Book review: Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, by Isabel Hardman. Published by: Atlantic Books.
As British voters prepare to go to the polls for the fourth time this decade, it is well worth bearing in mind: the way we select our politicians is awful.
You don’t actually have to be rich to become an MP, but as Isabel Hardman’s book highlights, the process of standing for parliament is so expensive, time consuming and arduous, it’s a wonder anyone ever does it in the first place. Most candidates in the current general election campaign will never become MPs. And even if they do, the labyrinthine world of Westminster offers so little support to new members, that many of them will find themselves falling victim to alcoholism or marital breakdown. Of course, many also often find themselves subject to personal abuse, on Twitter, on nastier versions of blogs like this or in what is sometimes referred to as “the real world”.
Hardman (the Deputy Editor of The Spectator) admits to some well-intentioned sleight of hand here. Despite the book’s title, she is not actually attacking politicians as a class. She does not pander to the popular stereotype that all or even most MPs are lazy, out of touch or corrupt. Although she does not shy away from recounting examples of abuse, she reminds us that the vast majority of MPs are hardworking, dedicated people. Attending regular surgeries and hearing constituents’ problems arguably puts them more in touch with ordinary people’s problems than the average person.
Hardman’s argument is that the current system is deeply flawed, often resulting in unsatisfactory laws.
It is an excellent book and a difficult argument to refute.
Book review: Where Power Stops: The Making and Unmaking of Presidents and Prime Ministers, by David Runciman. Published by: Profile Books.
The premise is simple enough. David Runciman takes a look at some of the most interesting recent British and American leaders and sees what we can learn from their experiences of leadership. His choice of subjects is in itself fascinating.
Lyndon B. Johnson: a huge, cajoling, powerful figure, the choice of LBJ nevertheless seems slightly odd, simply because his tenure (1963-69) was so much earlier than everyone else included here. Runciman also inevitably relies on Robert Caro’s masterful biography of the 36th US president. Still unfinished, Caro’s magnum opus has barely touched on Johnson’s years in the White House yet. Let’s hope he gets to finish it.
Runciman has a talent for shedding new light on potentially over-familiar topics. All manner of leader is included here. Amongst others, the list includes: exceptional men who fell slightly short of the high hopes they raised on the campaign trail (Barack Obama), good leaders who trashed their own reputations on leaving office (Tony Blair), the highly intelligent and flawed (Bill Clinton and Gordon Brown), the decent but narrow (Theresa May) and the ultimate narcissist, the abominable showman (Donald Trump). The last of these should never have got close to power in the first place. Unhappily, he is the only one included here who is still there.
The fascinating story of the implosion of John Edwards’ 2008 presidential campaign will doubtless make a great film one day. As he never made it to the presidency, however, it doesn’t really belong here. But, overall, Runciman does an excellent job. The book is manna for political geeks like myself.
For 2,000 years, the Devon city of Exeter has played a small
but vital role in our nation’s history. There have been highs and lows. For
centuries, it was one of the top cities in the land, elevated into a golden age
of prosperity. But the city has also suffered countless incursions from a wide
range of invaders both foreign and English. It came close to defeating William
the Conqueror, remained defiant in the face of German bombing, fought on both
sides in the English Civil War and has battled fires, plagues, sieges and
pretenders to the throne.
This is Exeter’s story, told
for the first time in alphabetical order.
Chapter headings include:
The Civil War
The Exeter Blitz
The Great Theatre Fire
Witches on trial
Chris Hallam was born in Peterborough
and settled in Exeter in 2005 where he now lives with his wife. He has written
for a large number of local and national magazines including DVD Monthly, Yours
Retro, Infinity, Geeky Monkey and Best of British. He also wrote The Smurfs
annual 2014 and co-wrote the book, Secret Exeter in 2018.
I am writing this in a time of acute political crisis. It is easy to lose all sense of perspective when assessing a situation while it’s still happening. Even so, the year 2019 is unlikely to be viewed as a happy one for nation when we remember it in forty years time.
