Category Archives: Books

Book review: “Fear” by Bob Woodward


“Fear” by Bob Woodward traces Donald Trump’s campaign to be US President from March 2010, then follows his Presidency until March 2018.

This is a very readable book. The text is set out with plenty of space between the lines, so that it feels like an “easy read”. The chapters are organised by subject, often looking at policy areas in turn. It is skilfully concise. I found it a “page turner”.

It is a serious book. Scores of “deep background” interviews of White House insiders were carefully transcribed and used. There are 28 pages of sources quoted. As Clive James once quipped:

Woodward checks his facts until they weep with boredom.

This is not a rag-bag collection of tales told out of school about Trump. It is a sober record of Trump’s campaign and the first fifteen months of his presidency. Woodward describes the White House process of policy evolution in such depth that the reader emerges with a better understanding of the Trump presidency.

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Workhouse to Westminster

The chances are that you haven’t heard of Trevor Smith, or to be more precise, Professor Lord Smith of Clifton.  He was the prime financial and intellectual force behind the surge for democracy in the 1990s when Charter 88 was rampant under Anthony Barnett, and the Blair governments were legislating for a spate of constitutional reforms.

Smith is a man of singular entrepreneurial vision and remarkable political energy who most unusually followed through his many ideas in action.  He was a political scientist of distinction when he took on the chair of the Joseph Rowntree Social Services Trust in 1987 and transformed it into the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust with a strong democratic direction.  You should know that he became a close friend and colleague of mine.

His autobiography, Workhouse to Westminster, is published this month and gives a nice rollicking account of his family background – his father spent time as a boy with his family in a workhouse, polishing the stone floor – as well as his proactive chairing of the Trust for 12 years, his ‘Lucky Jim” years as an academic, his time as a reforming Vice Chancellor of Ulster University and as a Lib Dem activist and Lib Dem peer in the House of Lords (where he campaigned vigorously for its abolition and his place in it).

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The inspiration for European integration is part of British history too

Two years on from the EU referendum and Walter Benjamin’s haunting observation that “the very past itself is at stake” seems appropriate.

What sort of future Britain will have depends, to a large extent, on how a working majority of voters and politicians understand her past. For, as the UK’s former judge on the European Court of Justice, Sir Konrad Schiemann, noted in a 2012 lecture on the EU as a Source of Inspiration, “what you find inspiring depends to a degree on where you come from and what you’re looking for”. Born in 1937, Schiemann was probably the last CJEU judge to have experienced the Second World War. Growing up in Berlin hiding from British bombs and then, via Poland and the Lancashire Fusiliers, landing up as a law student in Cambridge, Schiemann is clear where his generation were coming from and what they were looking for. His generation of Brits (and many of those that followed) understood the preamble to the European Coal and Steel Community as being part of their history too, despite Britain not having been a signatory to it.

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Equal Power, and how you can make it happen

I think Equal Power is the first book I have ever pre-ordered. I started reading it the day it came out. When I tweeted about that, Jo Swinson replied, and I promised her I would review it as soon as I finished reading it.

Several months later…..

My post hoc justification for my tardiness is that, to coin a phrase, a review is something best tasted cold. And I find that my opinions about the book have not changed since I first read it.

I found “Equal Power, and how you can make it happen” very powerful indeed. Not because the material was new to me – most of it was not – but because of the way Swinson treats it. She combines statistics and research evidence, other people’s stories and her own experience in a compelling way. The trick with such material is always in the way the combination is made. Statistics are devoid of life and stories lack width in applicability. Swinson combines the two admirably well in a very readable style. She then delivers much of the punch in the book through recounting her own personal experience. And, very importantly, every chapter ends with a summary of actions that everyone can take to improve gender equality.

