With a general election on the horizon in 2024, this holiday season is a good time to curl up with a book that explains the state of British politics and society today. We asked politics experts for their recommendations.
Why Is This Lying Bastard Lying To Me? by Rob Burley
Don’t let the colourful title put you off. Rob Burley is the former editor of BBC political programming, including The Andrew Marr Show and Politics Live – his book is both a hard-hitting expose of his time in the industry and a “deliciously irreverent” read.
In its pages, Burley considers the future of the iconic long interview to grill politicians. And he expresses visceral anger at wilful, even blithe misuse of facts and figures by politicians that have led to the loss of trust in British politics overall. The question he poses isn’t why are there so many lying bastards, or even their propensity to lie – but simply “why?”
On one side, Burley pins the argument emphatically on politicians themselves. Permanently compromised by the pressure of politics, he suggests that many are unable to speak without artifice at best, and are pathologically misleading at worst. Examples abound: Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and more.
But, keen to ensure a balance, Burley suggests that the public has come to largely expect unrelenting untruthfulness from its political leaders. This, he argues, is connected to the approach of television inquisitors. They combine hard-hitting approaches with forensic research to ensure journalistic rigour, but in doing so, push interviewees on to the back foot.
The policies and negotiations constructed and defended by politicians over the last 25 years is, as Burley observes, something of a theatre. Critics might suggest it’s more of a circus in which untruthfulness has become second nature. In the words of post-interview Paddy Ashdown, “I had to say something to get out of the hole.”
Reviewed by Amelia Hadfield, head of politics at the University of Surrey
Brexit Unfolded by Chris Grey
There are some great books on Brexit out there, but if I had to pick just one, it would be Brexit Unfolded by Chris Grey, the new edition of which has just been published.
Grey is a former academic whose brilliant long-form blog has gained something of a cult (and then a mass) following among people keen to gain a deeper understanding of the conduct during, and implications of, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. He has written a passionate-yet-penetrating work that covers the economics, the politics and the diplomacy of Britain’s tortuous departure from the bloc.
Forensically detailed and footnoted but approachably written, this book is an invaluable guide to what Grey (and, if the polls are to be believed, more and more Brits) clearly regards as a very bad idea, if not an unmitigated disaster.
For anyone wanting a deep dive into the whole sorry (and, sadly, ongoing) mess, this is the truly authoritative account of the post-referendum era. When you’ve finished it (and providing your anger at those responsible hasn’t totally boiled over), you can then subscribe, for free, to his weekly blog for updates.
Reviewed by Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London
Finding Home: A Windrush Story by Alford and Howard Gardner
This year marked the 75th anniversary of the HMT Empire Windrush arriving in Britain. This book eloquently chronicles that 1948 voyage and the journey of Alford Dalrymple Gardner, one of its passengers. An intimate and poignant narrative, it encapsulates the resilience and determination of Caribbean migrants and settlers.
Gardner vividly recounts his service in the British military during the second world war, his initial encounters in Britain, and eventual migration aboard the Empire Windrush. He shares stories about the challenges he faced upon arrival in a country not always welcoming to those of his heritage.
The narrative captures the essence of Gardner’s resilience, and his eventual establishment of a fulfilling life and family in an often unwelcoming environment. It transcends mere historical documentation, serving as a first-hand, sometimes humorous testament to the courage and sacrifices of those who paved the way for future generations to call Britain home.
Finding Home is an exceptional addition to the collection of Windrush literature, and exemplifies the power of storytelling to articulate the complexities of cultural identity.
Reviewed by Les Johnson, founder and chair of the National Windrush Museum and researcher in black popular culture at Birmingham City University
The Liberal Democrats: From Hope to Despair to Where? by David Cutts, Andrew Russell and Joshua Townsley
As a member of the Liberal Democrats, the slow car crash of the 2015 election is still burned into my brain. The temptation to read parts of this book through my fingers was great at times, but it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of it.
As we look towards a general election increasingly dominated by the polling gap between Labour and the Conservatives, it is tempting to ask why a book about a third party helps our understanding of the political landscape.
The Lib Dems are impressively persistent and present. Former leader Tim Farron once joked that after a nuclear holocaust, we would be left with cockroaches – and Lib Dems campaigning against the cockroaches. This is a party, in other words, which survives.
David Cutts, Andrew Russell and Joshua Townsley are longtime observers of the party and its significance. Drawing on British election survey material alongside a host of other sources, they interrogate not just why things happened, but what the party’s future prospects might be.
