Politics & Society

The Best Politics Books of 2018

recommended by Stephen Bush

2018 has been a year full of alarming political developments, but it has also proven fodder for an excellent crop of political books. Stephen Bush, special correspondent at the New Statesman, selects five of the best politics books.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

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As a political journalist and member of this year’s judging panel for the Baillie Gifford Prize, you’re in a good position to tell us: has 2018 been a good year for political books?

The learning curve for me as a judge for that prize was in realising how high the quality of non-fiction was overall, compared to political non-fiction. I think this is because in political non-fiction there’s often a guaranteed market, if you can get it out fast near a big news event, so in some ways, political non-fiction didn’t emerge that well.

But despite an undertow which tends to come out in the aftermath of an election (and tends to be cobbled together), there is also lots and lots of brilliant stuff out there—including political books which have managed to be brilliant despite having been turned around to fit a political timeline or event.

What makes a good political book? Is it access, timeliness or insight?

The essentials of a good political read are for it to be informed—which can, I guess, be driven by access; in other cases hours of research in an archive; insightful—something which genuinely changes how we perceive an event or a politician or a policy. Obviously, it also has to be well written.

One of the problems is that, from a bottom line perspective, a book about, say, Labour in 2017 has to come out before the end of 2017, or early in 2018 at the latest. But often, insight has to be sacrificed to do that—or the prose. While there are people who manage to juggle those asks, there are equally many who don’t.

Well, let’s discuss the books you would like to recommend. Perhaps we could start with David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends. I’ve seen this described as “joining the dots between the financial crash, populism, Brexit, and Trump.” Is it a very pessimistic book?

No. Actually, despite its subject matter, Runciman is not wholly pessimistic about the future. Although I must admit, I did end the book feeling fairly pessimistic about the future! He takes as his subject the question that has become incredibly politically timely: with the rise of populist and antidemocratic leaders throughout the world, are we entering the last days of liberal democracy? Trump is of course the most famous, but by no means the only or the first.

The thing that Runciman does really skilfully is he takes Trump’s inauguration as his starting point, but it doesn’t feel like a ripped-from-the-headlines response to Trump. He uses the inauguration as a way into democratic failures in Greece in the 1970s, democratic failures throughout history, democratic failures in the global south. And then, essentially, he asks: What does democratic failure look like in the 21st-century?

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We think we have a clear idea about what the end of a democracy looks like: it’s where generals supplant politicians. That’s a very clear sense of whether or not democracy has ended. But if you have a situation in which there are still elections, but only party members can vote, has democracy ended? If you have elections, but one party controls the media and is able to bribe loads and loads of voters, has democracy ended? What does democratic failure look like in the modern day?

He does all of this and sets out this incredibly interesting global set of questions in what I think is a wonderful and warm prose style as well. It was a really fantastic read, even though it did at times make me feel like I am, in fact, covering the end days of democracy.

He writes: “Western democracy is over the hill. It’s prime has past.” Did you leave this book feeling that that was the case?

Yeah. His essential point is: if you think about democracy as we know it in its modern form, it’s effectively at the age where you would expect it to be going through a mid-life crisis. Now, some people recover from their mid-life crises and go on to live happy, fulfilling lives for the second half of their lifespan. Other people buy fancy sports cars and crash them off a cliff. He sets out those possible futures very well.

It’s not as doom laden as one would expect, while still being pretty doom laden. Not least because it doesn’t wholly feel like we are going to have the political leadership capable of making the correct decisions to avoid being one of the people whose mid-life crisis leads them to crash into a cliff.

Let’s talk about your second choice: Punch and Judy Politics: An Insiders’ Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions.

Punch and Judy Politics is a really brilliant and interesting insight into a bit of politics that I think most people in Britain immediately recognise: Prime Minister’s Question Time, or PMQs. It was written by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton, both of whom advised and prepared various Labour leaders for PMQs. It’s based not only on their own experiences, but also interviews with almost everyone who’s been involved in either doing it or preparing someone else to do it, from both the perspective of being in government and in opposition.

It’s also a history of how PMQs developed originally, from something to help the then 80-something William Gladstone get through his day, so that he could know that questions would happen at one time. Originally, anyone in parliament could just get up at any time. From that, it developed into the much more stylised and formal session we know today.

“To be honest, I used to think of PMQs as a massive and wholly depressing waste of time”

This political book really surprised me. Speaking candidly, when I first read it, I did so because I knew Tom and Ayesha and they asked me to. I expected to have to be polite about it. But I genuinely really loved it. It really changed how I thought about PMQs, which, to be honest, I used to think of as a massive and wholly depressing waste of time. I mean, often it is both of those things. But it really changed how I think about its value, and what it reveals about the two people involved in it at any given time.

It really illuminates not just that famous half hour of politics, but so much about why political parties make the decisions they do, political strategy more generally. I think about it, not just every week when PMQs is on, I think about it almost all the time when I write about why political parties do and say the things they do and say. If you want to read one book to really get your head around how political parties work and plan, it would be Punch and Judy Politics.

