Political events across the world continue to move at a whirlwind pace, particularly here in the UK. Here are my recommendations for three recent non-fiction books about British politics.
‘The Women Who Shaped Politics’ by Sophy Ridge offers a broad overview of the female campaigners and Members of Parliament who have shifted the political landscape in Westminster. The first half focuses on historical pioneers such as Mary Wollstonecraft and those involved in the suffragette movement while the second half draws on interviews with a range of contemporary female politicians including current Prime Minister Theresa May.
Sky News journalist Ridge notes that as she researched the book “a clear divide emerged between the female MPs elected pre-1997, who believed that if women were tough enough they could make it, and those elected after 1997, who believed Westminster itself needed to change.” (p.183) She calls the former group the “ceiling-smashers” such as Margaret Thatcher and Betty Boothroyd while the latter are the “change-makers’ and include Harriet Harman and Yvette Cooper. While views on the extent of sexism in Parliament still varies considerably among female MPs, there is general agreement that more could and should be done to help women progress their political careers.
Even though ‘The Women Who Shaped Politics’ was only published a few months ago, the outcome of the snap general election held in June means that the context of the final chapter about Theresa May already feels quite out-of-date now that she is in a much weakened position politically. However, overall, ‘The Women Who Shaped Politics’ is an engaging book which successfully brings together a collection of fascinating portraits of well-known and not-so-well-known women who have made their mark in Westminster.
‘The Long and Winding Road’ by Alan Johnson is the third (and most likely final volume) of the former Labour MP’s memoirs following This Boy about his early childhood in North Kensington and Please, Mister Postman which charts his early career as a postman and steady rise up the ranks of the trade unions. The book documents his political career from his election as MP for Hull West and Hessle in 1997 including his successful campaigning for the trawlermen in his constituency and progression through various ministerial posts in the Blair and Brown governments, in which he became Home Secretary in 2009. Johnson is at his most engaging when talking about his family life and inevitably, there is less focus on that here compared to the moving portrait of his mother Lily in ‘This Boy’. However, while ‘The Long and Winding Road’ isn’t as personally revealing as many other political biographies, Johnson does paint a vivid picture of what it is actually like to work in government and it is a typically self-deprecating memoir from a man who is widely regarded to be the best leader the Labour Party never had.
‘Order, Order! The Rise and Fall of Political Drinking’ by Ben Wright looks at the history of alcohol in Westminster through the ages. The relationship between politicians and alcohol is a complex one and it is a fascinating prism through which to examine how modern British politics has changed in recent decades. Wright’s account carefully balances sombre stories of how alcohol abuse has contributed to the downfall of many political figures over the years alongside the more irreverent tales of long liquid lunches in Whitehall.
Politicians may spend long hours debating in the chambers of Parliament, but it is the numerous drinking establishments in or near the Palace of Westminster where leadership plots are hatched and gossip is leaked to journalists, making or breaking careers in the process. However, in recent years, the increase in the number of female MPs, reduction of late-night sittings and negative public perception towards politicians in general have brought about arguably the biggest cultural change ever seen in Westminster. The number of bars on the Parliamentary Estate continues to decline and many media-conscious MPs are seemingly more abstemious than ever. The contrast with the boozy antics of MPs in years gone by is becoming ever starker and Wright’s astute analysis explores why that is.
Wright is a political correspondent for the BBC and ‘Order, Order!’ mainly focuses on tales from Westminster but also includes other anecdotes from Washington and beyond. His entertaining and informative account is one to savour. Cheers!