She gives herself the space to lay out more than simple arguments. She discusses some of the underlying ideas and languages behind many of our attitudes. She notes in particular (around p31) the use of the word “illiberal”, something I have experienced myself, particularly in discussions about gender issues, being used with the evident purpose of closing an argument. “I’m against all women shortlists because they are illiberal.” Of course they are, but you cannot end it there. You have to show why they are more illiberal than the current system which routinely and significantly discriminates in favour of people like me.*  (Jo does not favour all-women shortlists, but for better reasons.)

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A 21st-Century Liberal Approach to Education

Education has always been of special importance for liberals and Liberal Democrats throughout the ages. It has been one of the best vehicles for enabling individuals to obtain their full potential, develop their talents and make the most of the opportunities that they are presented with. It is with this in mind that Helen Flynn and John Howson’s chapter is so warmly received in the latest publication from the Social Liberal Forum, ‘Four Go In Search of Big Ideas’.

Flynn and Howson rightly place great emphasis on the need to improve early years education. They call for a highly funded early years sector that is equipped with the staff necessary to develop the learning of schoolchildren and identify any potential barriers that they may face in future learning. These teachers would need to be well educated and properly trained. The authors identify that educational inequalities emerge even before children start their formal education at the age of five. The socio-economic inequalities faced by children from the poorest backgrounds need to be tackled with extra funding from the very beginning.

Flynn and Howson propose a professional College of Teaching that would be a watchdog for professional standards in education in a similar way that the British Medical Association is in regard to the NHS. This is very much needed if the public is to continue to have faith in the professionalism and high standards of the UK’s education sector. In a similar vein, Flynn and Howson also suggest having Chief Education Officer in government who would help to guarantee best practice and develop evidence-based policy.

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Your Home, Your Power Station

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Ed Davey’s contribution (on the next steps to decarbonize the UK) to a new collection of essays from the Social Liberal Forum is a tour de force in strategic thinking. 

One of the great strengths of Liberal thought through the ages has been an ability to find practical, scientifically and economically-sound solutions to pressing social challenges. For an excellent example of this, from someone who has held high office, look no further than Sir Ed Davey’s essay in Four Go In Search of Big Ideas, which not only provides a wide-ranging discussion of the challenges of decarbonising the UK’s economy in line with the aims of the Paris Agreement but also presents up-to-date policy suggestions to support the deployment of cutting-edge green tech.

For the power sector, Davey suggests that “any new nuclear should be suspended until it can prove substantial cost reduction”. He is also clear both for the need to improve the incentives to supply-side innovations like renewable power with storage (the practice of equipping intermittent power sources like wind and solar PV with battery storage) and to rapidly speed up the ability of “demand-response” technologies and smart grids to respond to changes in supply and to cut overall energy demand.

In a section that reminds clean energy advocates like me of how useful it would be to have Davey back in the Council of the EU, he urges much more use to be made of interconnectors between neighbouring nations, as well as fast-tracking reforms to electricity markets to ensure, for example, that network costs are fairly shared among market participants and that barriers to new entrants like community energy groups are broken down.

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Liberals and Neo-Liberals

Professor David Howarth, formerly LibDem MP for Cambridge, contributes to the new Social Liberal Forum book with a powerful, closely argued essay on Liberal economics. This an extract:

Here is a puzzle: if JS Mill, JM Keynes and James Meade were all Liberals and economists, what is a ‘neo-liberal’ economist? One might have thought that it would be someone who updated their thought to consider new facts and new problems.

In a highly successful example of propaganda and disinformation, ‘neoliberal’ has come to mean the doctrines of Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman. But those doctrines are anything but ‘neo’. They hark back to the era before Mill. We need to rectify names. Instead of ‘neo-liberals’ the followers of Hayek and Friedman might be called ‘paleo-partial liberals’.

The next step is to reclaim the Liberal tradition. That was the avowed aim of the editors of the Orange Book, but what some of them seemed to mean was not updating Mill, Keynes and Meade but abandoning them in favour of paleo-partial liberalism. Admittedly the diagnosis was not entirely wrong. The Liberal Democrats, as a political party, had wandered a long way from the Liberal tradition and had succumbed to various forms of conventional wisdom.

