There’s a real appetite for political history in this country at the moment. Whether in documentaries or books, people can’t get enough of it. This week my new book The Presidents is published, a year after the release of another collection I edited, The Prime Ministers. I wrote the chapter on Boris Johnson; the other 54 prime ministers were covered by an assortment of politicians, historians and journalists. The Presidents was much more of a challenge to edit, especially when I realised how little I knew about pre-20th century presidents. Getting 45 different contributors to adhere to deadlines was also a bit like herding cats. The next challenge was to record the audiobook. I hadn’t a clue how to pronounce various American place names.
I’ve learnt more about US political history from editing this book than from any I have read – about the importance of the Founding Fathers, why slavery is a poison that still permeates American society, and the history of the US north/south divide. Oh, and you learn that three of the Founding Father presidents died on 4 July, American Independence Day. Spooky.
The book that wasn’t
The Daily Mail didn’t cover itself in glory on 12 November when it published a story that Matt Hancock was writing a “reveal all” memoir about his time as health secretary and during the pandemic in particular. It alleged Hancock was in talks with the Murdoch-owned HarperCollins over a supposed six-figure book deal. The trouble was that HarperCollins tweeted the next day: “As we told the Mail before it ran its story about HarperCollins and Matt Hancock, we have no knowledge of such a book and are not in talks. The story is incorrect.” Besides, any publisher would be mad to pay anything like that amount for Hancock’s story unless it had already tied up a significant serialisation deal with either the Mail on Sunday or the Daily Mail itself. I think we can rule out the latter.
The Sunday Telegraph later reported that the book would have to be submitted to the Cabinet Office for “review”. While it is true that any ministerial memoir has to be vetted, the Telegraph was wrong to say that “officials will have significant scope to demand edits to the book”. Officials might demand edits, but any serious editor would reject virtually all of them. The government has no power to insist. In my publishing days I remember some very entertaining discussions with the Cabinet Office, especially if a book referred to a conversation with the Queen. “The Palace would go tonto,” was an often-used phrase. On one occasion I conceded, agreeing to a change in the manuscript of David Laws’s memoir of the coalition years. He had described to the Cabinet Office the route to Cobra from No 10. “This could be of use to potential terrorists,” came the response. Who was I to disagree. Out it went.
Given the history between Britain and the US in the 18th and 19th centuries it is in some ways remarkable that the countries now view each other as one another’s most important ally. Winston Churchill coined the phrase the “special relationship” during the Second World War. Reading the postwar chapters in my book it’s fascinating to judge which presidents truly did enjoy a “special relationship” with their British counterpart, and which didn’t.
I judge that Tony Blair has to top any such league table given his closeness both to Bill Clinton and then George W Bush. I cannot recall any disagreement at all in the 1997-2007 period. Blair genuinely believed that he could have more influence if there wasn’t a tissue paper between him and the US president.
The rapport between Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan comes a close second, but they had some serious disagreements, particularly over the US invasion of Grenada in October 1983. She phoned him while he was in a cabinet meeting and gave him an earful about her not being consulted prior to US troops landing. He held the phone up to the meeting and declared, “Isn’t she wonderful?” Ted Heath and Richard Nixon would surely come bottom of the table. There was no personal chemistry at all. Having said that, Theresa May and Donald Trump would run them a close second-last.
Fretting about mileage
This week I acquired an electric car. On Friday I have two speaking engagements, in Uppingham and Cromer. My range anxiety has already kicked in. The car is supposed to have a range of 295 miles, yet when I charged it fully for the first time, the dashboard told me I had 207 miles. And an EV mile seems to be a fraction of what you or I would regard as a normal mile. I’m already having buyer’s remorse, but I’m sure I’ll get used to it. Or perhaps I’ll use my old car on Friday. Just to be safe.
This article appears in the 17 Nov 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Democracy's last stand