Interesting. PMQs, to my uninformed eye, just seems like an opportunity for showboating and toadying.

The problem with PMQs is the incentive for people to stand up and congratulate the prime minister on what a wonderful job she’s doing, the kind of ‘let’s chuck our pre-prepared soundbites at one another’ routine. But the thing you realise through this book is that PMQs has two really important functions.

The first is that it is the device by which the rest of government is accountable to Downing Street and the prime minister, because the prime minister is the person who’s going to have to stand up for half an hour and answer questions about anything. So it actually has a very important function in terms of Whitehall’s accountability, as well as the accountability of the prime ministers themselves.

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Obviously it is not, and I don’t think will ever be, an organ for proper accountability in the way that select committee hearings can be. But it is a really useful way for political parties to find out weaknesses and holes in their own strategy. If you can’t answer or ask a question on the NHS because your health spokesman has said something controversial, well, that’s going to be a problem in the election as well.

So it’s both a canny way for political parties to work that out, and a really useful way for all of us who cover it to kind of get a sense of where they are weak and where they are strong, and what their strategies for avoiding weak spots will be. Of course, you can try to find those things out by asking people. But sometimes, the things that people who work in politics say they will do and the things they actually do are quite divergent. So, the approach they take in PMQs is often quite a useful yardstick to measure against that.

I remember the pressure that Jeremy Corbyn came under during his first PMQs. It was seen as the first test of his mettle as opposition leader.

I’m not sure which job I would least like to have in that interaction. The prime minister obviously has the weight of government behind them, but ultimately they are the one answering questions. But then, they are also the one who gets to go last, so they’re guaranteed the final word.

The other side has got a stripped-down, much smaller staff with no Whitehall machine behind, though they do notionally get to set some of the terms. And although it doesn’t really matter in terms of the pattern of policy outside of Westminster, it’s hugely important within that world because it is so important to the morale of MPs,  and helps them feel they feel that they are being led well and so on.

Absolutely. Let’s move onto The Perils of Perception: Why We’re Wrong About Nearly Everything. This is not a title I’m familiar with. Could you tell me about this political book?

Perils of Perception is a new book by Bobby Duffy, formerly a pollster and now director of the Policy Institute at King’s College, London. It’s about the things that we misperceive, and how that changes how we see the world—our political decisions. The thing which Duffy does very well in the book is he sets out quite dense numerical and psychological topics in a way that is lucid and accessible for almost anyone. He also does a really good job of dispelling the post-Trump (or post-Brexit) idea of people having misconceptions about the state of the world as a phenomenon that began in June 2016, driven by Facebook. It’s actually about the ways we’re hardwired to operate as human beings.

It’s a combination of both his disciplines: his long career as a pollster, his background as a student in psychology. It’s just a fascinating insight into how we all think, including some really brilliant stuff about the things we all get wrong. So, when you ask people to guess how many people in the population are over 65, we always think the number is more than it actually is. If you ask them about how many teenage pregnancies there are, we always think it’s more than it is. Of course, some of that is driven by the press, but it’s not like there’s a large press conspiracy to tell us that there are more over-65s than there are.

Despite the fact that it’s not a polemical book, it does, in an odd way I think, make you feel slightly more optimistic. A lot of the books that came out immediately after Trump’s election and Brexit—which mostly weren’t very good—wanted to set up this idea that it’s because people have been deluded by technology or apps or whatever. That makes you feel quite depressed and worried. Although he’s not saying that these things aren’t factors, what he posits is the notion that these are not new problems—which does, in an odd way, make you feel that we might again overcome them.

This discussion of biases reminds me of one your recent tweets: you said you’d been called up for a political opinion survey and felt one particular bias impacting upon your own answers.

Yes, I was called up by Populus, a British pollster, and it was a really surreal experience. Obviously I’ve written and read loads about one of the things which is really maddening for pollsters—social desirability bias. Social desirability bias is when instead of giving the truthful answer, you answer a question with what you think the right answer to be. and you want them to give a truthful answer, not what they think the right answer is.

They basically asked: “What are your perceptions of the Royal Air Force?” The questions were incredibly fair and un-slanted. They weren’t trying to get me to give a specific answer. I could tell they didn’t want me to go, ‘Oh, no, I do associate the Royal Air Force with service and strong values,’ but I couldn’t do it. The question which really tripped me up was: ‘Would you say you felt proud of the British Air Force?’ I thought, ‘Is there an option for neither proud nor un-proud?!’ It was really one of those odd things. It was surreal to have that experience of social desirability bias directly.

My background is in experimental psychology; I remember how much effort it takes to design questionnaires without leading questions. But to the participants, the wording—the impartial wording we’d finally settle on—could seem strange, even baffling.


