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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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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