Outside In by Peter Hain

outside inAn ‘all or something’ man…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Peter Hain, one-time anti-apartheid campaigner turned Cabinet Minister, here describes his fascinating political life both outside and inside mainstream politics. For more than four decades he has been an active campaigner and politician, during which he was involved in some of the most important events of this period.

Hain starts his account with the story of his early life in South Africa as the son of anti-apartheid campaigners at a time when this was a dangerous thing to be. When his parents eventually felt they were no longer safe to stay in South Africa, the Hain family moved to London where they continued the struggle, with young Peter gradually becoming a major player in the British anti-apartheid movement, leading the Stop the Seventy Tour campaign (the proposed all-white South African cricket team tour of England). During this period, Hain was very much outside mainstream politics and in fact was tried for conspiracy and, rather surreally, for bank robbery – charges he clearly believes were politically motivated. Hence, his description of himself as an outsider.

1969 - arrested in Downing Street during anti-apartheid protests (source: guardian.co.uk)
Outsider – arrested in Downing Street during anti-apartheid protests 1969
(source: guardian.co.uk)

Having joined the Labour party and working for the Union of Communication Workers, Hain’s political career as an ‘insider’ began with his election to Parliament in 1991. During a lengthy Cabinet career, Hain held a number of positions though never quite the top rank ones. From his own account, Hain was neither a party hack nor involved to any great extent in the in-house political manoeuvring of the Labour Party. Instead, his aim seems always to have been to achieve something substantive in each of his roles – following the mantra ‘all or something’ rather than ‘all or nothing’. As European Minister, he was involved in the negotiations that subsequently led to the Lisbon Treaty; he was a minister in the Welsh Office during the devolution referendum campaign; he was Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when the St Andrews Agreement was reached, resulting in the restoration of devolved government.

Insider - with Prime Minister Gordon Brown (source: guardian.co.uk)
Insider – with Prime Minister Gordon Brown
(source: guardian.co.uk)

Hain writes interestingly and enthusiastically about all these events, and if he perhaps blows his own trumpet a little too loudly at times, well, that’s a common failing in political memoirs. He also gives us a little on the Blair-Brown saga, but thankfully not too much. I found this book a refreshing change because of Hain’s concentration on the politics rather than the politicians of his time in office – it’s also better written than many political autobiographies. Whether you agree with his politics or not, this is a well-told tale of a fascinating political life. Highly recommended.

Full circle - so proud to meet Mandela 2000
Full circle – so proud to meet Mandela 2000

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Robeson: An American Ballad by Arnold H Lubasch

‘Tallest tree in our forest’

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

robeson an american balladIt is clear from very early on that this biography is written by someone who admires Robeson wholeheartedly, both as an artist and as a person. And there is a great deal to admire. A man who stood up against and often overcame the overwhelming prejudice of his time, first in education, then in sport and finally going on to become a huge star both as a singer and an actor. It is perhaps hardly surprising that a man who had to struggle so hard to be accepted in his own country would use his fame to take a political stance. And no more surprising, perhaps, that that stance would eventually all but destroy him.

robeson footballThere is a huge amount of detail in this book. Lubasch tells us about Robeson’s early life and education, and his years as a college footballer when because of his great skill he was able to gradually push back the boundaries that prevented black men from full participation in the sport. His career as singer and actor is covered extensively with Lubasch telling us where he performed and usually which songs he sang and the size of the audience. This did become a bit repetitive but it was interesting to see how his choice of repertoire changed over the years as his political convictions grew. Lubasch also covers Robeson’s marriage in some depth, as well as his important friendships and relationships.

Playing Othello opposite Uta Hagen
Playing Othello opposite Uta Hagen

The second half of the book still tells us what he was doing as an artist at each stage but Lubasch gradually expands on Robeson’s admiration for the Soviet regime and the conflicts that this caused with the US government. Lubasch explains convincingly that Robeson’s support for the USSR arose out of the fact that it was the one place in the world where he felt that his colour was not used as a bar. He shows Robeson as one of the earliest of the equal rights campaigners, a forerunner of Martin Luther King Jr, demanding stronger laws against lynching and refusing to perform in any venue which segregated the audience, sometimes putting his personal safety at risk in order to speak or perform.

Robeson the activist
Robeson the activist

However, Lubasch’s warm admiration of Robeson leads him to step very gently around the less savoury aspects of his life – his serial adultery, his rather detached relationship with his son during his early life, his continued support for the USSR even when some of its excesses were becoming known. I felt this was a lack in the book – Lubasch’s hesitation to robustly criticise made this account of him feel a bit lightweight and less convincing than it otherwise would. Occasionally, the tone of praise for Robeson is almost sycophantic, perhaps more so to my cynical British ears than it would be to American ones. Overall, though, I found the book very readable and informative; and greatly enhanced by the many photographs and lyrics that are liberally included. I was left with an inspiring picture of Robeson as a man of courage, dignity and integrity. Recommended.