You mentioned Brexit: perhaps we could talk about Tim Shipman’s Fall Out: A Year of Political Mayhem?

Yeah. Fall Out is a brilliant book. In an odd way, it proves a lot of what I would usually describe as the rules of what not to do to write a brilliant political book wrong.

It’s unashamedly a book about a very small elite. It’s not a study of the socio-economic causes of of Brexit, the political undercurrents that led to Brexit referendum and the snap election, or based on social trends or what people in Nuneaton felt about things. It is based on the machinations of about 40 people. And it is a book built on incredible access. It must have been written up at a frightening speed in order to meet its deadline.

Yet, despite all of those incredible pressures on it, it’s actually really good. From an access perspective, but it also reads well. Which, having read God knows how many submissions to the Baillie Gifford Prize, I have now realised is very much not a given. It’s technically a sequel, in that his first book All Out War was about the Brexit referendum. In keeping with all good sequels, it’s much darker and nastier, because almost everyone involved this time seems to have hated one another.

Having covered it and spoken to many of those involved, Shipman’s access is peerless. But it’s also surreal. Although I wrote about it at the time, I hadn’t really absorbed how much more miserable and nasty they all were until reading a full book of it, where everyone swears and has a go and just engages in casual cruelty all the time. It is a really great insight into the collapse of Theresa May, essentially.

Will we still be reading this political book in a decade?

Yes, I think we will. Partly because of how well it reads. Although, inevitably, it will only be seen as the first draft of history. It will be replaced by more weighty politics books that will have the benefit of access to documents, civil service files, ministerial diaries, and all of the rest of that. So its role will change. At the moment, it’s a very good secondary source, but I think it will live on as a very good primary source from someone who was right at the coalface of a lot of this stuff.

Finally, let’s move onto a more international title, Chernobyl by Serhii Plokhy. It was recently announced the winner of the 2018 Baillie Gifford Prize for non-fiction. It’s been one of the year’s most critically acclaimed titles. Why?

It’s a brilliant book. Unsurprisingly, it’s about Chernobyl and the disaster which happened there in the late 1980s. The history of the construction, decline, and near-collapse of that reactor. It’s really well written, and it’s benefited massively from his access to declassified Soviet archives.

It’s just a really thrilling book, as well as being a really interesting history of that time. But the reason why I think it’s also a brilliant political book is fundamentally what Plokhy reveals in his writing: that the failure of Chernobyl was fundamentally a failure of a political system as well as a failure of a scientific system. Because you have people incentivised to exaggerate production targets, to meet deadlines they shouldn’t have to meet . . .

“What Plokhy reveals is that the failure of Chernobyl was fundamentally a failure of a political system”

Now, of course, these are all system failures that exist freely within capitalism. I’m not saying that only a communist state could have a nuclear disaster—nothing like that. But it is a distinctly Soviet-era disaster. Although a disaster like Chernobyl could have happened under capitalism, the Chernobyl disaster is itself so distinct to the Soviet Union, to that kind of climate of secrecy and command and control. It really is just a brilliant insight into political failure, and a terrifying one.

You realise that we think of it as a massive reactor failure, but actually, only about a quarter of the reactor failed. If the reactor collapsed completely, it would have wiped out life on this earth. It was a truly terrifying hypothetical scenario, and he brings this to life. You don’t need to know anything about either nuclear power or the period to follow it.

Do you get this sense of how the political landscape in the Ukraine (and the former Soviet Union more widely) has unfolded since Chernobyl in this book?

No, though he nods to it in the foreword and the afterword, which is I think the appropriate place for a history book to go, ‘here’s how it relates to the present day.’

What really works well about it is he doesn’t feel that obligation to say, ‘This is how this relates to the present.’ It does the same thing that Yes to Europe!, Robert Saunders’ history of the 1975 referendum campaign, does very well: neither of them go, ‘Look, here’s how this matters in the present day.’

It’s just by reading it you inevitably think: ‘Hmm, well, there are loads of rogue states with a history of secrecy and a ‘success by any costs’ attitude which have nuclear reactors. There are loads of capitalist economies where people have to work ridiculous hours and hit ridiculous targets with nuclear reactors.’ And it’s impossible while reading the book not to draw the obvious parallel.

If someone was to read only one book on your list, which would you choose?

It would have to be Chernobyl. I must have read it four times during the judging process, and I gained something new from it every time.

Interview by Cal Flyn, Deputy Editor

December 6, 2018

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Stephen Bush

Stephen Bush

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and was named political commentator of the year by Editorial Intelligence in 2018. He writes the daily briefing newsletter Morning Call, and served on the judging panel of the 2018 Baillie Gifford Prize for nonfiction.

Stephen Bush

Stephen Bush

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and was named political commentator of the year by Editorial Intelligence in 2018. He writes the daily briefing newsletter Morning Call, and served on the judging panel of the 2018 Baillie Gifford Prize for nonfiction.