Reading the Political Times: A Cultured Tory Writes

Gerry Hassan
28 July 2010

Keith Simpson has in the words of his own website issued ‘his famous Summer Reading List’. Simpson is Tory MP for Broadland, currently PPS to the Foreign Secretary, and has had a rich, productive life before being a politician – working as an academic in international affairs, including a spell at Sandhurst, and is the author of five books on military matters, including a history of the German Army.

There are not many of such types left nowadays in the days of the professional politician. Simpson’s most famous public moment was his appearance on an episode of Channel Four’s After Dark nearly twenty years ago – the infamous episode with the drunken Oliver Reed – which saw the episode and then the series pulled!

Simpson is a self-confessed ‘bookworm’ and his ‘summer reading’ makes for fascinating reading. Introducing his list he writes:

Under the Coalition Government ministers and MPs face an “austerity summer recess” of five weeks which will limit the opportunities to read anything other than policy papers, emails and political blogs. Colleagues should be aware that for the Foreign Office the months of July, August and September have in the past been periods of crisis and conflict, including the outbreak of the two European wars, Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait and the recent conflict between Russia and Georgia.

He states ‘reading a good book not only stretches the “little grey cells” but can be therapeutic’, citing one diplomat who ‘noted when observing Harold Macmillan as Foreign Secretary at a Conference in Geneva in 1955’:

Macmillan had his own technique for surviving these brain-numbing sessions…. when it was not his turn to speak, he would encourage the time to pass more agreeably and more quickly by reading a book placed on his knees out of sight under the conference table. I remember being very shocked at first, thinking that our Foreign Secretary should be taking his work more seriously; but after a time, I realised how wise he was and only wished I could do the same.

Simpson’s list is that of the renaissance man covering British politics and history, Labour and Tories, current international issues and the possible future challenges, economic policy and military matters. What it does not cover anywhere is the domestic issues which his coalition government will be judged upon – the nature of the British economy, public spending, and in particular, anything on the causes and dimensions of inequality, power and privilege at home or globally.

Here anyway is his list – with some of his comments on each book.

G R Searle Country Before Party Coalition and the Idea of “National Government” in Modern Britain 1885-1987 published in 1995.

The former Lib Dem MP, Mark Oaten, published in 2007 Coalition The policies and personalities of coalition government from 1850, which had a concluding chapter looking at possible options for the Lib Dems and at least one looked like a rough draft for their negotiating position this May.

Anthony Seldon’s coffee table book The Foreign Office is a good introduction.

Douglas Hurd, with Ed Young, has written Choose Your Weapons The British Foreign Secretary: Two Centuries of Conflict and Personalities - discusses the contrasting roles of a succession of foreign secretaries from Castlereagh and Canning.

Chris Skidmore, MP for Kingswood, has written, a scholarly Tudor “who’s donnit,” Death and the Virgin about Amy Robsart the wife of Elizabeth’s favourite courtier, Robert Dudley.

Richard Gaunt, Sir Robert Peel The Life and Legacy – a revisionist legacy.

D.A. Brown, Palmerston - published at the end of September.

Roy Hattersley, David Lloyd George The Great Outsider, out September - Lloyd George led a Coalition government 1916-1922 and split the Liberal Party and gave Coalition governments a bad name.

Nicklaus Thomas-Symonds, Attlee A Life in Politics - Labour politicians, conscious of leaders and Prime Ministers who have tarnished reputations, from Ramsay Macdonald to Blair and Brown, cling to Clem Attlee and the 1945 Labour Government as a beacon of reform.

Martin Pugh’s Speak for Britain! A New History of the Labour Party - required reading for all the Labour leadership candidates.

Philip Ziegler, Edward Heath - a door stopper of a book which really does look at his subject warts and all.

D. R. Thorpe, Supermac The Life of Harold Macmillan, out September.

Dominic Sandbrook, State of Emergency The Way We Were: Britain 1970-1974, out September – the third of his series.

Adam Sisman, Hugh Trevor-Roper - an excellent read.

The Alastair Campbell Diaries Volume One, Prelude to Power, which should be read in conjunction with Peter Mandelson The Third Man Life at the Heart of New Labour.

Deborah Mattinson, Talking to a Brick Wall – Gordon Brown’s pollster. We have to wait until September for Tony Blair’s A Journey and Anthony Seldon’s Brown at No10.