But the most distinctive feature of Liberal policy was its stance on corporate governance. From Mill onwards, through the Yellow Book to support for codetermination, Liberals argued for a different way of organising firms, not as hierarchical structures dominated by the owners of capital but as partnerships between labour and capital, incorporating democratic representation. James Meade provided a continuation and deepening of this tradition that should have formed the basis of the merged party’s position.

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Four Go in Search of Big Ideas

The Social Liberal Forum is publishing this book to contribute to a Progressive Alliance of Ideas, People and Campaigns. Contributors including leading Liberal Democrats and people from other political backgrounds and some from outside formal parties.

The Four are Helen Flynn, Iain Brodie-Browne, Gordon Lishman and Ekta Prakash and the book addresses major challenges facing progressives in the 21st Century. They believe that the revival of progressive politics in the UK must be based on winning the battle of ideas. All four come from the North of England and their approach reflects their anger about the state of …

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Book Review – Power to the People: Confessions of a Young Liberal Activist 1975 – 1987 by Felix Dodds

Felix Dodds, who was Chair of the National League of Young Liberal (NLYL) 1985-1987 and led the so-called Green Guard, inheritors of the late 60s/early 70s YLs Red Guard mantle, wrote this book to inspire and give hope to today’s young people at a time when politics seems a much more cynical and jaded business than the last time we had a Tory female Prime Minister and were arguing about Europe.

Dodds ‘confessions’ tell of his involvement with the YLs starting as a 6th former in Hertfordshire, having been inspired by the Kennedy …

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Book Review: Equal Power and how you can make it happen

On hearing of the arrival of a new volume of “how to” popular feminism one might be tempted to channel Brenda of Bristol on hearing about the election: “ANOTHER one!!”

Jo Swinson enters a very crowded market with her new book. Can she really have anything to add?

To be fair she doesn’t just write about this stuff; she really means it. Largely ignoring the six week old baby strapped to my (very sore) front she once nagged, cajoled, charmed and begged me to stand in a forthcoming by-election. She has probably directly encouraged hundreds of women and girls to get involved or go further in politics.

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Book review: Fire, fury and landmark transparency in the White House


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There’s a queue for the doorstopper version of “Fire and Fury” by Michael Wolff. So on the day of the book’s release last week, I got the Kindle version. I then decided to make my life easier by opting for a free trial of “Audible“. So, I have listened to two-thirds of the audio version of the book, read beautifully by the author and Holter Graham. I am sorry that I have not yet finished the book but I admit I am finding the latter half of it rather heavy going.

There’s no doubt though, that this book is a good read. Or in my case a good listen.

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International Women’s Day: Could there ever be a Lib Dem Jess Phillips?

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Book review – “The Long and Winding Road” by Alan Johnson

“The Long and Winding Road” is the third in Alan Johnson’s trilogy of memoirs. The previous two books are: “This Boy“, about his harrowing childhood and “Please Mister Postman” about his days delivering the Royal Mail. (You’ll notice that all the books are titled after songs from Alan Johnson’s heroes – The Beatles).

I’ve reviewed both previous books here on LDV (see links above), and to a large extent it helps to read the whole series from the beginning. If you pick up “The Long and Winding Road”, the subject matter, the daily grind of a union leader, an MP and a jobbing minister, can strike one, at first, as rather uninteresting. However, if you’ve stuck with Alan Johnson as he described his appalling upbringing and the detail of his postal work, his “voice” tends to get inside one, and you tend to empathise as he forges on up into the heady heights of the political world.

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Review of “The Joy of Tax” by Richard Murphy

Last year Richard Murphy, well-known through his involvement with the Tax Justice Network, expanded his ideas into a paperback book The Joy of Tax. His association with Jeremy Corbyn may cause Liberal Democrats to reject his ideas, but I argue here that even if we reject his solutions, which include both Basic Income and local Land Value Tax, we should take seriously his criticism of the existing tax system and his analysis of the purpose of taxation.

