In It Together by Matthew D'Ancona: The virus has proved treatable with doses of compromise and negotiation

This does not claim to be a book about class - but the theme sneaks up on the story and, by the end, threatens to usurp politics as the main subject.

In It Together: the Inside Story of the Coalition Government
Matthew d’Ancona
Viking, 432pp, £25

David Cameron is the first British prime minister in history to have enshrined in law the date when he is to seek re-election – 7 May 2015 is the day stipulated in the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011. It’s a constitutional tweak of great political consequence. Cameron understood that his coalition with the Liberal Democrats would be spoiled by mistrust from the start if parliament could be dissolved by Downing Street whim, so he surrendered that old privilege.

Instead, mistrust crept in only gradually. Even then, the virus has proved treatable with doses of compromise and negotiation. Fever has been a symptom of media speculation about relations between the governing parties much more than is justified by the underlying health of their partnership.

In It Together, Matthew d’Ancona’s fluent narration of the first three years of coalition government, explains why the project has consistently failed to fail when most onlookers predicted it would. Prompt agreement on a fixed, five-year term was not a minor detail. It was George Osborne who, in d’Ancona’s account, grasped the need for legislative nuptials to reassure the Lib Dems of Tory constancy. From the junior partners’ point of view, a fixed-term contract helped support Nick Clegg’s assertion, made at a rose-fringed Downing Street press conference shortly after the election, that Britain was witnessing the formation not just of a new government, but of a “new politics”.

Clegg was half right. There was novelty in the sight of erstwhile enemies governing as if they were friends but the whole show was also powered by an ancient energy source – the competitive affinity between two men marshalling the complaisance that is bred at top public schools.

In It Together does not claim to be a book about class but the theme sneaks up on the story and, by the end, threatens to usurp politics as the main subject. The title refers to promises made by Cameron and Osborne that the pain of Budget austerity would be inflicted equitably across society. But the sincerity of the slogan has been imperilled constantly by public perception of a government staffed by Old Etonians and other toffs. The vanity-drenched portrait of Oxford University’s tailcoated Bullingdon Club haunts the Prime Minister and his Chancellor “like criminal mugshots follow Hollywood stars”, d’Ancona writes. “As austerity bit and the economic recovery stalled, the photographs did their brutal semiotic work.”

Cameron in particular comes across as acutely conscious of the political hazard posed by his background and yet oblivious to the way that this background informs his style of government. One of the most revealing chapters in the book describes the disillusionment of Steve Hilton, the Tory leader’s friend and adviser who co-authored his strategy for the “modernisation” of the party in opposition and who moved into Downing Street fizzing with ambition to refashion the entire apparatus of the state. Hilton was thwarted partly by his unfocused and immoderate temperament and partly by a civil service that treated imagination as a threat. Above all, he was dismayed to see his old friend Dave preferring the comforts of office to the confrontations of perpetual policy revolution. Hilton is the son of Hungarian immigrants and a devotee of the US west coast cult of innovation by creative disruption. He had thought he was part of a gang of radicals storming the establishment. He somehow failed to spot that they were, in reality, the establishment. When he realised, he quit No 10 for a job in California.

D’Ancona describes a tight social circle running the Tory side of the coalition – old friends, their wives, ex-girlfriends, all joining each other for holidays and dinner parties and sharing childcare, now all ministers or Downing Street staffers. He draws the contrast with the New Labour elite who took charge of the country in 1997. Tony Blair’s clan started life as a political project and only later evolved into a governing family before splitting into mafiosi tribes. Cameron’s was a clique before it thought of running the country. That makes it more affable than the Blairites but also lacking in purpose. The Cameroons had an easy ride to power before they had thought enough about what power should be for.

Many of the chapters in the story are structured around a skirmish between coalition parties or within them – constitutional reform; Europe; the NHS; benefit cuts. The political calculations of the central players are meticulously analysed, colourfully reported and often, thanks to d’Ancona’s lavish contacts book, brought to life with direct speech. Yet it is rare for points of principle to be the focus. There is much bartering and the occasional stab to the back but not much interrogation of motive. Everything hinges on the need to keep the coalition together and, on the Tory side, the imperative of manoeuvring into a position from which a majority might be winnable in 2015.

That isn’t a failure of d’Ancona’s prose, which manages the trick of seeming effortless with discreet ornament. The problem lies more with Cameron, Clegg and Osborne, whose reasons for wanting public office, beyond the thrill of it, are opaque. In that context, In It Together is frequently generous to the government. Some readers, especially those of a leftish disposition, will be irked by the way d’Ancona lavishes the benefit of the doubt on his subjects – above all, the Chancellor. However, given that politicians are usually despised in Britain, there is a corrective merit in heeding the view of a supportive insider striving to be dispassionate.

The problem is more acute as the story approaches the present day. Sources who were candid about the early years of coalition were clearly more reticent about coalition arguments (over acceptable levels of anti-immigration rhetoric, for instance) that remain unresolved. The vital sense of intimacy with power dims towards the end of the book.

There are still 20 months to go of this fixed-term parliament, which feels somehow longer than most. It is hard, reading In It Together, not to be struck by the number of things that have happened that seemed big at the time and already feel oddly distant: students storming the Conservative Party headquarters; the riots of summer 2011; the war in Libya. It was journalism one minute, history the next. D’Ancona’s book is a valiant attempt to straddle both genres but the story isn’t over yet. As a result, the product of his labour feels provisional; the unwritten postscript – to be continued.

Rafael Behr is the political editor of the New Statesman

David Cameron and Nick Clegg: an unholy alliance? Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 11 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iran vs Israel

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle