Reviews round-up

The critics' verdicts on Stephen King, Corey Robin and Condoleezza Rice.

11.22.63 by Stephen King

Roz Kaveney, writing in the Independent, writes that Stephen King's latest novel is "about time-travel, about the attempt to create a new and better world by going back and changing one big thing: in this case, the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy." "Jake Epping, the hero of King's new book 11.22.63, is not a scientist but a divorced high school teacher from Maine" reports Adam LeBor in the Financial Times.

LeBor finds that the novel "marks a definite maturing of literary command and ambition and is a step up from recent, more standard works [by King], such as Cell (2006)." By contrast, Rachel Cooke writes in the Observer that "King has delivered a self-indulgent book that is too long (a whopping 740 pages), too complicated and too barmy for words ... I wouldn't have finished 11.22.63 if I hadn't been reviewing it. Whilst King's novel is "coherent enough to make an intellectual point, [it] seems to be arguing that meddling in history is a bad idea. Things - even awful things - happen for a reason ... I'm not sure I agree."

"The key to any novel set in an alternate reality is credible world-building ... King succeeds in this, partly by drawing on his own memories. He was 11 years old in 1958" writes LeBor. Kaveney comments that, "One of the strengths of the book is King's at once nostalgic and honest view of the end of the Eisenhower era. Jake is conscious that it's quite a nice time for him, but that as a straight white man, it would be."

The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin by Corey Robin

In a collection of previously published essays "Corey Robin, an American academic of the left, believes that while his ideological enemy adapts to circumstance, it does not change" writes John Kampfner in the Guardian. "The ruling class rests 'its claim to power upon its sense of victimhood ... Failure is its most potent source of inspiration. Loss - real social loss, of power and position, privilege and prestige - is the mustard seed of conservative innovation.'"

Sheri Berman writes in the New York Times that Robin defines conservatism as "an inherently elitist and hierarchical ideology, whose essence is the defense of elite privileges against challenges from below." However, a big problem with Robin's thesis is that: "Fascism and National Socialism ... were anti-elitist and deliberately destroyed the traditional orders in the countries where they gained power. The strongest right-wing movements in the West in more recent decades have been populist as well."

Kampfner comments that, "Perhaps the biggest weakness is Robin's inability to engage with Conservatism's enduring popularity" and concludes that whilst this is "a very readable romp through the evils of Conservatism ... the book would have been more powerful if the author had not allowed his visceral loathing to get the better of him."

No Higher Honor: A Memoir of My Years in Washington by Condoleezza Rice

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair's chief of staff from 1995 to 2007, reviews No Higher Honor in the 14 November issue of the New Statesman. Powell describes the memoir as a "diplomatic tour d'horizon, a canter round the world as Rice rushes from one event to another." It gives "occasional glimpses of her reserve: for instance, when she is required to put on a comic karaoke performance at a retreat of Asean foreign ministers and is told that her predecessor Colin Powell performed a pastiche of the Village People's 'YMCA.'"

Toby Harnden writes in the Telegraph that "there's a saying in Washington that every political memoir can be boiled down to six words: "If Only They'd Listened to Me." ... Condoleezza Rice's weighty and rather ponderous account of her time as President George W Bush's National Security Adviser and Secretary of State is a classic of the genre."

Dissimilarly, Glenn Kessler reports in the Washington Post that "in many ways, this is the first serious memoir of the Bush presidency ... Rice emphasizes that the well-publicized disputes with Cheney and Rumsfeld were (in her mind) not personal, but simply business ... Given how roughly Cheney and Rumsfeld treated her in their accounts of the Bush years, such equanimity is remarkable." Powell concludes that the memoir is "nice, reserved and long. And [Rice] doesn't try to pin the blame on anyone but herself."

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Robert Harris: Some of our great political leaders have crossed the floor. But it takes courage

Jeremy Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for – so progressive politicians need to find new ways to take the fight to the Tories.

The big picture in recent years has been the collapse of the left-wing project across the world. But in Britain, in particular, there are institutional reasons. I can’t quite understand how the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party can sit there day after day, month after month, year after year, knowing that they’re simply heading towards a kind of mincing machine at the next election. It’s like waiting in a prison room, waiting to be taken out and shot one by one, when there are enough of you to overpower the guards.

If you look back over British political history, some of the great political leaders have crossed the floor: Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill – and Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers and Williams in 1981. Whether these people turn out to be right or wrong – and mostly they turn out to be right – there’s a certain courage in the action they took. There seems to be no one with the big vision to do anything comparable in the Labour Party.

It’s not fashionable on the left to say this, but individuals are hugely important. I think if there had been a canny and effective leader in place of Jeremy Corbyn we may well not have had Brexit. But as it is, Labour has provided no rallying point for the nearly half the nation that doesn’t want the course the country is set on, and that is such a colossal failure of leadership that I think history will judge the PLP extremely harshly.

The New Labour project was based on a kind of Crossmanite view that through economic growth you would fund ever-improving social services for the entire country. That worked very well until we had the crash, when the engine broke down. Suddenly there was a wilderness in the leadership of the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats had imploded with their alliance with the Tories. There was no opposition.

Our familiar view of the Labour Party is over. That is not coming back. Scotland is not going to be recaptured. So there can never be a Labour government of the sort we’ve seen in the past. One just has to adjust to that. What I would have liked to have seen is some grouping within Labour in parliament, whether around the Co-operative Party or whatever, that would have been able to take the fight to the Tories. But who would lead such a group? We don’t have a Jenkins or an Owen. There doesn’t seem to be anyone of comparable stature.

We all thought that Europe would smash the Tories but actually Europe has smashed Labour. There has obviously been some sort of fracture between the white-collar workers and intellectuals – that Webb, LSE, New Statesman tradition – and a large section of the working class, particularly in the Midlands, the north and Scotland. It’s an alliance that may be very hard to put back together.

Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for. They call for a politician who can master a brief who is also nimble on his feet: but that is the sort of figure the Corbynites revile. You simply can’t have a leader who doesn’t notice when the Tories abandon a manifesto pledge on tax and can’t ask a couple of questions with a quarter of an hour’s notice. The Tories haven’t really gone to town on him but once they get back on to the IRA support and the views expressed in the past, Labour could easily drop to about 150 seats and we could be looking at a 1931-style wipeout.

The fact is that the extra-parliamentary route is a myth. Brexit is being pushed through in parliament; the battle is there and in the courts, not with rallies. You can have a million people at a rally: it’s not going to alter anything at all. It seems as if there has been a coup d’état and a minority view has suddenly taken control, and, in alliance with the right-wing press, is denouncing anyone who opposes it as an enemy of democracy. It requires a really articulate leadership to fight this and that’s what we’ve not got.

The only possibility is a progressive alliance. These are not great days for the progressives, but even still, they make up a good third of the electorate, with the rest to play for. 

If there was an election tomorrow I’d vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I think an awful lot of Labour people would do the same. The Lib Dems offer a simple, unequivocal slogan. You would have thought the one thing John McDonnell and co would have learned from Trotsky and Lenin – with his “Peace, land, bread” – is that you offer a simple slogan. Who knows what Labour’s position is? It’s just a sort of agonised twist in the wind. 

Robert Harris’s latest novel is “Conclave” (Arrow)
As told to Tom Gatti

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