Despite this, the fifth volume in Dominic Sandbrook’s history of Britain since Suez, reminds us, the period, 1979-82 was very eventful indeed.
To briefly recap:
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became the first woman prime minister in British history.
By 1980, she was already hugely unpopular as unemployment and inflation rocketed. There would probably have been a recession around this time anyway, but Thatcher’s dogged commitment to monetarism made things worse. Not for the last time, Labour blow the opportunity to replace the Tories in power by electing the decent but unelectable Michael Foot as leader.
1981: The SDP breakaway from Labour and are soon way ahead of both the Tories (blamed for unemployment, rioting and recession) and Labour (harmed by Foot’s unpopularity and the antics of Tony Benn).
1982: The Falklands War transforms the political landslide. Thatcher becomes hugely popular again. There were signs of a Tory recovery before the Argentine invasion and it is doubtful ,Labour would ever have won the 1983 election anyway. But the Falklands Factor removed all doubt.
Sandbrook’s brilliant at these sort of books giving both a thorough insight into the politics of the period but almost all aspects of British life.
There are plenty of useful nuggets of info here. The book opens with an account of the live broadcast of the SAS break-up of the April 1980 Iranian embassy siege. The Alan Ahlberg book Peepo! is discussed as is Raymond Briggs’ incredibly harrowing graphic novel, When The Wind Blows. The rise of Ian Botham and Steve Davis are examined as is the fall of Joy Division and the rise of the New Romantics.
I was born in 1976 and so for the first time, like Sandbrook himself (who is about two years older than me) find myself encountering things here which I just about remember. I enjoyed the references to Peepo! (a book my baby brother liked) and was particularly interested in the portrait of my home town of Peterborough. I would dispute the claim made by an employee of the bishop of the time (and apparently endorsed by Sandbrook) that “Race relations are not a problem in Peterborough.” There were no riots in Peterborough as there were in Brixton in 1981 and although I went to school with a large number of children of Pakistani, Indian and Italian, I am white myself and cannot speak for them. But I know this for a fact: there were definitely racial tensions. There still are.
Reading the book, I was surprised to learn just how racist many people were back then. The extent of racism in the police force seems to have been appalling.
Sandbrook has started writing for the Daily Mail in recent years and though he strives for balance, his conservative tendencies occasionally show. Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, then an early SDP champion, is at one point described as a “future saint.” Who regards her as a saint, you might ask? No one in the real world, that’s who. Certainly not Guardian readers. The term is only ever used in reference to Toynbee sarcastically by envious columnists on the Right. I was also surprised to see Sandbrook resurrecting the discredited claim that Michael Foot was in the pay of the KGB. Foot retained strong pro-democratic tendencies throughout his life and won a libel case against the Murdoch press when tbey made the same claim. Were he not dead, I’m sure Foot would be suing again. And I’m sure he would win.
So Thatcher generally comes out of this well, Sandbrook agreeing with Charles Moore, in the face of virtually all evidence that the Iron Lady had a sense of humour. Little credence is given to the notion that anyone might have found the somewhat jingoistic aftermath of the Falklands conflict distasteful. Tony Benn comes out of this badly. After an effective chapter about the fear of nuclear war experienced by many at this time, Sandbrook then seems to go out of his way to argue unconvincingly that nobody was ever seriously worried about it after all.
But ultimately, this is another literally superb addition to Sandbrook’s account of Britain since 1956. What next? Greed is Good? No Turning Back? Nice Little Earner? I eagerly await Sandbrook’s next volume.
As a chronicler of post-war Britain, Sandbrook is only seriously rivalled by David Kynaston and Alwyn W. Turner.
Reproduced, with thanks, from Bingebox magazine (2016):
It seems like a familiar sight. A lone sultry and very famous singer delivers a seductive performance of “happy birthday” to the birthday boy, actually her secret lover, who also happens to be her leader. But as she reaches the third line, something jars. The words change and things take a chilling turn. “Happy birthday…Mein Fuhrer,” are the star’s next words. For while this is Marilyn Monroe, she is not singing to President Kennedy, the charismatic young American president but to … someone else entirely.
So, begins the trailer for the second season of Amazon Prime’s, The Man In The High Castle. And as if we didn’t know already, this is a world in which history has taken a very different turn from our own. And not for the better.
THE REICH STUFF
of The Man In The High Castle stems from the endlessly fascinating question;
what would the world be like, had Nazi Germany and imperial Japan triumphed at
the end of the Second World War instead of the Allies, (that is the United
States, Soviet Union, British Empire and others)?
It was a
question which once haunted the feverish, troubled but hugely imaginative mind
of author Philip K Dick. The man whose writing ultimately inspired many of the
greatest science fiction films of all time including Blade Runner, Total
Recall, Minority Report and The Adjustment Bureau, Dick been just too young to
fight for the US in World War II himself but nevertheless realised what a close
thing the outcome of the war had been. Over fifty years’ ago, inspired by
another novel which convincingly imagined a victory for the slavery supporting
Confederacy in the 1860s American Civil War, he set to work producing a book
depicting a similar alternative ending to World War II.
Prone to hallucinations and sudden bouts of paranoia, Dick had a relatively short turbulent life, dying in 1982, aged just 63 without seeing most of his work reach the screen. But he enjoyed probably more success The Man in High Castle than with any other book during his lifetime.
WELCOME TO AMERICA: 1962
season of The Man In The High Castle in 2015 brought the book’s chilling vision
vividly to the screen. The United States of America we know from this period
(portrayed in the early series of Mad Men, amongst other things) was confident,
victorious and powerful poised on the verge of huge successes such as in the space
race, but also riven by racial division and on the brink of disaster both in
the Cuban Missile Crisis and in the growing war in Vietnam. But the America portrayed
here is very different: it is no longer in fact, even the “United States” at
all. We soon learn that the west coast of the former USA is now under the
control of the victorious Japanese while the eastern bit is under Nazi German rule.
The Rocky Mountains meanwhile are a neutral buffer zone between the two sides,
this being where the mysterious “man in the high castle” is said to reside.
Tantalising hints as to what has befallen the
Allies are scattered liberally throughout both the series and the book. One
character suggests the great war leader President Franklin D. Roosevelt was
assassinated long before the war started in this reality, perhaps explaining
why the US did not win. Another suggests that the war dragged on until 1947 instead
of 1945 here, only ending when Nazi Germany dropped an atomic bomb on Washington
land then and few of the characters we meet are not facing a conflict of the
loyalty of some sort or another. With the first season still on Amazon Prime
some might want to steer clear now. But for everyone else, here’s a quick
Francisco resident Juliana Crane (Alexa Davalos) for example, an expert in
aikido appears happy living under Japanese rule at the start of Season 1. That’s
until her half-sister Trudy who turns out to have been a member of the
anti-government Resistance, is unexpectedly killed. Juliana finds herself drawn
herself into the work of the Resistance as she attempts to complete Trudy’s
last job: delivering a tape entitled The Grasshopper Lies Heavy to the mythical
man in the High Castle. Intriguingly, the tape depicts an alternative version
of history in which the US and the Allies defeated Germany and Japan!
Essentially, the world in the tape is very like our own.
aided and abetted by her boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) a man enjoying
some creative success but who has a dark secret which pushes him closer and closer
to full blown rebellion: he is Jewish. Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank) meanwhile
faces conflict of a different sort. Although supposedly a member of the
Resistance he is in fact a secret agent in the employ of SS Obergruppenfuhrer
John Smith (Rufus Sewell). Although very clearly a baddie, Smith is far from
the typical stereotypical black and white Nazi villain. As his name suggests,
he is an American-born participant in the new regime. A family man living a
comfortable suburban life, it is suggested he has been drawn to Nazism by the
apparent failure of the old American system in the Great Depression of the
Thirties. Trade minister Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) is yet another
character who finds himself torn between conflicting loyalties. The new series
also sees Chief Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente) begins to take more interest
in the Man in the High Castle.
