Noel Whelan: The political junkie’s summer survival guide

Brexit books and a documentary on Macron may provide sustenance in the off-season

Former British prime minister David Cameron during the Brexit referendum campaign. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/AFP/Getty Images

Former British prime minister David Cameron during the Brexit referendum campaign. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/AFP/Getty Images

 

The Cabinet has had its last meeting until autumn, Ministers will soon be off on their holidays, Vincent Browne has retired and so we are now officially into the political off-season. It is time then for another set of suggestions to help junkies of politics and current affairs might survive the downtime.

For those who hunger for good campaign books it is worth catching up with two on last year’s Brexit referendum. Unleashing Demons: the Inside Story of Brexit by David Cameron’s chief spin doctor Craig Oliver is a breathless and fascinating account from within Downing Street and the headquarters of Stronger In. All Out War: the Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class by Sunday Times political editor Tim Shipman is an even better book because it covers both sides and because it better explains the power and potency the Eurosceptic and anti-establishment forces have had in British politics for decades.

Few politicians come out well from either account of the Brexit debacle, except perhaps former chancellor George Osborne, who privately warned Cameron against a referendum but never let that fact leak. Osborne went on to frame a cogent economic argument for Remain and was ultimately prepared to gamble his leadership ambitions in the final, panicked efforts to stave off referendum defeat.

We await a definitive book on the Macron phenomenon in France. There is, however, a very good fly-on-the-wall documentary, Emmanuel Macron: Behind the Rise, which was broadcast on French television the day after he was elected and has been trending on Netflix since.

The director, Yann L’Hénoret, accessed almost all areas with Macron and his core team for eight months as they positioned their candidate to benefit from the disorder of the parties on the left and right and the momentum to stop Marine Le Pen. Macron comes across as a level-headed, even relaxed candidate, although he and his team were not the political novices many assumed them to be.

Speaking of campaigns, a personal favourite that arrived in the bookshops here recently is Crossing the Threshold: the Story of the Marriage Equality Movement, edited by Gráinne Healy. It tells the story of the 10-year struggle for marriage equality from the perspective of some of the leading campaigners.

Metropolitan sectors

More generally, writers in many countries have being trying to describe and analyse the international trend towards populist politics. The best work on this so far is The Road to Somewhere: the Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics by British journalist and commentator David Goodhart. He seeks to provide a structure or at least a vocabulary within which to analyse the current political divergence between the more mobile, educated, metropolitan sectors of the electorate (which he describes the “Anywheres”) and those who have lived most of their lives in and/or identify closely with a particular sense of place (the “Somewheres”). Before committing to the book it’s worth listening to a recent interview Goodhart did with Hugh Linehan which is available for download as an Irish Times Inside Politics podcast.

If memoirs are your thing, then find time this summer to read the three volumes by former British Labour minister Alan Johnson. Last autumn he published The Long and Winding Road, which covers his early years in politics. The two previous ones are even better. This Boy: a Memoir of Childhood is a brutal account of his growing up in poverty in London and being saved by the influence and care of firstly his mother and then his sister. Please, Mister Postman is equally compelling as it wistfully tells of his career from a teenage postman to becoming a senior union official.

Another memoir which is terrifically written, if tangential to politics, is Life After Life by Paddy Armstrong, one of the four people wrongfully convicted of the Guildford pub bombing in 1975. It is the only book I have ever come across which the author dedicates to his lawyer. The dedication is well deserved: Alastair Logan, the court-appointed Guildford solicitor who went on to fight a 15-year campaign for Armstrong’s release, is one of many heroes in the book. Armstrong’s story, which he wrote with Mary-Elaine Tynan, is truly harrowing. Ultimately its a tale of the healing power of love and friendship.

Hillsborough

The last book recommended is a few years old but about a subject which is again now topical. Phil Scraton’s Hillsborough: the Truth, was published in 1999 but has been updated twice since. It is not only the definitive account of the stadium disaster itself but also of the legal campaign by Liverpool supporters since to expose the police cover-up. Last month the director of public prosecutions in England announced prosecutions against several of the police and officials involved. As you read it you will spot echoes of the institutional complacency and failings in the response to the recent Grenfell Tower fire.

One lessons from all such reading is that there is very little that is truly new or surprising in politics.

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