What the hell happened to 2016? If there’s one question that sums up the dark and febrile politics of the past year, that’s surely the one. First comes the shock but then the craving for something to explain the seemingly inexplicable, and, however unfairly, it’s in that light that this year’s crop of political books will inevitably be judged. Publishers can only provide so much insight in a world where events move this fast and furiously, but there are worse places to start than reading and reflecting.
Bookshops will be overflowing this Christmas with rival inside stories of Brexit, from the Downing Street spin doctor Craig Oliver’s campaign diaries to useful first-hand accounts from journalists Owen Bennett and Gary Gibbons. But the two I wouldn’t have been without were Tim Shipman’s authoritative All Out War: The Full Story of How Brexit Sank Britain’s Political Class (William Collins), the insider’s insider account, and its opposite, the Ukip donor Arron Banks’s The Bad Boys of Brexit: Tales of Mischief, Mayhem & Guerrilla Warfare in the EU Referendum Campaign (Biteback), billed as a campaign diary but in truth reconstructed after the event by the journalist Isabel Oakeshott (inconveniently, Banks didn’t keep an actual diary).
Shipman’s book expended serious shoe leather, talking to everyone that mattered, and seeking impartial conclusions. Banks’s is a lively but very partial tale of how a bunch of self-confessed clueless amateurs, seemingly pissed much of the time, cobbled together an unofficial “Out” movement that nonetheless generated some of the campaign’s most memorable moments – from the relatively benign flotilla down the Thames to the inflammatory “Breaking Point” poster, about which, it transpires, even Nigel Farage was jittery.
It’s perhaps only in the spirit of festive goodwill that many Guardian readers could contemplate buying Banks’s book. Still, every Remainer should steel themselves to read it, because the mindset that it captures – one they don’t like or understand – is driving change on both sides of the Atlantic.
Talking of change, it’s been another convulsive year for Labour. Nothing I’ve read so far provides a definitive all‑round account of the Corbyn revolution, although Rosa Prince’s otherwise slightly colour-by-numbers biography Comrade Corbyn: A Very Unlikely Coup (Biteback) has a terrific first-hand account of the 2015 Labour leadership contest, and dedicated Corbynites might enjoy finding Alex Nunns’s fervently sympathetic The Candidate: Jeremy Corbyn’s Improbable Path to Power (OR) in their Christmas stockings. (Warning: not for those curious as to why the glorious revolution seems to be stalling with the voters.) But the best take on what happened to the rest of the Labour party is probably Ed Balls’s Speaking Out: Lessons in Life and Politics (Hutchinson). Mercifully short on the inside-the-beltway detail that fills most political autobiographies, and unusually expansive on the emotional aspects of politicians’ relationship with the voters, it feels somehow timely. Doubtless he’ll update it with a chapter on Strictly Come Dancing.
The biography I was most looking forward to was Ken Clarke’s Kind of Blue (Macmillan), but while it’s an entertaining romp through his time in the Thatcher and Major governments, it becomes too self-satisfied for its own good once he enters modern times. Balls’s greater willingness to confess self-doubt in print makes his one of the two standout autobiographies of a year that ought to have shaken conventional politicians’ faith.
The other, perhaps surprisingly, is Nick Clegg’s Politics: Between the Extremes (Bodley Head). I was expecting just another self-justifying account of the coalition years, but this one melds a political life with wider reflections on the crisis facing liberals (and not just the overtly Lib Dem kind).
In retrospect Cleggmania, fuelled by a pent-up hunger for change, was the benign early forerunner of what would become the Trump, Brexit and Corbyn movements, and Clegg’s account of how unnerving it was to experience that from the inside is fascinating. His take on the futility of trying to reason with voters in the grip of powerful emotions, presumably written before it was obvious Donald Trump was going to win, feels prescient too. If you only have time for two political books this year, this and Banks’s together catch the zeitgeist.
For Westminster junkies, meanwhile, one of the most useful things I read all year was a dry tome by four academics on how social media interacts with politics to produce fast-growing but volatile grassroots movements. It’s no Boxing Day page-turner, but Political Turbulence: How Social Media Shape Collective Action (Princeton), by Helen Margetts, Peter John, Scott Hale and Taha Yasseri, sheds interesting light on the year’s great upheavals.
What quickly becomes clear, sifting through the year’s output, is how few political books are written either by or about women. One bucking both trends was the Labour MP Rachel Reeves’s Alice in Westminster: The Political Life of Alice Bacon (IB Tauris), a portrait of one of those obscure female politicians you wonder why you’ve never heard of before. Bacon was a miner’s daughter who rose against the odds to become a senior minister under Harold Wilson, helping push through the legalisation of abortion and homosexuality, and usher in comprehensive education. Reeves clearly wants to give a forgotten woman her due, and there’s a quiet charm to this book after a year that saw competent female managers from Hillary Clinton to Angela Eagle leapfrogged by noisier men.
And the book I really, really want from Santa this year? It’s the one that hasn’t been written yet, drawing together all the strands – Trump, Corbynmania, Brexit – and working out where dismayed soggy liberals go from here. Well, there’s always 2017.
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Best book lists of 2016
Source: The Guardian