Juliana, increasingly unsure what to do about the treacherous Joe, Joe doubting
his own continued commitment to the Third Reich, Smith increasingly doubtful
about the Nazi philosophy after the illness of one of his children, more revelations
from The Grasshopoper Lies Heavy tapes and mounting tensions between Germany
and Japan, the ten hour long episodes of Season Two of The Man In The High
Castle promise to be just as compelling and as full of intrigue as the first.
At the root
of the series’ success however is its authentic portrayal of a chilling but
plausible alternative version of American history that though perhaps a touch more
plausible in the wake of Donald Trump’s recent election victory, has mercifully
WHO’S IN IT?
starring role of Juliana Crain, French-born Alexa has appeared in a good range
of TV (Angel, Mob City) and films (notably The Chronicles of Riddick and Clash
of the Titans).
With a key role
in Ewan MacGregor’s recently released directorial debut American Pastoral,
British actor Evans who plays Frank Frink has been in plays, TV and film
aplenty, notably offbeat superhero flick Hellboy.
Instantly recognisable as the older man love interest Lord Melbourne in the recent ITV Victoria, Sewell, also British, has been playing sexy villains for years in A Knight’s Tale, The Legend of Zorro and other films and TV.
The answer lies within Chris Mullin’s excellent 1982 novel, A Very British Coup. Written in the dark days of early Thatcherism, Mullin envisaged a future (the late 1980s), in which Perkins, a working-class hero and onetime Sheffield steelworker leads the Labour Party to an unexpected General Election victory on a manifesto not dissimilar to the one Labour lost on in 1983. Perkins’ Labour Party is thoroughly socialist and the new government quickly embarks on fulfilling the radical agenda it has been elected on: dismantling Britain’s nuclear deterrent and leaving NATO, breaking up the newspaper monopolies, redistributing wealth and more.
Needless to say, the establishment: the civil service, the media and the security services are horrified. They immediately begin conspiring with the US (who, viewing things through a Cold War prism, see Britain as having “gone over to the other side”) in a bid to thwart the programme of the democratically elected government. It is a great read.
Mullin was writing at a very volatile political time. In 1980, the new Thatcher government was already proving to be such a complete disaster that it seemed hopelessly doomed. For much of 1981, the SDP, not Labour, seemed set to replace them. By the post-Falklands summer of 1982, the resurgent Tories again seemed unbeatable, as indeed, proved the case, the Iron Lady having staged her own very British coup in the South Atlantic. We are in very volatile times again now. The future in the Brexit era is very hard to foresee.
In this long-awaited sequel, Chris Mullin (now a former Labour MP himself) creates a convincing near future which cleverly not only seems sadly only too plausible but which also makes sense in the context of what has happened in the earlier book.
It is the 2020s. With Brexit having proven a miserable failure, serious consideration is being given to a humiliated Britain going crawling cap in hand and applying to rejoin the EU. Trump has left office, but has left the international situation thoroughly de-stablised. Today’s leaders have left the political stage. A King is on the throne, as he was in the earlier novel. Labour seemingly locked in perpetual opposition under an ineffectual woman leader seems poised for a takeover by the former aide of the recently deceased former Prime Minister, Harry Perkins, Fred Thompson (Mullin isn’t much of a one for glamorous character names). As so often happens, Perkins, the scourge of the status quo in life is now hailed by left and right alike as a great leader of the past, now he is safely dead. Thompson was played by Keith Allen in the acclaimed 1980s TV version of the book is still middle aged (Mullin admits to some authorial sleight of hand here: only ten years have passed since the events of the first book, not thirty or forty).
But can Fred Thompson succeed in leading Labour back to power and restoring Britain to it’s former glory? Will his family difficulties or a rising tide of violence threatening to engulf British politics get in the way?
The Daily Telegraph describes this book “preposterous.” Presumably, they mean “preposterous” in the sense that it doesn’t mindlessly back Brexit or shamelessly back Boris Johnson’s leadership bid as that newspaper did.
This is perhaps – like Thompson himself -not quite the equal of its illustrious predecessor. But it is a fine sequel and an excellent, short-ish read.