After a short historical introduction in which he develops the idea of tax as being the band that holds together the Social Contract between a people and their government, he examines how the Government raises its revenue. We are all familiar with the three big taxes: income tax, National Insurance and VAT, which together raise just under 65% of all taxation, national and local, but Murphy also looks at the large number of taxes that raise the remainder and the justification for them.

He covers six reasons why Governments should tax:

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Roy was right – and so was Nick

Nick Clegg’s excellent book, Politics: Between the Extremes, released in September, provides a useful perspective on the new parameters which seem to define British politics. As became clear in 2016, politics is not just a battle between right and left or statist versus anti-statist perspectives any more, but between open versus closed economies and Brexit versus Remain.

But I think Clegg’s analysis would have benefited from exploring more deeply how old and therefore un-random these changes are.  Specifically, Clegg’s Twelfth Chapter Was Roy Right? suggests Roy Jenkins– who died in 2003 and in the 1980s was the leading political and intellectual force behind the SDP and Lib Dems– would not have agreed with his view of cross-party cooperation, or that the only division in politics is between left and right.

There is, in fact, plenty of evidence to suggest that Jenkins would have shared Clegg’s analysis. Indeed, I think Jenkins would have likely been his strongest supporter in the Coalition years and would have spoken against the criticisms made of Clegg, implicitly in his name, principally by Lord Oakeshott, Jenkins’ former Special Adviser, who see the Liberal Democrats as effectively a subsidiary of the wider left.

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Book review – Jeremy Paxman: A Life in Questions

Santa kindly got me this book. I have just finished it – which for me counts as “speed reading”. (I once spent an entire year reading “To kill a mocking bird“).

Jeremy Paxman’s memoirs, “A Life in Questions” is an excellent read – it presents a journalist of great integrity, an interesting life story which is, in turns, fascinating, gripping and, sometimes, hilarious.

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Book review – Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero by Chris Matthews

Books and films about the last second of President John F Kennedy’s life have been plentiful. “Jack Kennedy – Elusive hero” by Chris Matthews is a very engaging book which focusses on the great politician’s life before that last second.

Chris Matthews is a very well-known US TV broadcaster. He prefaces this book in a personal context – explaining his great admiration for JFK. The book does an excellent job in answering the key question which John F Kennedy himself described as the pivotal one for biographies: “What was he like?”

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What really is “Kafkaesque”?

Kafka statue Prague
I’d heard the word “Kafkaesque” being bandied around for years, but only had a vague idea what it meant.

So, upon recently renewing my local library card, I was emboldened to take out their copy of “The Trial” to try to find out what “Kafkaesque” really means – or should mean. (Often words, which are misused, metamorphisise officially to their misused meaning. “Literally” is now accepted as often meaning “used for emphasis while not being literally true”.)

A friend commented: “Ahah! Starting with the light reads, eh?”

In fact, I was greatly impressed by the attractive narrative style of Franz Kafka. There are two horrendously violent incidents in the book. Apart from that, the story proceeds in a very charming and engaging way. The narrator and the subject seem to be intertwined.

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Book review: Charles Kennedy: A Tragic Flaw by Greg Hurst

I had a chance to read this recently updated book while on holiday in West Africa. It is a remarkably fine volume. Painstakingly researched and impeccably sourced, it offers a skillfully balanced portrait of a remarkable and inspiring man. As the title suggests, the author does not hold back on the human frailties of its subject but these are, nevertheless, presented as part of a rounded, fair and endearing commentary. I feel this book helps us to inch forward a little further in understanding the rather enigmatic Charles Kennedy, while deconstructing a few myths along the way.

