Best politics books of 2019 | Books
It’s not long now until Britain finds out what Santa has brought us for a government. But whether the election delivers just what you’ve always wanted, or merely the political equivalent of a stocking full of ashes, somewhere out there is a book that may help make some sense of it.
Christine Berry and Joe Guinan’s People Get Ready! (OR Books) isn’t as well known as perhaps it should be, considering that it’s one of the few books written from a sympathetic left perspective to analyse potential vulnerabilities in the Corbyn project and how they might be countered. Given the argument that what the Labour leader is trying to do hasn’t been achieved in a democracy in modern times, Berry and Guinan examine what has defeated radical leftwing movements in the past, and which particular hurdles this one might face. How would a relatively inexperienced frontbench team cope with the quantum leap from opposition to government? How should they respond to businesses pushing back against their economic agenda, or cope with potentially unrealistic expectations among supporters about what can be achieved? Whether you’re thrilled or alarmed by the radical answers discussed, it’s one of the few political books this year likely to survive contact with an unpredictable general election. By Christmas it’s either going to be an invaluable primer for Corbyn’s team as they move into No 10, or it will be worth scanning for retrospective clues as to why voters chose not to make that happen.
Francis Green and Philip Kynaston’s Engines of Privilege (Bloomsbury) also captures some of the zeitgeist of a campaign dominated by furious debates about elitism. It’s part impassioned attack on the unfair advantages conferred by private education, part analysis of why the left in power has always stopped short of tackling it head-on. Both authors were privately educated, and don’t seek to demonise other parents for their choices; by the standards of Labour’s last party conference, at which members voted to abolish private schools and redistribute their assets, it’s positively modest in its recommendations for change. But this is a thought-provoking book, raising questions about social mobility and social justice that are likely to colour our politics whatever happens next.
In a similar vein, Amelia Gentleman’s moving The Windrush Betrayal (Guardian/Faber) explains how a generation of people who thought their future in Britain secure had their lives unjustly turned upside down, while also highlighting the potential risks to EU nationals living in Britain if Brexit goes ahead.
Which brings us neatly to the legacy of the last two prime ministers. David Cameron’s autobiography For the Record (William Collins) is an essential and readable guide for anyone still anxious to know quite how we ended up here, but it’s also a frustrating one. After all those months mulling it over in his shepherd’s hut, it still doesn’t feel as if he understands why so many people are angry with him. He’s still bullish in defence of austerity, complaining at one point in relation to opposition to his coalition government that “we were cutting just £1 in every £100 spent but you’d think we had reinstated the workhouse”. And if, as one suspects, he has had some dark nights of the soul over Brexit, then they are very much smoothed over in an account depicting the referendum more as a sadly inevitable consequence of the trajectory Britain was on than as a personal choice that backfired catastrophically. Readers may be left hankering for something deeper, but perhaps that was always true of this particular prime minister.
Although if Anthony Seldon’s May at 10 (Biteback), an account of Theresa May in power, is to be believed then what came next leaves Cameron looking positively titanic. It’s hard not to wonder whether May suffers from being the only person not to give her side of things to Seldon, leaving former aides to blame anyone but themselves for what went wrong. But the author has now written biographies of six British PMs and seemingly warmed to May the least, portraying her as simultaneously rigid and oddly tremulous, prone to withdrawing from the fray at critical moments. Heaven knows what he’ll make of Boris Johnson when the time comes, although while you’re waiting there’s always John Crace’s Decline and Fail (Guardian/Faber), a collection of sketches from this last surreal year in politics.
Anyone who has spent this election campaign shouting at the TV needs a copy of Emily Maitlis’s Airhead (Penguin) in their Christmas stocking. Written before the disastrous Prince Andrew interview and billed as a book about what happens when political interviewing goes awry – more by cockup than conspiracy, according to the Newsnight presenter – it’s funny and subtly smart, taking the reader behind the camera to examine journalistic dilemmas, such as whether grilling far right figures on air is holding them accountable or merely feeding the trolls.
Talking of which, after a year when too many women have been driven to the verge of quitting public life by threats and intimidation, both Yvette Cooper’s She Speaks (Atlantic), an anthology of game-changing speeches by women from Greta Thunberg to Hillary Clinton, and Jess Phillips’s activist manual Truth to Power (Monoray) feel like welcome acts of defiance. But the year’s most intriguing take on female agency is Azadeh Moaveni’s beautifully written Guest House for Young Widows (Scribe). It’s a fascinating, clear-eyed examination of what really drove a handful of women, including a small group of British schoolgirls, to move to Syria and join the jihad. She takes the kneejerk assumptions that they were either naive teenagers or sociopaths undeserving of sympathy and dismantles them to reveal a far more complex, disturbing story.
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