What do our politicians read? The preferred reading options of our leading politicians don’t tell us too much about what they think or want to do. David Cameron’s favourite book is the anti-war memoir of poet Robert Graves Goodbye to All That-though he gave the slightly less highbrow (but presumably more useful) Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall as his desert island discs choice. Ed Milband offered up the more current On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan (and his favourite invention was the internet). Nick Clegg gave a rather wide ranging list which included Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr and Two Concepts of Liberty by Isaiah Berlin. Nigel Farage’s favourite book is The Thirty Nine Steps, John Buchanan’s classic story of thwarted foreign plots, and, perhaps less predictably, his favourite European country is Italy. There’s more US politicians favourite reads here. So what could I recommend for them to read over the summer?
Given Cameron’s EU problems and Miliband’s difficulties with the unions I think the theme would have to be leadership. I’ll take inspiration, in part, from what books MPs have borrowed from the House of Commons library-see my previous analysis here. The first book from this list would be the latest instalment of Robert Caro’s (not yet finished) four-volume biography of President Lyndon Johnson The Passage of Power (see this review by Bill Clinton). Johnson, as these books show in amazing detail, was a master politician and an exemplary leader. He was his own chief whip and strategist, who combined vision and arm twisting and spent his life taking over every institution he came across from his college to the Senate. In the US upper house he broke a century of opposition to civil rights in possibly the greatest display of cajoling in US history. He was also a politician unafraid to spend his political capital and this book tells the story his greatest triumph-the Civil Rights Act. The next volume will show how his leadership and vision came unstuck in Vietnam …
This leads to the second book on the MPs’ list: Losing Small Wars by Frank Lewidge. The former army officer makes devastating use of publically available records to show how both politicians and the senior military ‘lost’ Iraq and Afghanistan through a failure to lead or set goals. As this review points out, while politicians failed to set objectives, the military failed to ask for them and let pragmatic ideas of doing ‘something’ take over. While the Americans adapted their thinking the British army, fed by myths from Northern Ireland, became bogged down in unnecessary attrition and conflict. The tragedy was underlined by one military leader’s recent comments that negotiation should have been done a decade ago.
The final book would be one of my personal favourites-Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince. This 1500s ‘guide’ for politicians has been heavily criticised-partly because of who attacked it (Shakespeare) and who praised it (Mussolini). The book is intended as a ‘truthful’ guide to what politicians need to do to maintain power. It is undoubtedly blunt: leaders ‘should not deviate from what is good, if that is possible, but he should know how to do evil, if that is necessary’ and ‘Men are wretched creatures who would not keep their word to you’.
But Machiavelli also gave some valuable advice on leading: ‘One must be a fox in order to recognise traps and a lion to frighten off wolves’. As a diplomat in Florence, he saw coups and counter-coups, wars and spent time around some of the true villains of Renaissance Italy. After all his watching, his real message was that politicians need to adapt to new situations-he felt his central lesson was that ‘one who adapts his policy to the times prospers …one who does not will fail’ and urged politicians to be ‘bold’ against fortune. If Cameron, Clegg or Miliband pick up a copy and read from page 90 onwards they may find something to think about.
Dr Benjamin Worthy is a lecturer in politics at Birkbeck College.