I’ll pick out a few parts of the book which particularly caught my attention:

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Book review: ‘This Boy’ by Alan Johnson

this boyWhile this is a very late review, hopefully it will persuade anyone left in the political community, who has not read Alan Johnson’s “This Boy”, to read it.

I tend to read at a snail’s pace and also have a habit of (accidentally) reading volumes of memoirs back to front chronologically. I read both Alan Clark’s and Chris Mullin’s volumes backwards. I read and reviewed Alan Johnson’s later work “Please Mister Postman” last summer. Just before Christmas I was kindly loaned “This Boy”.

The book is a remarkably detailed, harrowing account of a one-parent (and then no-parent) family living in 1950s/60s London in grinding, distressing poverty as the parent suffers increasingly failing health. Abandoned by her husband, Johnson’s mother, Lily, works all the hours God sends, and struggles bravely to bring up her children, Linda and Alan. Living in appalling slum conditions, they manage to survive through various trials and hardships. Linda emerges as a great confidante of her mother and a strong pseudo-parent for Alan as she grows into a young adult.

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Tim’s new chief of staff and a hangover after a late spring evening drinking with friends

It’s not what you think.

Tim Farron recently introduced his new Chief of Staff, Ben Williams, on these pages:

Ben was the standout candidate and brings a wealth of experience at all levels of the party from council campaigner to Head of Liberal Democrat Whips’ Office and latterly a Special Adviser. Everyone who has worked with him knows his skills and how brilliantly he works under pressure. There were many points over our years in government when I saw Ben, at first hand, make sure the government kept delivering liberal policies under tremendous pressures. He is exactly what our party needs – someone who can help me to help our party grow and thrive.

Ben Williams also has, according to self-publishing website Lulu.com, “always harboured a secret passion for writing.”

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Vince Cable’s “After the Storm – The World Economy & Britain’s Economic Future”

after the stormWider in scope and more ambitious in its reach, “After the Storm” is the acclaimed sequel to “The Storm” published after the financial crisis of 2008.  Having spent the last 5 years as Business Secretary within the Coalition Government (2010-2015), Vince has the added clout of first-hand experience introducing economic policies that have steered us out of the storm, not least an industrial strategy.

His professed motivation for penning a sequel were to update readers on the state of Britain’s economy in “a climate of guarded optimism,” and to share his insights, no longer bound by collective responsibility as Secretary of State at the Department of Business Innovation and Science.  Whilst the US and UK are expected to record 3% growth this year, Vince’s previous analysis of the underlying weaknesses still apply, such as UK’s over reliance on the banking sector and on the housing market for recovery and growth.

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Leaders good and bad

As we’re now seeing with Jeremy Corbyn’s election to the Labour leadership, political debate often revolves around the characters of party leaders. Elections are portrayed as contests between leaders, voters are often asked to say which leader they will be voting for – even though they can’t, unless they happen to live in a leader’s constituency – and the media, during elections, party conferences and day-to-day politics, generally focus on the leader, sometimes, in small parties, to the exclusion of all other figures. Within their parties, even in relatively democratic institutions like the Liberal Democrats, the leader exercises considerable influence over party policy and strategy.

British Leaders jackets.indd

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A great holiday read from the cheeky chappie of politics

alan johnson bookPlease Mister Postman by Alan Johnson is a great book to take on holiday with you, if you haven’t already read it. It’s now available in paperback, published by Corgi Books for a cover price of £8.99, although you can get it for less.

There are two types of memoirs by politicians: boring self-justification and interesting, good reads. Johnson’s writings are firmly in the second category, along there with Alan Clark, Chris Mullin and Paddy Ashdown (“A Fortunate Life”). Very often the early days of a politician are the most interesting – as was the case with John Major’s auto-biography.

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Inside story of the coalition to come in book form from David Laws

Biteback publishing have announced that David Laws will be writing a book for them on the inside story of the coalition:

Iain Dale, MD of Biteback Publishing, has acquired world rights to Coalition, the inside story of the Cameron-Clegg Coalition by David Laws, the former senior Liberal Democrat MP, and author of the bestselling 22 Days in May: The Birth of the Lib Dem-Conservative Coalition (Biteback, 2010).

