The top political books of 2023.
This year has been marked by the presence of past events. In Britain, history resurfaced in politics as David Cameron returned to the government and the Covid inquiry called upon Boris Johnson’s time as leader. In the US, there is a looming possibility of Trump making a comeback, while in Israel and Gaza, a longstanding conflict has sadly been reignited.
This year is particularly relevant for authors who use history to comprehend the present. One such writer is journalist and Conservative peer Danny Finkelstein, whose book Hitler, Stalin, Mum and Dad (William Collins) tells the story of an immigrant family’s love and experience with war. More importantly, it serves as a passionate defense of moderate liberal values as a means to combat extreme violence. Finkelstein’s mother was a German Jew who miraculously survived a Nazi concentration camp, while his father was a Jew from Lvov in Poland (now Lviv in Ukraine) who was sent to one of Stalin’s gulags by the invading Russians. Despite these harrowing experiences, they were able to build a seemingly ordinary life in Britain after meeting and getting married, which was a remarkable feat in itself. This serves as a reminder to never judge what may lie behind unassuming front doors or underestimate the privilege of a peaceful life. As the children of this marriage, they were raised to understand the importance of politics, as it had literally been a matter of life and death for their parents. They were also taught to stand for moderation against extremism, to value reason over irrationality, and to maintain optimism and resilience while always keeping in mind the memory of dictatorship and oppression. Finkelstein eloquently writes, “For moderation against extremism. For reason over irrationality. For optimism and resilience, tempered by the memory of dictatorship and oppression but never overwhelmed by it.”
Rory Stewart, a former Conservative minister who now hosts a podcast, likely shares certain values discussed in his book Politics on the Edge (Jonathan Cape). However, in this work, he takes a more disillusioned approach to putting these values into practice. He reflects on his frustrating career in Westminster with a sense of shame, while also defiantly burning bridges with former colleagues such as Michael Gove, George Osborne, Boris Johnson, and Liz Truss. Stewart lays out his criticisms of traditional politics, including the excessive power of party members, the prioritization of simplicity over complexity, and the short tenure of ministers, which prevents them from fully understanding their responsibilities and working effectively with civil servants.
The Foreign Office considers him to be naive, and they may have a valid point. Stewart gives off the impression of being a hopeless romantic from the 19th century, out of place in a world of quick soundbites and dirty compromises. However, when he talks about his time as a minister for prison reform, working under the considerate leadership of David Gauke, you catch a glimpse of the potential for transformative change in government. This is until Stewart’s career is derailed by his final, unsuccessful attempt to resist a hard Brexit. For a broader understanding of how this battle has shaped modern Britain, The Right to Rule by Telegraph journalist Ben Riley-Smith (published by John Murray) provides a comprehensive summary of the past 13 years of Tory leadership, weaving together the common threads of four different prime ministerships, all defined by Brexit. This will keep any political enthusiast occupied through the day after Christmas.
As the upcoming year brings potential changes, there is a lack of authors discussing a potential future for the Labour party. However, we can expect the release of journalist Tom Baldwin’s highly anticipated biography on Keir Starmer in February.
However, there are currently three potential options for bedside tables in the shadow cabinet. The first option is Sadiq Khan’s Breathe (Cornerstone), a book in which the mayor of London reflects on his experiences and insights gained from his efforts to combat air pollution, and how they can be applied to broader climate policies. It’s unexpectedly humorous, relatably human, and candid about the challenges without being pessimistic.
Denis MacShane’s book “Labour Takes Power” (Biteback), written during his time as a Labour minister, is a journal of the first Blair government. The author, who served as a junior bag-carrier at the Foreign Office during this time, often highlights his own importance. However, it serves as a necessary reminder of the challenges of governing, even after a sweeping victory. Within months, Blair faced controversy over tobacco sponsorship, a rebellion from backbenchers over welfare cuts, and a foreign policy dilemma concerning Iraq. Towards the end of the parliament, MacShane also observed growing tensions regarding immigration from Eastern Europe and a reluctance to advocate for pro-European policies, which would ultimately prove fatal.
Wes Streeting’s book, “One Boy, Two Bills and a Fry Up” (published by Hodder & Stoughton), takes readers through the remarkable life of the shadow health secretary. From his childhood in poverty in the East End to being the grandson of a convicted bank robber, Streeting’s memoir is a cheerful and lively read. However, it does not provide much insight into his thoughts as an adult.
My top choice for a book on Labour this year was Marcia Williams: The Life and Times of Baroness Falkender by Linda McDougall (Biteback). This documentary delves into the life of Harold Wilson’s influential political secretary and “office wife”, who had a rumored romantic relationship with him in the 1950s. According to McDougall, by the time Wilson became prime minister in 1964, they had developed a strong political partnership. Williams’ remarkable story of carving out a unique role for herself in a male-dominated world, while secretly having two children with a married Daily Mail journalist and hiding her pregnancies from her colleagues, is one that deserves to be told by another woman. McDougall adds depth and complexity to this narrative.
She acknowledges that Williams may exhibit bullying, melodramatic, and difficult behavior. However, she raises important inquiries about the possible reasons for a single mother in a high-stress job, with fear of her secret being revealed and relying on amphetamines and Valium to cope, appearing emotionally unstable. This is a compelling read for those interested in the evolution of women’s professional lives, whether in politics or not.
Talking of which, it’s been a bumper year for books by or about female prime ministers. Harry Cole and James Heale’s Out of the Blue (HarperCollins) is an irresistibly juicy account of Liz Truss’s rapid rise and even more rapid downfall, doubling as a record of just how bad things got should anyone seek to rewrite history at the next Tory leadership contest. See also John Crace’s Depraved New World (Guardian Faber), a collection of sketches of the last year of madness without which no Christmas stocking is complete.
The title of Theresa May’s book, “The Abuse of Power,” is not just a typical memoir, but rather a thoughtful examination of various scandals in which individuals in positions of authority failed to protect vulnerable individuals. These include the Grenfell fire, Hillsborough, and the Rotherham grooming gangs. While May may not fully acknowledge her role in the Windrush catastrophe, her book sheds light on the concept of power and how it affects society as a whole. It specifically targets women who are frustrated by individuals not fulfilling their responsibilities adequately.
I believe that May would support Cassidy Hutchinson, a 25-year-old employee at the White House who played a role in revealing Donald Trump’s involvement in inciting a post-election riot at Capitol Hill. Despite being raised as a strong Republican, Hutchinson’s book Enough (Simon & Schuster) details her growing realization of the troubling actions she is enabling by working for Trump. She ultimately decides it is her duty to testify against him in defense of democracy. The brilliance lies in the sordid specifics, such as Trump’s refusal to wear a mask due to concerns about smudging his makeup, or the wife of the chief of staff complaining about the smell of smoke on his suits from burning documents during the administration’s final days.
To read Hutchinson’s descriptions of being stopped in the street by well-wishers, convinced her testimony had helped save America from something dangerous, is to feel faintly embarrassed that we’re not more protective of Britain’s own fragile democracy. Now there’s a New Year’s resolution.