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The best books on The British Parliament

recommended by Iain Dale

The Prime Ministers: 55 Leaders, 55 Authors, 300 Years of History ed. Iain Dale

out in paperback

The Prime Ministers: 55 Leaders, 55 Authors, 300 Years of History
ed. Iain Dale


Westminster is one of the oldest and most influential legislatures in the world. Here, Iain Dale—one of Britain’s leading political commentators—recommends the best books that offer insights into the inner workings of the British parliament, highlighting first-hand accounts both from the floor of the House of Commons and of the wrangling that goes on behind the scenes.

Interview by Laura Beveridge

The Prime Ministers: 55 Leaders, 55 Authors, 300 Years of History ed. Iain Dale

out in paperback

The Prime Ministers: 55 Leaders, 55 Authors, 300 Years of History
ed. Iain Dale

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Thanks for speaking to Five Books today. You’ve been a Westminster insider and an influential political commentator for over two decades. What factors did you consider when you selected your book recommendations on the British parliament?

I think the most important thing in any political book is that it is accessible to people who are not obsessed with politics. And, it’s got to be of interest to people who are obsessed with politics. But I think the most successful books are the ones that appeal to people who may just have a passing interest in the subject.

I think that’s probably the theme of all of the books that I’ve picked: they’re very accessible. They’re very readable. They should appeal to anyone, and they should appeal to people across the political spectrum.

Your first recommendation is The Alastair Campbell Diaries, of which there are eight volumes. Is there any particular volume that people should start with?

I think the whole set is important because it’s the best example of contemporary history if you want to know about the Blair government, or even the Brown government. Obviously, it’s a subjective view—but he was there—and sometimes you have to discount the contemporaneous nature of diaries in that they are a historical document written in the heat of the moment, which sometimes means that they go over the top a little bit. You’re not necessarily thinking clearly all the time because you’ve been involved in the events that you’re describing. But I think Alistair has a really good mix of analysis, self-analysis, and a good observational nature about the people that he’s dealing with.

It is warts and all. I mean, often the writer of a political diary has the temptation to make themselves the hero of every chapter. This is not the case in Alastair Campbell’s. He recognises when he’s done something wrong, or argued the wrong case, or not supported Tony Blair in the way that he would have wanted to. They’re very raw. I think that transcends every single volume I published.

I published volumes five to eight, and I suppose they are a little bit different in that, as time goes on, he’s slightly more remote from the centre of events. I mean, Gordon Brown keeps trying to get him back into Downing Street to advise him, and he still does that a bit, but he’s got other things going on in his life. And, I think the last volume is probably a bit more personal than the others. He talks about his mental health, which I think is a really good thing for him to do. As a collection of diaries, they’re a really important historical document.

Why do you think that the New Labour era—recorded in these volumes—is important when it comes to understanding British parliament today?

Well, a lot of the issues that we’re dealing with now actually stem from that era. Not all, but some. If you look at immigration, for example, I think a lot of the problems that we’re experiencing now stem from the failure of that government to get to grips with it. The problems that we’re dealing with as a result of Brexit could go back to that government—partly because of the failure to deal with immigration that, in the end, led to the Brexit vote, or was one of the factors in the Brexit vote.

So, I think that there are lots of lessons to be drawn from the New Labour era. It’s the same for any era of history. You have to analyse it, you have to learn lessons from it. Otherwise, I think it was Churchill who said, those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.

Obviously, most prime ministers are defined by one issue. For Tony Blair that will be the Iraq war. We’re still dealing with the fallout from Iraq. I can remember saying at the time that I believed the prime minister when he told me that the country was in danger because there were weapons of mass destruction. I remember saying on the radio at the time that if it turns out that that is wrong, and that Blair has inadvertently not told the truth, nobody will ever believe a British prime minister ever again when they persuade the country that it needs to go to war. We’ve seen that time and time again over the last twenty years: the public has become much more cynical about politics in general. I think that is a direct result of that decision.

Another legacy associated with the New Labour era is often said to be the introduction of professional ‘spin’ into British politics. And, the next book you recommended is from Gordon Brown’s former special advisor—who once planned, in a series of emails, to disseminate false rumours about you and high-profile Conservative Party members. What does Damian McBride’s book Power Trip: A Decade of Policy, Plots, and Spin tell readers about the British parliament that Alastair Campbell’s diaries do not?

It’s effectively an autobiography. And, an autobiography is very different from a diary. I mean, there are overlaps, obviously, but an autobiography is written with the benefit of hindsight. Damian’s book is basically a mea culpa, talking about all of the things that led to his eventual downfall. I’ve published 600 books in my career and I still think that Damian’s is the best book of all of them. It’s incredibly readable. It reads like a novel—at times, a thriller. It holds the reader’s attention as very few other political books do.