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Unlocking Liberalism: Life After the Coalition

unlocking liberalismA source of inspiration and optimism for Liberal Democrats and an important chapter in the body of Liberal Democrat Discourse. A book that could help provide the road for the party to take in 2015 and beyond.

On average there are over 200,000 books published every year in the United Kingdom and nobody can read them all! But if you’re a Liberal Democrat, or are interested in knowing more about how we think, the book whose title I have mentioned above could be the one book from 2014 that you may have missed and should not miss any longer!

It is a wonderful collection of essays predominantly by distinguished Scottish Liberal Democrat members, written just before the Independence Referendum, but published only after the result! Whatever else that referendum may have or not achieved, it certainly has sharpened political thinking and this book is one result of that process.

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Deserving of more than a footnote: George Watson and The Unservile State

The Unservile StateThe announcement that the Cambridge academic George Watson had left the Liberal Democrats £950,000 in his will was one of the most surprising political stories of 2014.

George Watson was a distinguished literary scholar and a lifelong Liberal. After working for the European Commission as a translator and interpreter during the 1950s he became a Fellow of St John’s College, Cambridge, in 1961 and remained there until he retired in 1990. As a scholar, he was known for serious bibliographical work, spirited polemics, and a traditional approach to literary criticism. He also made two forays into electoral politics, contesting Cheltenham in 1959 and Leicester in the 1979 European Election.

Watson is perhaps best remembered by Liberal Democrats, however, as the editor of The Unservile State – a 1957 volume billed as ‘the first full-scale study of the attitudes and policies of contemporary British Liberalism since the famous Yellow Book’ of 1928.

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Book review: Michael Bloch’s “Jeremy Thorpe”

jeremy thorpe book coverThe publication of this book was reportedly delayed until after the death of its subject. Some might have expected, therefore, a ‘hatchet job’. (In fact, the delay was at the insistence of Jeremy Thorpe, who co-operated with the author to the extent of meeting him around twenty times to discuss his life). Instead, it seems a balanced, comprehensive, fair, even (in its concluding chapter) affectionate, portrait of its subject.

Nevertheless, the book pulls no punches in relating the events before, during and after the famous Old Bailey trial at which Thorpe and his fellow defendants were unanimously acquitted by a jury. It presents an apparently honest and complete account of Jeremy Thorpe, including some astute observations as to his character, such as his tendency towards fantasy and need for danger.

The Norman Scott thread and the trial for conspiracy to murder takes up about a fifth of the book. Bloch lays out, in sometimes mesmerizing detail, the labyrinthine unravelling of the story.

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And the top book read by Lib Dem MPs this summer was…

capital pikettyPolling firm ComRes has published its annual list of the books MPs have been reading this year, based on a survey of 154 MPs weighted by party and region to be representative of the House of Commons.

Here’s what Lib Dem MPs have taken to the beach with them…

2014
1. Capital in the 21st Century – Thomas Piketty
2. When Britain Burned the White House – Peter Snow

(And here’s what they took last year…

2013
1. What Has Nature Ever Done For Us – Tony Juniper)

Piketty’s tome polled strongly with MPs of all three main parties; though Margaret Thatcher (who topped last year’s list) wasn’t far behind:

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My pick of 15 top books to read this summer

reading summer - photo by hans van der bergThe newspapers are awash with summer best-reads at the moment, as well-known writers pick the books to relax with by the pool. You know the kind of thing: “It’s at this time of year I typically embark on re-reading Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu, translating it into Russian (which I’m learning to relax as I prepare for my Grade 8 piano exam) from our rustic cottage in Tuscany.” Or, alternatively: “Here’s a book written by my mate.”

Always eager to copy a …

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