Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Melvyn Bragg, Edward St Aubyn and Arthur Phillips.

The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible by Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg's ode to the King James Bible, on its 400th anniversary, is "elegant, accessible and passionately argued" writes Peter Stanford in The Independent. The Book of Books: The Radical Impact of the King James Bible "tells the history of the King James with the vigour and pace of a storyteller rather than the dry precision of an academic," he writes. Stanford urges even the "most militant non-believers" to read this book, though notes "Bragg devotes a chapter to a devastating attack on Richard Dawkins".

Writing in the FT, John Cornwell suggests that of the many scholars who have celebrated the Bible's birthday with a book "it is left to Melvyn Bragg to claim far-reaching social and political consequences from the KJB in an unabashedly Whiggish class of his own". Though Bragg attributes much British "social and political beneficence" to the influence of the King James, Cornwell imagines he "may not convince all his readers". But for the reviewer's part he is "inclined to accept [Bragg's] final word: that the KJB's impact 'has been immeasurable and it's not over yet'".

At Last by Edward St Aubyn

At Last is the final installment of Edward St Aubyn's sequence on the life of Patrick Melrose: a protagonist who, born to a wealthy family "tettering on the edge of immense wealth... has spent most of his time dealing with the fallout". "A novel of exquisite observation which conveys a movement towards peace" writes Phillip Womack for The Telegraph. "We have reached the pinnacle of a series that has plunged into darkness and risen towards light." Womack applauds St Aubyn's novels for being "uncommonly well controlled", noting as a result "their impact is all for the more powerful". Leyla Sanai for The Independent remarks "St Aubyn is still deliciously wicked in his satire". "The blend of acid wit, intellect and compassion" for which St Aubyn is famed is "plaited through At Last", she writes. It is a novel which alone "enthralls... but in sequence their power is synergistic".

The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

Stephen Greenblatt for The New York Times declares Arthur Phillips's faux-Shakespearian tale a "splendidly devious novel". Constructed around a five-act play "entitled 'The Tragedy of Arthur by William Shakespeare'... we are dealing not with parody but with something else: fraud. This is a full length fake. It is a surprisingly good fake, too". Greenblatt praises both Phillips's "fictional memoir" which serves as the introduction, and the "forged play" itself which "leaves the reader not with resentment at having been tricked but rather with gratitude for the gift of feigned wonder".

David L Ulin, writing for the LA Times, confesses though he's "not much of a Shakespearean, [he'd] say Phillips pulls it off". For Ulin the question of whether the Shakespeare is authentic is "almost entirely beside the point. What's essential, rather, is the saga that surrounds it, a family drama involving (yes) Arthur Phillips, who both is and isn't the author of this book".

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Leader: Labour is failing. A hard Brexit is looming. But there is no need for fatalism

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit.

Democracy depends on competent opposition. Governments, however well intentioned, require permanent and effective scrutiny to meet the public interest. For this purpose, the role of Her Majesty’s Opposition was enshrined in law 80 years ago. However, at present, and in the week Article 50 is invoked, this constitutional duty is being fulfilled in name alone. (The Scottish National Party speaks only for the Scottish interest.)

Since re-electing Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has become the weakest opposition in postwar history. It lost the recent Copeland by-election to the Conservatives (a seat the Tories had not held since 1931) and trails the governing party, by up to 19 points, in opinion polls. The Tories feel no pressure from Labour. They confidently predict they will retain power until 2030 or beyond. Yet as the poll tax debacle and the Iraq War demonstrate, prolonged periods of single-party rule run the danger of calamitous results – not least, this time, the break-up of Britain.

Under Mr Corbyn, who formally lost the confidence of 80 per cent of his MPs last summer (and has not regained it), Labour has the least impressive and least qualified front bench in its history. Its enfeeblement has left a void that no party is capable of filling. “The grass-roots social movement of the left that was supposed to arrive in Jeremy Corbyn’s wake has not shown up,” the academic Nick Pearce, a former head of Gordon Brown’s policy unit, writes on page 36.

In these new times, the defining struggle is no longer between parties but within the Conservative Party. As a consequence, many voters have never felt more unrepresented or disempowered. Aided by an increasingly belligerent right-wing press, the Tory Brexiteers are monopolising and poisoning debate: as the novelist Ian McEwan said, “The air in my country is very foul.” Those who do not share their libertarian version of Brexit Britain are impugned as the “enemies” of democracy. Theresa May has a distinctive vision but will the libertarian right allow her the time and space to enact it?

Let us not forget that the Conservatives have a majority of just 15 or that Labour’s problems did not begin with Mr Corbyn’s leadership. However, his divisiveness and unpopularity have accelerated the party’s decline. Although the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, elected by a fraction of his union membership, loftily pronounced that the Labour leader had 15 months left to prove himself, the country cannot afford to wait that long.

Faced with the opposition’s weakness, some have advocated a “progressive alliance” to take on the Conservatives. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens and the nationalist parties are urged to set aside their tribalism. Yet it is fantasy to believe that such an alliance would provide stable majority government when nearly four million people voted for Ukip in 2015. There has also been chatter about the creation of a new centrist party – the Democrats, or, as Richard Dawkins writes on page 54, the European Party. Under our first-past-the-post electoral system, however, a new party would risk merely perpetuating the fragmentation of the opposition. If Labour is too weak to win, it is too strong to die.

The UK’s departure from the EU poses fundamental questions about the kind of country we wish to be. For some on the right, Brexit is a Trojan Horse to remake Britain as a low-tax, small-state utopia. Others aspire to a protectionist fortress of closed borders and closed minds. Mr Corbyn was re-elected by a landslide margin last summer. The Leave campaign’s victory was narrower yet similarly decisive. But these events are not an excuse for quietism. Labour must regain its historic role as the party of the labour interest. Labour’s purpose is not to serve the interests of a particular faction but to redress the power of capital for the common good. And it must have a leader capable of winning power.

If Labour’s best and brightest MPs are unwilling to serve in the shadow cabinet, they should use their freedom to challenge an under-scrutinised government and prove their worth. They should build cross-party alliances. They should evolve a transformative policy programme. They should think seriously about why there has been a post-liberal turn in our politics.

There is nothing inevitable about the right’s supremacy or a catastrophic Brexit. At present, the mood on the Labour benches is one of fatalism and passivity. This cannot go on.

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition