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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

Photo: Getty
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Cambridge Analytica and the digital war in Africa

Across the continent, UK expertise is being deployed online to sway elections and target dissidents.

Cambridge Analytica, the British political consultancy caught up in a huge scandal over its use of Facebook data, has boasted that they ran the successful campaigns of President Uhuru Kenyatta in the 2013 and 2017 Kenyan elections. In a secretly filmed video, Mark Turnbull, a managing director for Cambridge Analytica and sister company SCL Elections, told a Channel 4 News’ undercover investigative reporting team that his firm secretly stage-managed Kenyatta’s hotly contested campaigns.

“We have rebranded the entire party twice, written the manifesto, done research, analysis, messaging. I think we wrote all the speeches and we staged the whole thing – so just about every element of this candidate,” Turnbull said of his firm’s work for Kenyatta’s party.

Cambridge Analytica boasts of manipulating voters’ deepest fears and worries. Last year’s Kenyan election was dogged by vicious online propaganda targeting opposition leader Raila Odinga, with images and films playing on people’s concerns about everything from terrorism to spiralling disease. No-one knows who produced the material. Cambridge Analytica denies involvement with these toxic videos – a claim that is hard to square with the company’s boast that they “staged the whole thing.” 

In any event, Kenyatta came to power in 2013 and won a second and final term last August, defeating Odinga by 1.4 million votes.

The work of this British company is only the tip of the iceberg. Another company, the public relations firm, Bell Pottinger, has apologised for stirring up racial hostility in South Africa on behalf of former President Jacob Zuma’s alleged financiers – the Gupta family. Bell Pottinger has since gone out of business.

Some electoral manipulation has been home grown. During the 2016 South African municipal elections the African National Congress established its own media manipulations operation.

Called the “war room” it was the ANC’s own “black ops” centre. The operation ranged from producing fake posters, apparently on behalf of opposition parties, to establishing 200 fake social media “influencers”. The team launched a news site, The New South African, which claimed to be a “platform for new voices offering a different perspective of South Africa”. The propaganda branded opposition parties as vehicles for the rich and not caring for the poor.

While the ANC denied any involvement, the matter became public when the public relations consultant hired by the party went to court for the non-payment of her bill. Among the court papers was an agreement between the claimant and the ANC general manager, Ignatius Jacobs. According to the email, the war room “will require input from the GM [ANC general manager Jacobs] and Cde Nkadimeng [an ANC linked businessman] on a daily basis. The ANC must appoint a political champion who has access to approval, as this is one of the key objectives of the war room.”

Such home-grown digital dirty wars appear to be the exception, rather than the rule, in the rest of Africa. Most activities are run by foreign firms.

Ethiopia, which is now in a political ferment, has turned to an Israeli software company to attack opponents of the government. A Canadian research group, Citizens Lab, reported that Ethiopian dissidents in the US, UK, and other countries were targeted with emails containing sophisticated commercial spyware posing as Adobe Flash updates and PDF plugins.

Citizens Lab says it identified the spyware as a product known as “PC Surveillance System (PSS)”. This is a described as a “commercial spyware product offered by Cyberbit —  an Israel-based cyber security company— and marketed to intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”

This is not the first time Ethiopia has been accused of turning to foreign companies for its cyber-operations. According to Human Rights Watch, this is at least the third spyware vendor that Ethiopia has used to target dissidents, journalists and activists since 2013.

Much of the early surveillance work was reportedly carried out by the Chinese telecom giant, ZTE. More recently it has turned for more advanced surveillance technology from British, German and Italian companies. “Ethiopia appears to have acquired and used United Kingdom and Germany-based Gamma International’s FinFisher and Italy-based Hacking Team’s Remote Control System,” wrote Human Rights Watch in 2014.

Britain’s international development ministry – DFID – boasts that it not only supports good governance but provides funding to back it up. In 2017 the good governance programme had £20 million at its disposal, with an aim is to “help countries as they carry out political and economic reforms.” Perhaps the government should direct some of this funding to investigate just what British companies are up to in Africa, and the wider developing world.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. He is the author of Understanding Eritrea and, with Paul Holden, the author of Who Rules South Africa?