As Michael Gove is well aware, a great book collection – especially a political one – has got to stir the pot in order to be at all useful. Gove is the latest politician to fall victim to the bookshelf police after his home library came under scrutiny on Twitter. His critics were soon up in arms about everything from the number of books about dictators to the presence of Holocaust denier David Irving in his collection. It seems that in 2020 we are not allowed to read or keep a book whose arguments we don’t wholeheartedly agree with.
If, like Gove, we were going to construct a bookshelf of political tomes that actually sharpened our arguments and ideas rather than simply pacified the social media crowd, what would this collection look like?
We’ve put together a list of must-reads, covering everything from free speech to Brexit (remember that? No, me neither).
The Tyranny of Silence – Fleming Rose
When journalist Fleming Rose decided to commission a Danish cartoon competition to depict the prophet Muhammed, he could not have predicted the chain of shocking events that his actions would unleash or the strange self-censorship that many in the West impose over issues deemed too controversial to go near. In The Tyranny of Silence, Rose scrutinises his own motives for publishing the images and produces a robust defence of freedom of speech in the process.
William Wilberforce – William Hague
Alongside his political career, Hague has created a successful sideshow in political biography. I highly recommend listening to his impressive biography of Wilberforce on Audible. He reads it superbly, which can’t be said for all audible authors, most of whom are wise to call in actors for the job. His earlier biography of William Pitt the Younger did much to put Britain’s youngest Prime Minister on the political map and, whilst Wilberforce was already a leading light in British political history, this biography lays bare the ways in which he had to master the political and cultural mechanisms of the day to bring about radical change.
Where We Are Now – Sir Roger Scruton
The late Sir Roger Scruton was always something of an outlier in the academic community – a respected philosopher with Conservative convictions. This prescient book unpacks the forces that led to the Brexit vote at a time when the rest of us were still grappling with what exactly caused the result. He charts the philosophy that drove Brexit back to differences between British and European approaches to citizenship which he argues came about as a result of common law and the establishment of protestantism. Brexit, in Scruton’s view, is the rational outworking of British history – not a freak event brought about by an ill-informed populace, as many on the remain side have sought to argue.
National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy – Matthew Goodwin
Populism is a word that has come into its own over the last decade. Generally used by critics to denote any electoral result that upsets their own political sensibilities, it’s a term that neatly sums up the era running up to Covid-19. You couldn’t ask for a more erudite guide to the term than Goodwin who impartially charts the rise of populism right back to its roots. He debunks the myth that the movement is fleeting and that young people are not attracted to it – all the while keeping his book unstuffy and jargon-free. A must read.
All out war – Tim Shipman
This is the go-to account of the referendum campaign for anyone interested in Brexit. Shipman does a sterling job of giving each side a fair hearing – quite a feat given the tensions that existed between remainers and leavers at the time.
From its intimate portrayal of David Cameron’s shock and dismay at losing from within the walls of Number 10 to the now infamous role of Leave campaign co-ordinator Dominic Cummings in shaping Leave’s winning strategy, Shipman’s fly-on-the-wall account will be the book that politicians turn to remember what happened when and why. I also enjoyed the throwaway details of Wetminster’s eating habits. Who knew Brexit was essentially fuelled by takeaway pizza and curry?
The Righteous Mind – Jonathan Haidt
Whilst we all like to think that we construct our political belief systems in an entirely rational manner based on the facts we have available, Jonathan Haidt would beg to differ. He unpicks the left’s characterisation of the right as evil and asks what it is about left-wing ideology that insists on characterising its opponents in such morally stark terms; those who espouse a conservative ideology are not just wrong, in its view, but morally bankrupt. Leaving no stone unturned, he then trains his scalpel on religious conviction in a similarly eviscerating manner.
Vexed – James Mumford
This is a clever, easy read for those who find political tribalism a bit nonsensical at times. Mumford exposes the ethical contradictions that lie at the heart of many of our political divides – from assisted dying, social welfare, sexual liberation, abortion, gun control to the environment, technology and justice. It’s a book that will leave you questioning where exactly you sit on the political spectrum.
Architect of Prosperity: Sir John Cowperthwaite and the making of Hong Kong
A book that contains a positive account of the impact of colonialism is bound to have the social media crowd calling for the gallows. British civil servant Sir John Cowperthwaite is credited with helping to transform Hong Kong from a poverty-stricken backwater into one of the most prosperous nations on earth before its handover to China in 1997. But how did this change in fortunes come about? This book unpicks the economic policies that enabled Hong Kong to flourish – a top read for political anoraks and capitalist zealots alike.
Seventy Two Virgins – Boris Johnson
Published in 2004, this comic novel is the closest we’ll ever get to an inside track on the PM’s off-beat sense of humour. The title shows how he was gamely poking fun at religious orthodoxy long before his famous letter box remark. The novel centres on the State visit of an American president which goes awry when a would-be terrorist slips through the Palace of Westminster security gates. The book received a somewhat mixed reception when it was published but it’s a fun read, especially now that the author serendipitously finds himself in the top job he’d clearly always dreamed of. Plus, the title will have your eagle-eyed Zoom friends outraged in no time at all.