Each year, shortly before the summer recess, the Conservative MP, Keith Simpson, publishes a summer reading list. Simpson is Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, and his list is, notionally at least, designed to provide instructive, rather than recreational reading, for Ministers in the Foreign Office.
This is an interesting idea. Government Ministers are often criticised for failing to learn from past mistakes, making policy without taking account of the available evidence, and more generally for a lack of an intellectual hinterland. While some, such as the boastful Michael Gove, claim to successfully combine a Ministerial career with a level of literary consumption comparable to a Booker prize judge, others will freely admit that the demands of being a Minister are such that they can do little more than fight political fires and hope their civil servants have the time and the inclination to ensure that they avoid past mistakes and keep up with recent developments. While the long summer recess does perhaps offer more time for reading in full, books which don’t come with an executive summary, like the reading lists handed out by university lecturers at the end of the summer term, Simpson’s list is, I suspect, produced more in hope than expectation.
Nevertheless, whilst it may not be as eagerly awaited by his colleagues in Westminster as he hopes, Simpson’s annual list does now generate considerable interest amongst political hacks, reviews editors and, one suspects, publishers. The list has become longer in recent years, and is padded out with Simpson’s observations and comments, which mean that the list itself is an entertaining read even for those who don’t intend to spend their summer trawling through the recommended books.
Simpson is a published military historian and a former lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, and his annual list reflects his interests in politics and history, and military history in particular. As a result there is more than a little of the prophet of doom about his lists. This year, for example, he begins with the following sage warning:
Historically, July, August, September have been months of crisis in international affairs, and this summer we commemorate the centenary of the First World War. Parliamentary colleagues who are already yearning for sun and sand may seek escapism in bodice ripping novels, or what Lloyd George referred to as “shilling shockers”. But the more discerning of us, and I include husbands, wives and partners, often seek more substantial literary fare. As usual this selection is personal, and mainly consists of books published this year with an emphasis on history, military history and politics – a sound basis for any political career, and maybe, it would have benefited Tony Blair, if as it is alleged, Roy Jenkins had mused that it would have helped him as Prime Minister if he had read history rather than law at university. Maybe.
This year’s list is a combination of the customary hefty political biographies, military history, some academic work and, more bizarrely, Speaker John Bercow’s book on tennis! Unlike Michael Gove, Simpson rarely lets his politics colour his choice of recommended reading. There are biographies of Roy Jenkins, Clement Attlee and Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor, on this year’s list. He also recommends the ‘entertaining, opinionated and partisan’ biography of Parliament by the Labour MP, Chris Bryant. There are nods to a number of other parliamentarians in this year’s list including Kwasi Kwarteng’s history of empires, Tristram Hunt’s Ten Cities that made an Empire, and Paddy Ashdown’s book on the cockleshell heroes. Somewhat less appealing is the former MP, Denis Macshane’s contribution to the growing genre of political prison diaries.
There is also some solid academic work on party politics in here. Most notably, Tim Heppel’s The Tories, and Goodwin and Ford’s Revolt on the Right. This attempt to explain the rise of the radical right, and notably UKIP, may well be pored over by Conservative election strategists in the coming months.
As a military historian it is not surprising that in the centenary year of the outbreak of the First World War, a slew of books on the subject sit at the heart this year’s list. Appropriately enought these include a number of books on the events leading up to the outbreak of war, and also the aftermath and memorialisation of the conflict. Like all good historians Simpson is quick to point out the contemporary relevance of the raft of new work on the conflicts of the last century.
Simpson’s list will not be to everyone’s taste, and like all such lists, will generate as much interest for what is omitted as for what he includes. In case you were wondering there is, perhaps not surprisingly, no mention of Thomas Piketty. And of course one can always flick through and see how many of the books one has already read. For the record, a paltry four, and not the novels of Sandra Howard!