If Britain were a building, it would be a crumbling stately home; still grand but decrepit now in parts, its gardens overgrown and its floorboards warped. Or at least that’s what most Germans think, according to John Kampfner’s Why the Germans Do It Better (Atlantic), the book that perhaps best captures the state we’re in despite not actually being about us. It’s been a lousy year for British exceptionalism, or the overconfident belief in this country being inherently better than any other, whether at handling pandemics or bending Brexit negotiations to its will.
Kampfner, a former foreign correspondent whose Jewish father fled his home in Bratislava as Hitler’s army advanced, isn’t blind to German failings. His title, he confesses, horrifies German friends who beg him to include more of what their country is getting wrong. But he writes with great affection about a nation that he calls “a bulwark of decency and stability”, rising again and again to the given challenge; reuniting peacefully with the East, opening its doors to refugees, tackling the coronavirus pandemic. Even Germans’ dogged attachment to what may seem rather stifling social norms – when Kampfner was living there a neighbour once left a note on his car, urging him politely to clean it because it was “bringing down the reputation of the street” – served them well, he argues, in lockdown. But ultimately he sees Germany’s greatest strength as its willingness to interrogate and doubt itself, a habit instilled during the postwar years of moral reckoning. One for armchair travellers – it made me itch to visit Berlin – but also those approaching Brexit’s final frontier with a nagging sense of loss.
Talking of loss, this year has produced a bumper crop of books analysing where it all went horribly wrong for Labour last December. Owen Jones’s This Land (Allen Lane) is clearly an account of Jeremy Corbyn’s downfall from inside the tent – he is open about being offered (and declining) a job working for the then new leader – while Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire’s Left Out (Bodley Head) is a more conventional reporting exercise. But caricaturing one as bowdlerised and the other as hatchet job would be deeply unfair to two absorbing, nuanced accounts of the making of electoral disaster. Politics junkies will pounce on the differences – Jones’s tale of tensions inside the Labour campaign to remain in Europe, for example, is noticeably kinder to Corbyn than many – but will also find similarities, with the shadow chancellor John McDonnell emerging from both books as an unsung hero increasingly frustrated when his advice isn’t heeded.
And in both, a hole emerges where the leader should be. Prone to disappearing when difficult decisions loom, reluctant to engage in some surprisingly big difficult questions, Corbyn emerges as a man allergic to conflict and uncomfortable in a job that invariably revolves around it. The final missing piece of the electoral jigsaw meanwhile is provided by Deborah Mattinson’s Behind the Red Wall (Biteback), a thoughtful deep dive into the lives and feelings of swing voters in three seats in the Labour heartlands that fell to the Tories.
One book any self-respecting Corbynista should enjoy finding in their stocking, however, is Robin Bunce and Samara Linton’s Diane Abbott (Biteback), a biography of a pioneering woman too often relegated to a walk-on part in accounts of Corbynism, which sets out exactly what she has been fighting all her life.
When she gets into grammar school, a teacher demands to know where she copied her essay from, apparently unable to believe this “little chubby black girl” could manage anything so good. When she eventually makes it to Cambridge, she is humiliatingly mistaken at a May ball for a kitchen hand, despite being dressed to the nines. Growing active in the Labour party, she is often the only black face in the meeting. This is an authorised account in which Abbott’s private life remains largely off-limits beyond her childhood, making the latter chapters a little more dry. But the tale of her own battle to be selected, and of the fight for Black Sections within a Labour movement at times reluctant to acknowledge its own buried racism, feels ripe for sharing with a new generation of Black Lives Matter activists.
The shadow justice secretary David Lammy’s Tribes (Constable) is a thoughtful book about bringing a bitterly divided Britain back together, very much in the Christmas spirit of goodwill. The best read for a hungover Boxing Day, however, is Sasha Swire’s rollicking Diary of an MP’s Wife (Little, Brown). This wildly indiscreet tale of life inside David Cameron’s inner circle – Swire’s husband Hugo was a Tory minister and the two couples were on intimate terms – involves a lot of faintly insufferable kitchen suppers in Notting Hill. But it’s as much fun to pick through as a box of Quality Street, and beneath the gossipy surface lies a razor-sharp analysis of the Cameroons’ descent from their gilded heyday to being eaten alive by Brexit. It ends with the ascent of Boris Johnson, which is where Tom Bower’s biography of the current prime minister picks up.
True to form, in Boris Johnson: The Gambler (WH Allen) the author unearths the family secret others missed. The PM’s mother, Charlotte, confides that his father Stanley hit her when the children were small; Boris was, sadly, old enough to realise what was going on. The book is built around the idea of an emotionally damaged little boy, who grew up into a compulsive womaniser, and whose slippery habit of promising all things to all people stems from a childhood desire to defuse confrontations. It’s a convincing enough psychological analysis of one of the most complex characters in British politics, but unfortunately Bower’s empathy often seems to begin and end with Boris.
Mistakes in office are repeatedly explained as someone else’s fault, and those who have crossed swords with him are dispatched with surprising vitriol. One scornful passage describing Paula Sherriff, a Labour MP plagued by repeated far-right death threats, confronting the PM over what she considered his use of inflammatory language about Brexit, feels genuinely uncomfortable to read. Bower’s disclosure that the prime minister “is not a stranger in my house” – his wife, the former newspaper editor Veronica (now Lady) Wadley, encouraged Johnson to run for mayor of London – doesn’t come as a shock.
The sins of the father loom large too in Too Much and Never Enough by Mary Trump (Simon & Schuster), a fascinating memoir from the US president’s niece that sheds a very prescient light on his refusal to quit the White House. The author’s own father, Donald’s brother Freddy, was the eldest son of the family; in her telling, Donald and Freddy’s father, Fred Trump Sr, was a sociopath who pitted his children cruelly against each other. Eventually Freddy Jr is deemed the loser, not fit to inherit the family business, and brutally rejected. Donald steps up, but never forgets the lesson that failure equals ostracism. From then on everything he touches must always be terrific, amazing, the best it could be. Policy purists may prefer the veteran journalist Bob Woodward’s Rage (Simon & Schuster), a densely reported account of Trump’s latter years in office enlivened by often rambling conversations with the man himself. Watching him cling on by his fingernails this November, one struggles to dispute Mary’s belief that Trump’s greatest fear is losing face in public.
The Trump years evidently cast a shadow over Barack Obama as he wrote his memoir of life in the White House, A Promised Land (Viking). Yet Trump’s defeat allows readers to end the year on a cheerier note. Evan Osnos’s Joe Biden: American Dreamer (Bloomsbury) is a thoroughly readable primer on the new president-elect, a man shaped by terrible loss (his first wife and baby daughter were killed in a car crash, and one of his two surviving sons then died of cancer aged 46) who must somehow now rise to an extraordinary moment. Osnos weaves the human and political stories together in an account that doesn’t gloss over Biden’s shortcomings: the gaffes, the fact that Barack Obama seemingly didn’t rate him as highly as Hillary Clinton, a past voting record that dismays some progressives, alleged inappropriate behaviour with women. But it depicts him as a man at least capable of learning from his mistakes, leaving room for one last surge of hope. Here’s to better times ahead.
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