Margot Asquith in 1924. The Brocks’ edited collection has reinvigorated Margot’s vitriolic comments. Photo: Sasha/Hulton Archive/Getty Images.
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Reviews round-up | 30 August

The critics' verdicts on Ahamed Liaquat, Kerry Hudson and Margot Asquith.

 

Money and Tough Love: Inside the IMF by Ahamed Liaquat

This offering from the "Writer in Residence" series commissioned by Alain de Botton’s School of Life sees Liaquat Ahamed, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his Lords of Finance, relaying the results of several months spent with his former organisation, the International Monetary Fund. Ahamed describes the everyday business of meetings and work abroad for employees of the Fund, presented alongside photography by Eli Reed.

Phillip Aldrick of The Times is impressed by how Ahamed manages to "humanise a faceless institution ... and teach a little economic history along the way." The book, according to Aldrick, describes well the "prosaic truth" of why the IMF shrank from prominence on the world stage. Aldrick notes the "sense of fading glory" as one of the book’s main themes. While he worries that "it’s hard to imagine many people outside the IMF being particularly interested," he nevertheless claims that Ahamed’s "gentle prose" serves as a "good introduction to the IMF".

The Financial Times’ Edward Luce calls the book an "enjoyable portrait." Luce knows Liaquat personally, at his own admission, but claims that the author "removes his rose-coloured spectacles" in order to write the book. Assuming Luce manages the same in his review, the book is credited with "bringing life to an institution that is too often deadened with jargon." SinceMoney and Tough Love is "about the troops not the generals," Luce also mentions Ahamed’s daily-reportage style, adding that this helps "avoid the leaden prose of an in-house biographer." The Fund is a complex machine and its "finances are usually arcane," writes Ahamed. Luce is taken with this apparently clear and entertaining look at such an organisation.

The book endures a much more tepid reception from Alex Preston writing in The Telegraph, who claims that the ‘anonymous and dull’ nature of the organisation applies equally well to Money and Tough Love. Writing that the book lacks "drama and stylish prose," Preston questions why Ahamed’s project seems so drab despite the "extraordinary access" he was granted, and compares the attempted look at the human side of the organisation unfavourably to a fictional counterpart – namely, David Foster Wallace’sThe Pale King and its "greater scope to show us the unique complexity of every human life."

Thirst by Kerry Hudson

Thirst is Kerry Hudson’s second novel, following her well-received debut,Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma. The story follows Alena, a young Russian, who is the victim of a sex trafficking gang in East London. Beginning with an encounter with Dave, a security guard who catches Alena shoplifting, the novel explores a conventional romance among a backdrop of “unrelenting horror”. Yet the characters’ back stories are more complex than they first appear, allowing for the plot to unfold with “horrible inevitability”.

Louise Welsh of The Guardian applauds the novel’s “wit and shrewdness”, confronting “hard-hitting” topics, while being “never miserable”. She praises Hudson’s decision, as in her debut, to explore the lives of communities who are “not generally considered fit for literature”, while emphasising her ability to create “complex working-class characters faced with moral dilemmas”. In fact, Welsh suggests that recent critics who have drawn attention to “literature’s failure to portray working-class characters with intelligence, education or culture” are likely to be impressed by Thirst.

The Independent’s Katie Welsh similarly admires Thirst, describing the novel as “heartbreaking”, “beautiful” and “touching”. Welsh praises Hudson’s maturity in dealing with depictions of a “brutal series of sexual assaults” without descending into “sensationalism”. As with the Guardian’sreview, special praise is reserved for Hudson’s ability to write “from the perspective of people whose voices are rarely heard”, largely a result of her “meticulous research”.

Writing for The ScotsmanLesley McDowell suggests that Kerry Hudson has “consolidated her position” as a writer “prepared to face the injustices and the grimness of life”. The review congratulates the novel’s authenticity, praising Hudson’s ability “to get to the heart of her characters”. DescribingThirst as a “tale of female powerlessness”, comparison is made with events of “brutal male domination” that have cropped up in the media in recent weeks. Given this, McDowell asserts that although Thirst is “hardly a summer read”, it is “probably an essential one”.

Margot Asquith's Great War Diary 1914-1916: The View from Downing Street, Michael Brock and Eleanor Brock

Margot Asquith’s diaries fill 22 volumes in total, and this single volume, edited by the Brocks (Michael and Eleanor), tells a part of the story only two years long. Those two years are the wartime years of Herbert Asquith’s premiership. Replete with vociferous opinions and depictions of the most notable political characters of the time, these diaries provide a long-awaited, very personal insight into the upper heights of the UK government during the onset of the First World War.

Writing in the Telegraph, an impressed Miranda Seymour calls the collection a "beautiful work of conjugal editorship by Eleanor Brock and her late husband." "The sensation of intimacy is remarkable," writes Seymour, who is particularly taken by Margot’s defence of Richard Haldane from charges of treachery. She adds that "Margot may have been rude and overbearing, but she was also observant, bright and thoughtful," and concludes that these "private records are all the better for being unspeakably, delectably, impenitently frank."

Jane Ridley writes in the Literary Review that "Michael and Eleanor Brock have edited Margot’s writing with meticulous academic precision." However, she characterises the diaries themselves with a mixed tone, saying that Margot’s "party tricks" of writing "characters" of people and coming off best in every argument can be "tedious." She adds that Margot was "slapdash and egotistical... emotional and histrionic." But ultimately she calls the wartime picture that is painted "really striking," and adds that the diary is "invaluable and fascinating."

Writing for the TimesLawrence James is impressed by the book, describing it as a “vivid, fascinating and disconcerting record of war as seen from the top”. He describes Margot Asquith’s bold, swashbuckling spirit” and “caustic wit”, while praising the “lucidity and scholarship” of the editors who compiled the volume. James highlights how the “partisan record” is predictably supportive of Margot’s husband Herbert, whose virtues of “humanity, compassion and warmth are praised throughout”. Nonetheless, James emphasised the “pleasure” he took in reading the book.

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The Autumn Statement proved it – we need a real alternative to austerity, now

Theresa May’s Tories have missed their chance to rescue the British economy.

After six wasted years of failed Conservative austerity measures, Philip Hammond had the opportunity last month in the Autumn Statement to change course and put in place the economic policies that would deliver greater prosperity, and make sure it was fairly shared.

Instead, he chose to continue with cuts to public services and in-work benefits while failing to deliver the scale of investment needed to secure future prosperity. The sense of betrayal is palpable.

The headline figures are grim. An analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows that real wages will not recover their 2008 levels even after 2020. The Tories are overseeing a lost decade in earnings that is, in the words Paul Johnson, the director of the IFS, “dreadful” and unprecedented in modern British history.

Meanwhile, the Treasury’s own analysis shows the cuts falling hardest on the poorest 30 per cent of the population. The Office for Budget Responsibility has reported that it expects a £122bn worsening in the public finances over the next five years. Of this, less than half – £59bn – is due to the Tories’ shambolic handling of Brexit. Most of the rest is thanks to their mishandling of the domestic economy.

 

Time to invest

The Tories may think that those people who are “just about managing” are an electoral demographic, but for Labour they are our friends, neighbours and the people we represent. People in all walks of life needed something better from this government, but the Autumn Statement was a betrayal of the hopes that they tried to raise beforehand.

Because the Tories cut when they should have invested, we now have a fundamentally weak economy that is unprepared for the challenges of Brexit. Low investment has meant that instead of installing new machinery, or building the new infrastructure that would support productive high-wage jobs, we have an economy that is more and more dependent on low-productivity, low-paid work. Every hour worked in the US, Germany or France produces on average a third more than an hour of work here.

Labour has different priorities. We will deliver the necessary investment in infrastructure and research funding, and back it up with an industrial strategy that can sustain well-paid, secure jobs in the industries of the future such as renewables. We will fight for Britain’s continued tariff-free access to the single market. We will reverse the tax giveaways to the mega-rich and the giant companies, instead using the money to make sure the NHS and our education system are properly funded. In 2020 we will introduce a real living wage, expected to be £10 an hour, to make sure every job pays a wage you can actually live on. And we will rebuild and transform our economy so no one and no community is left behind.

 

May’s missing alternative

This week, the Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave an important speech in which he hit the proverbial nail on the head. He was completely right to point out that societies need to redistribute the gains from trade and technology, and to educate and empower their citizens. We are going through a lost decade of earnings growth, as Carney highlights, and the crisis of productivity will not be solved without major government investment, backed up by an industrial strategy that can deliver growth.

Labour in government is committed to tackling the challenges of rising inequality, low wage growth, and driving up Britain’s productivity growth. But it is becoming clearer each day since Theresa May became Prime Minister that she, like her predecessor, has no credible solutions to the challenges our economy faces.

 

Crisis in Italy

The Italian people have decisively rejected the changes to their constitution proposed by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, with nearly 60 per cent voting No. The Italian economy has not grown for close to two decades. A succession of governments has attempted to introduce free-market policies, including slashing pensions and undermining rights at work, but these have had little impact.

Renzi wanted extra powers to push through more free-market reforms, but he has now resigned after encountering opposition from across the Italian political spectrum. The absence of growth has left Italian banks with €360bn of loans that are not being repaid. Usually, these debts would be written off, but Italian banks lack the reserves to be able to absorb the losses. They need outside assistance to survive.

 

Bail in or bail out

The oldest bank in the world, Monte dei Paschi di Siena, needs €5bn before the end of the year if it is to avoid collapse. Renzi had arranged a financing deal but this is now under threat. Under new EU rules, governments are not allowed to bail out banks, like in the 2008 crisis. This is intended to protect taxpayers. Instead, bank investors are supposed to take a loss through a “bail-in”.

Unusually, however, Italian bank investors are not only big financial institutions such as insurance companies, but ordinary households. One-third of all Italian bank bonds are held by households, so a bail-in would hit them hard. And should Italy’s banks fail, the danger is that investors will pull money out of banks across Europe, causing further failures. British banks have been reducing their investments in Italy, but concerned UK regulators have asked recently for details of their exposure.

John McDonnell is the shadow chancellor


John McDonnell is Labour MP for Hayes and Harlington and has been shadow chancellor since September 2015. 

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump