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Books of the year: politicians on their favourites of 2016

Politicians from both sides of the House share their picks of the year.

Alan Johnson

The book that I’ve most enjoyed this year is The Knives by Richard T Kelly (Faber & Faber). Its central character is an ambitious former army officer who rises through the ranks of Conservative MPs to become home secretary. I can testify to the remarkable ­accuracy of Kelly’s depiction of the job, but the thrilling adventures that this particular incumbent experiences are probably not what’s in store for Amber Rudd.

Although it’s not new, I read Olive Kitteridge (Simon & Schuster) by Elizabeth Strout this year and I doubt that I will ever read anything better. It’s about nothing very much but everything that matters.

 

George Osborne

I absolutely loved J D Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: a Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (William Collins). A painfully honest account of America’s white underclass by a brilliant young man who escapes his upbringing in Ohio and Kentucky for Yale and Silicon Valley, it’s a book that seeks to explain the anger in modern US politics and has echoes here. It’s not the last we have heard from these forgotten people, or this talented young man.

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford (Faber & Faber) is a beautifully observed, suspenseful first novel that transports you to mid-18th-century New York. The city is at the frontier of the known world, but it’s also a small, claustrophobic society of Anglo-Dutch families, suspicious of a young man newly arrived from England with money in his pockets. It’s a gripping tale.

 

Tim Farron

Geoffrey Household’s 1939 thriller Rogue Male (Orion) is one of the best books I have read this year. The main character is a fugitive fleeing the agents of a totalitarian foreign power whose leader he has unsuccessfully attempted to assassinate. The tension and excitement of the pursuit of the hero and his efforts to evade capture provide a persistent, gripping narrative. The story was written before the Second World War, and even though we might assume the foreign power is Nazi Germany, we don’t know that. In the novel, the foreign power is not at war with Britain, and so the British government cannot be associated with this assassination ­attempt, leaving the fugitive without any official support. Rogue Male is almost 80 years old; the writing style has a formality, innocence and enthusiasm about it that makes it an enthralling read.

 

Michael Howard

The novel I have enjoyed most this year is Mothering Sunday (Scribner) by Graham Swift. Erotic, emotional and very moving, it’s an enthralling tale of life, love and death in the aftermath of the First World War. I thought about it long after I had finished it. I also enjoyed Charmed Life (William Collins), the biography of one of my predecessors as MP for Folkestone and Hythe by my successor, Damian Collins. Sir Philip Sassoon was an extraordinary man whose life vividly illustrates how politics changed between 1939, when he died, and 1983, when I was elected.

 

Tom Watson

The Industries of the Future by Alec Ross (Simon & Schuster) frightened and ­inspired me in equal measure. Ross is a former adviser to Hillary Clinton, and knows many of the big US tech companies: he is alive to the opportunities that automation, artificial intelligence and the gig economy will create but clear-eyed about the consequences of the new industrial revolution.

John Bew’s biography Citizen Clem (Riverrun) is a masterful portrait of a man who led the Labour Party for 20 years and arguably did more than any other UK politician to shape the postwar world. Clement Attlee assembled a team of rivals, many of whom had been fiercely critical of him in the past. Personal slights were forgotten in the interests of party unity. Attlee was a patriot who believed that tolerance was Britain’s gift to the world. Now more than ever, it is tolerance we need.

 

Rachel Reeves

I should declare an interest. Alan Bennett is from Armley in my Leeds constituency and I am a huge fan. His love for the city shows in Keeping On Keeping On (Profile Faber). In “Baffled at a Bookcase”, a celebration of the public library included in this volume, Bennett remembers his first visits to the library as a young boy in Armley: “the entrance up a flight of marble steps under open arches, through brass-railed swing doors panelled in stained glass . . . To a child living in high flats, say, where space is at a premium and peace and quiet not always easy to find, a library is a haven.” This latest anthology of diaries and essays is a beautiful, humane and honest collection of reflections.

I picked up Sami Moubayed’s Under the Black Flag (I B Tauris) to understand the ideology of Isis better. The most fascinating parts of the book describe the working of the Isis “state”: its welfare and education systems, taxation and other functions of government. The territory controlled by Isis has been reduced but Moubayed argues that it has built a durable structure and will be around for a long time to come. A chilling but informative read.

Books of the year: authors

Books of the year: the New Statesman team

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump world

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”