Maybe I’m influenced because I didn’t just publish it, I played a role in his defenestration. He tried to portray me as sort of an extreme, far-right racist. All of the emails came to light and, in the end, he was forced to resign. Eighteen months later, he wrote me a letter of apology for what he’d done. We met for a coffee and I said, ‘well, why don’t you write a book?’ And so he did. And I published it. So, there was a certain serendipity there. But even if I hadn’t had any role in it, I think I still would have found Damian’s book one of the most fascinating I’ve ever read.

He does talk about the art of spin, but let’s not run away with the belief that spin was started under New Labour. Spin has been around since the days of Henry VIII in different forms. I think we recognise it more now because it’s more obvious and we know the people that are doing it.

Damien really goes into the art of the spin doctor. I’ve done that a little bit in the past for various politicians and when I was a politician myself. People always think it’s ‘the dark craft of spin’, but it’s not quite like that. It is just like normal PR. You’re putting the best gloss on something, even if there isn’t much of a gloss to put on it. That happens in business. It happens in the charity world. It happens in every aspect of our society, but when it happens in politics, I think it’s a little bit more obvious.

If the first two books we’ve discussed take us behind the closed doors of politicking, Punch and Judy Politics provides insight into something more public-facing: Prime Minister’s Questions, commonly known as PMQs. In this book, former Labour special advisor Ayesha Hazarika and former Labour head of research Tom Hamilton provide ‘rules’ for mastering this spectacle of the British parliament. What was your biggest takeaway from this book?

I think the great thing about this book is that the two authors talk to virtually all of the living politicians who’ve taken part in PMQs. They talked to a lot of advisors and they were both advisors themselves to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. So, they had an almost ringside seat into all of it.

I think they bring out the trials and tribulations that politicians go through. Ayesha Hazarika used to work for Ed Miliband and advised him on PMQs. She says he was almost a physical wreck before them, and David Cameron admits that he was more nervous about doing PMQs than anything else.

It is political theatre. People say they don’t like the yahoo politics of PMQs. Of course they do. That’s why they tune in and watch it. You don’t get these kinds of audiences for anything that goes on in the US Senate or the House of Representatives or the German Bundestag. At times, the politicians do go over the top, and it’s maybe not particularly seemly.

“I think the most important thing in any political book is that it is accessible to people who are not obsessed with politics”

You can compare the scenes from PMQs now to the scenes in the House of Commons in the 18th century, where there was sometimes real violence. So political theatre has always been there, and it’s a good thing as it gets people interested.

I think what Ayesha and Tom also do really well in this book is bring out the rawness of PMQs and the fact that it isn’t necessarily just there for an outside audience. The performance of the party leader is designed to unite their troops and make them feel better about their own party. Now, it doesn’t always work, but it is the ultimate in ‘Punch and Judy’ politics. We saw that recently when Rishi Sunak had a right old go at Keir Starmer, the leader of the opposition, about the small boats. He basically said Keir Starmer is a friend of the people traffickers, which was a disgraceful thing to say, especially from a prime minister who we thought wasn’t going to do that Boris Johnson style. So, you often learn something about politicians from the way that they behave at PMQs, whether they’re the party leaders or the ones asking the questions.

Someone who had a lot of experience with PMQs was Margaret Thatcher. In 2023, her name is still a near-constant presence in British political discourse. How can her memoirs help us understand why this is the case?

Political memoirs are sometimes a little bit dull. Margaret Thatcher’s are not. They were partly ghosted by one of her colleagues, Robin Harris, but she certainly set the parameters and they are highly readable. They’re not gossipy in the sense that Tony Blair’s memoirs, for example, are. Blair’s was a splurge. It was like they’d been written by a sixth former, almost. I mean, he even talked about having conceived one of his children while at Balmoral with the Queen. I’m thinking: do we really need to know that? You don’t get that kind of detail in Margaret Thatcher’s memoirs—thank goodness.

But, they are historical documents, two volumes. The first volume goes up to the moment she took power in 1979. I think they help you understand her motivations. Obviously, when you write an autobiography, it is your one opportunity to get your version of events on the record. It’s often said about political biography or autobiography that they are works of fiction about yourself. I don’t think hers are. There is a certain rawness to certain parts of it. The chapter where she describes how she was ousted in 1998 was very emotional for a woman who wasn’t that emotional. In the section on the Falklands War, she writes about all of the letters that she wrote to the families of the soldiers who were killed—255 handwritten personal letters. They were all different. She describes how when HMS Sheffield was sunk, and she was told the news, she sat there in tears. Now, in theory, you don’t really want a prime minister who will get very emotional having made decisions over military strategy. But it belied her reputation as the Iron Lady. She was the Iron Lady, but she did show emotions from time to time.

We have to remember that there had not been a woman prime minister before her. Even on the day before she was elected, she did a party political broadcast to reassure voters that while there may not have been a woman prime minister before, ‘I’m capable of doing this, trust me.’ And, obviously, people did. She was there for 11 and a half years and it was a tumultuous time. She was the politician that got me interested in politics. And it’s a cliche to say, but we’ll never see the likes of her again. Even people who really hated her, I think have now come to respect the fact that she did what she thought was right, even if they disagreed with it.

The fact that this book is still in print is testament to the fact that, thirty years after her departure from office, she still, as you said, extends a massive influence over British politics.

The final book you recommended was Confessions of a Recovering MP by Nick de Bois. This book dispels a lot of assumptions about the life of a legislator, particularly around how much power they hold as individual MPs. Why do you think that this book is a good read for someone looking to learn more about the British parliament?

I suppose that there’s a bit of a theme in all the books that I’ve chosen in that there’s a real rawness about them. Nick de Bois was only an MP for one term, between 2010 and 2015. He lost his seat to the Labour MP that he defeated in 2010. I got to know him quite a bit. He was a regular on my radio show. And I actually helped him get a career in radio after he finished as an MP. It’s very difficult for MPs who lose their seats. There’s this phrase: there’s nothing so ex as an ex-MP. Many of them find it difficult to get jobs after leaving parliament because, in a way, being a member of parliament doesn’t really qualify you to do much else.

Nick was a successful businessman before he entered parliament. He wasn’t poor, he didn’t need to earn money, but wanted to do something rewarding. When he came to me with the idea for this book, I was a little bit hesitant at first, but then he wrote a couple of chapters. I thought: he can really write, this is quite funny and insightful. It’s not an autobiography, but it’s got autobiographical bits to it. He describes what the life of an ordinary backbencher is like and its frustrations. Most politicians, whether they’re frontbenchers or backbenchers, have frustrations because they always think that power is held at the next rung up the political ladder that they haven’t quite got to yet. Then, they get to that stage and they find that it’s actually at the next level and then the next level.

Nick never became a minister, which I thought was weird, because I think he would have been a very good minister. He’s very eloquent, good on the media, had some good ideas, and could explain Conservative policies very well. His book looks at all of the different aspects of being an MP from constituency work to parliamentary work. Even somebody who knows nothing about politics or is not interested in it would find this book to be an interesting read.

You’ve authored and edited a lot of books yourself about British politics, including The Prime Ministers 1721-2020: Three Hundred Years of Political Leadership. Each chapter details a different British prime minister, written by a different author, with the ultimate chapter about Boris Johnson written by yourself.  What inspired you to create this book?

I did it because nobody else had done it. It’s such a simple format, I couldn’t believe no one had done it before. It was coming up to the 300th anniversary of Sir Robert Walpole becoming our first prime minister in 1721—and it’s always good to hook a book onto an anniversary. I decided, I can’t write this book myself, I haven’t got the time. And, there were quite a few of the early prime ministers that, even as an ultimate political geek, I’d never heard of. And I thought: I want to know more about Henry Pelham or John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute.

So, I recruited an army of 55 different people, each of whom wrote one chapter. It was quite like putting a jigsaw puzzle together. For some of the chapters, I actually approached someone to write about a particular prime minister, who I knew they had a bit of knowledge of. For others, I asked people to bid for them. That was a really interesting process. I think it worked well.

Obviously, when you have 55 different people writing, they will write in different styles, but there were very few chapters that stuck out like a sore thumb. One or two we had to redraft a bit. It became a bestseller, and there aren’t many political books that become bestsellers—particularly not £25 hardbacks! So I followed it up with a book on American presidents. The next one is on kings and queens, which will come out in September 2023, then I’m going to do dictators and generals. People seem to really like the format.

Interview by Laura Beveridge

March 28, 2023

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Iain Dale

Iain Dale

Iain Dale is a British broadcaster, author, and political commentator. His most recent books are Why Can’t We All Get Along: Shout Less, Listen More (Harper Collins), The Prime Ministers 1721-2020: Three Hundred Years of Political Leadership (Hodder & Stoughton) and The Presidents: 250 Years of American Political Leadership. Iain co-hosts a weekly podcast with former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith called For the Many, and is the former managing director of Britain’s leading political publisher, Biteback Publishing.

Iain Dale

Iain Dale

Iain Dale is a British broadcaster, author, and political commentator. His most recent books are Why Can’t We All Get Along: Shout Less, Listen More (Harper Collins), The Prime Ministers 1721-2020: Three Hundred Years of Political Leadership (Hodder & Stoughton) and The Presidents: 250 Years of American Political Leadership. Iain co-hosts a weekly podcast with former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith called For the Many, and is the former managing director of Britain’s leading political publisher, Biteback Publishing.