Chris Mullin, Decline and Fall Diaries 2005-2010, out August.

Victor Hanson has edited Makers of Ancient Strategy From the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome - which could well be on Mayor Boris Johnson’s Summer reading list.

Colin Gray, National Security Dilemmas Challenges and Opportunities.

William Rosen, The Most Powerful Idea in the World A Story of Steam, Industry and Invention.

Jonathan Fenby, The General Charles de Gaulle and the France He Saved, concentrates on his return to power in 1958, an account which is less familiar to British readers.

Michael Burleigh, Moral Combat A History of World War II.

Andrew M. Dorman, Blair’s Successful War British Military Intervention in Sierra Leone - which should be a ‘must read’ for ministers and officials particularly those working on the Strategic Defence and Security Review.

Sinclair McKay, The Secret Life of Bletchley Park The History of the Wartime Code-breaking Centre by the Men and Women Who Were There - which rightly looks at the experiences of a few of the 10,000 people who worked there.

Richard J Aldrich, GCHQ the Uncensored Story of Britain’s Most Secretary Intelligence Agency - less sensational than the sub title would have us believe.

Keith Jeffery, MI6 The History of the Secret Intelligence Service 1909-1949, published September - some people might speculate on why this history stops in 1949?

Peter Hennessy, The Secret State Preparing for the Worst 1945-2010 – the magnificent Hennessy.

Sir David Omand, Securing the State - examines in detail how secret intelligence helps governments to deliver security, but also risks raising public concerns over its methods.

David Kilcullen, Countersurgency –a retired Australian army officer with hands on experience and an adviser to General Petraeus.

David Rennick The Bridge The Life and Rise of Barrack Obama.

Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, Race of Lifetime How Obama Won the White House.

James Mather, Pashas Traders and Travellers in the Islamic World - the first full length study since 1935 of the Levant Company, the organisation that oversaw both England’s trade and diplomacy with the Ottoman World.

Robert Hardy, The Muslim Revolt - ranges widely over the Islamic World and this is a valuable handbook.

Alastair Crooke, Resistance The Essence of the Islamist Revolution - he suggests that the real dividing line is between Islamism and al-Qua’eda.

Victoria Schofield, Afghan Frontier At the Crossroads of Conflict, is a good start and Bluffer’s Guide.

Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef, My Life With the Taliban – a fervent believer in the Taliban cause and there is little optimism here for a negotiated peace.

Philip Barclay, Zimbabwe Years of Hope and Despair. Barclay - about the bloody 2008 election and suggests that most Zimbabweans are desperate for international intervention.

Linda Colman, War Games - a devastating account of the cynicism and corruption of the aid industry and many of the warlord recipients of aid.

Stefan Halper, The Beijing Consensus How China’s Authoritarian Model Will Dominate the 21st Century - challenges a western consensus that the developing world would prosper by adopting the model of liberal democracy and free markets.

David Hart, Beware of Small States Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East.

Oscar Guiardiola-Rivera, What If Latin America Ruled the World? How the South Will Take the North in the 22nd Century, predicts the imminent Hispanic takeover of the United States some time before 2050.

Benedict Rogers, Than Shwe Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant - explains General Than Shwe’s rise to power from postal clerk to brutal dictator and life in Burma.

Adam Fergusson, When Money Dies The Nightmare of the Weimar Hyperinflation - originally published in 1975. Fergusson later served as an adviser to Geoffrey Howe in the 1980s, and Warren Buffet, the World’s most successful investor.

John Lanchester, Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay – the modern phenomenon of the transference of the power and wealth from sovereign countries to supernational financial institutions, selling products few can understand.

Michael Lewis, His Liar’s Poker - examined the world of investment banks. His The Big Short Inside the Doomsday Machine - analyses the latest financial crash and whether it can happen again.

Stephen D King, Losing Control The Emerging Threats to Weaken Prosperity - put simply, his thesis is that globalisation, which the West thought would help make it rich, may well end up doing the opposite.

Finally, for colleagues desperate for some form of literary escapism from the serious volumes suggested above, two novels will provide entertainment and relaxation.

Sandra Howard, A Matter of Loyalty – her third novel - which is a romantic thriller and includes a female Home Secretary.

Louise Bagshawe, MP for Corby and has written fourteen novels, the latest of which is Desire. A genre known as “chick-lit” or in our grandfather’s days “bodice-rippers” but, we are told not quite “black lace”.

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