Lib Dem candidates will of course win seats, byelection victories will continue to come, and local parties will take control of councils. But their real destiny, the authors argue, may be to become “change agents rather than electoral victors”.
Reviewed by Paula Keaveney, senior lecturer in politics at Edge Hill University
The Trials by Dawn King
The world is sliding toward irreversible environmental catastrophe, and it’s the next generation who must cope with the disaster. It’s a measure of the relevance of Dawn King’s powerful play that, while it is set in the future, it feels like a future that might be very near indeed.
In it, a group of 12 teenagers conduct a bizarre legal process, denouncing the adults of the generation above and trying them for environmental crimes. The adults are only allowed a brief monologue to justify their actions, and the entire process takes barely 15 minutes to deal with each of them.
The defendants are a representative group who make the arguments we all tell ourselves. There’s the well-off businessman who has lived a comfortable life, for which he now feels regret. There’s the liberal author who claims she has always tried to do her bit to protect the environment. And, there’s the oil executive who confesses her guilt and throws herself at the mercy of the court. The teenagers must then decide their fate.
The trouble is teenagers are not always diligent and dutiful: they get bored, angry, distracted. The process is neither fair nor thorough, and there is a sense that the whole thing is just random and vengeful. Moreover, there is something deeply troubling about the younger generation turning on the adults. This is a warning for the present as much as the future, where the political “adults” stand charged with gross negligence, but can only offer lame excuses while continuing to cover for vested interests.
Reviewed by Dónall Mac Cathmhaoill, lecturer in creative writing at the Open University
Natives: Race and Class in the Ruins of Empire by Akala
Natives is a beautifully written memoir that explores themes of race, racism and the post-colonial experience in Britain through the life of Akala (or Kingslee James McLean Daley). A compelling writer, Akala’s wit and intellect beams throughout the book as he skilfully navigates the complexities of structural racism, making it accessible even to those who find such concepts abstract.
Vividly recounting his upbringing as a poor, mixed-race person in the politically charged Britain of the 1980s and ’90s, he uses personal experiences to illuminate and flesh out these intricate themes. For some, this will be a difficult book to read, because it forces you to face the reality of what Britain is and has been for many people of colour. As a young man, Akala faced discrimination at the hands of law enforcement and even his schoolteachers – his experiences will speak to many.
Akala writes this book as a successful rapper, poet and activist. While no longer poor, he does not adopt the tone of “well, if I can make it despite these experiences, so can you”. Instead, he forces us to grapple with the fact that he has made it in life despite such levels of racism. He views his escape from poverty not as a sign of personal exceptionalism, but as a reflection of the unpredictable and unjust nature of race, class and privilege.
With the current government involving racial politics in its agenda (as seen in its approach to immigration policy), this is a relevant book that will help readers rise to the challenge of calling out structural racism in society.
Reviewed by Michael Bankole, lecturer in politics at Royal Holloway University of London
The Plot: the Political Assassination of Boris Johnson by Nadine Dorries
At dusk, in a country punch-drunk from pandemics and populism, this book stands out as a beacon, illuminating conspiracies and conservatives both inside parliament and outside: in jungles, on GB News and TalkTV (the author’s own berth). Each a battleground in the Conservatives’ civil war which will commence the moment the exit polls are revealed one Thursday evening next year.
A page-turner of a political potboiler, this has more than a single plot. The denouement of one has a country seemingly unable to function – and not least its government, elected with a substantial majority only four years before. A second plotline has three prime ministers, four chancellors and four home secretaries in four months, a cast turnover fit for a CSI: Westminster. Another culminates in that third prime minister, unelected by his colleagues, his activists or the electorate, polling lower than his derided predecessor. Each a plot worthy of Ian Fleming, whose characters inexplicably infiltrate these pages.
Suitably, this catalogue of censure – creature of the author and her publisher’s lawyers – owes its existence to her being denied a lifetime peerage. It is peppered with assaults on Rishi Sunak, Dominic Cummings and, especially, Michael Gove.
Throughout, irreproachable, sits the “coiled mamba”, to the adoration of whom all this serves. What an age it has been. A time capsule to convey the Britain of 2023 need contain only this publication.
Reviewed by Martin Farr, senior lecturer in contemporary British history at Newcastle University
Paula Keaveney is a member of the Liberal Democrats
Amelia Hadfield, Dónall Mac Cathmhaoill, Les Johnson, Martin Farr, Michael Bankole, and Tim Bale do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.