heart the War Diaries of Maud Russell 1938-1945 (The Dovecote Press) are a good read.
The centenary commemorations of World War One continue like the attritional battles of the period. For colleagues who want to learn more and indeed visit the battlefields of Belgium and Northern France then there are several useful guides.
An excellent collective history and analysis is provided by Ian Beckett, Timothy Bowman and Mark Connelly in The British Army and the First World War (Cambridge) written in an easy style but bringing together the latest research.
David Stevenson has written several good books on the First World War and in September his 1917 War, Peace and Revolution (Oxford) appears.
Next to the Somme, Passchendaele is a name which appears to epitomise the horrors of the First World War. It was a campaign which intermittently lasted from July through to September 1917 and the best modern account is now Nick Lloyd Passchendaele A New History (Viking).
Studies on the First and Second World War now cover subjects which were once either ignored or marginalised. Stephen Bourne wrote Black Poppies in 2014 which was a history of the contribution of black men and women to World War One. He has written Fighting Proud The Untold Story of the Gay Men Who Served in Two World Wars (I B Tauris).
The Rt Hon Keith Simpson MP is MP for Broadland.