Robeson before the House Un-American Activities Committee
Robeson before the House Un-American Activities Committee

While reading the book, I immersed myself in that glorious voice by listening to the many recordings of Robeson available on youtube – pretty much every song Lubasch mentions is available there, including of course Robeson’s signature tune Ol’ Man River.

And as follow-up I watched The Proud Valley – the film Robeson was most proud to have been involved in.

Starring in The Proud Valley
Starring in The Proud Valley

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Live from Downing Street: The Inside Story of Politics, Power and the Media by Nick Robinson

live from downing streetSymbiotic relationship…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Nick Robinson, Political Editor for the BBC, has managed to do in print what he does so well on a daily basis on TV; communicate interestingly, informatively and enjoyably. He has divided this book into two parts – before and during his own involvement in reporting on politics.

The first part covers the history and growth of political journalism from its earliest days, showing that some of the tensions we see between present-day politicians and journalists have always existed since their symbiotic relationship began. He recounts the fight for journalists to have access to parliament, first as a presence in the press gallery, then the later development of the ‘lobby’ and finally the struggle to get MPs to agree to televised coverage of the House. Not surprisingly, a lot of his story is focused on the BBC, first as a radio broadcasting organisation then moving into television. Well researched and presented, he shows how the famous BBC ‘impartiality’ came into being, and how it has been consistently called into question throughout the Beeb’s history.

Gordon Brown's relationship with the media was never easy...(source: bbc)
Gordon Brown’s relationship with the media was never easy…
(source: bbc)
The second half mainly covers the Blair/Brown years. By this point, Robinson was covering politics himself and the book takes on a more personal, partly autobiographical tone. As he relates the story of the years of spin and the increasing conflict between media and politicians, he openly questions where the faults lay and while he places some of the blame on the politicians he doesn’t shy away from criticism of journalists, including his BBC colleagues and himself. We are treated to a surprisingly sympathetic, revealing and almost intimate view of both Blair and Brown from this man who spent years following each around the globe. This, of course, was the period of the Iraq war, the global crash and, not least, two major inquiries into the relationship between media and politicians: Hutton and then Leveson, which had not yet reported at the time the book was written. His insights into the political background of all of these events are fascinating as he reflects on the role of the media in each.

In the afterword, Robinson discusses the possible future, focussing on whether impartiality will remain desirable or even possible in the Twitter/Facebook age. He suggests that there is a strengthening body of opinion that there may be a place in broadcasting for bias, much in the way that Fox TV has changed the face of broadcasting in the US. It is clear that his own bias, however, is to defend the principle of impartiality – without dismissing the problems that are inherent within the current system, he clearly believes it is still better than the alternative.

Always dedicated...(source: bbc)
Always dedicated…
(source: bbc)

In summary, an interesting and thought-provoking book, well and approachably written and impressively objective on the whole. It is brave for a working journalist to discuss so openly the strengths and weaknesses of his profession and himself – I felt that, as he wrote, Robinson was critically reconsidering and reassessing his own past performance and I will be intrigued to see if his future reporting is influenced by what seemed, at times, as if he were undergoing a reflective learning experience. Highly recommended.

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The Southern Tiger by Ricardo Lagos

Southern TigerEnjoyable, informative and sometimes inspiring…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

Already involved in politics before the coup that brought Pinochet to power, Ricardo Lagos was one of the leaders in the movement to restore democracy to Chile and subsequently went on to become its democratically elected President.

In this book, Lagos starts by telling the story of how many of the various opposition parties came together with one purpose – to find a way to oust Pinochet without a violent struggle. The horrors of the Pinochet era are somewhat downplayed; Lagos concentrates more on the ideological and economic effects, although he does give enough information about the ‘disappeared’ and the victims of torture to remind us of the excesses that were carried out by the regime. He is also honest about the amount of support Pinochet had within Chile – when a referendum on the regime was finally held, 44% of people voted for Pinochet to remain in power.

Lagos then goes on to describe the restoration of democracy and the social and economic restructuring that has happened in the two decades since the regime fell. As one of the group of left-leaning leaders who embraced Blair’s Third Way, Lagos looked for innovative ways to involve both private and public sectors in rebuilding Chile’s infrastructure, restoring its economy and tackling the worst effects of poverty. To go by his own account in this book, Chile would seem to have taken huge steps towards becoming a fairer and richer society, although Lagos admits there’s still much more work to be done.

Ricardo Lagos(source:news.bbc.co.uk)
Ricardo Lagos
(source:news.bbc.co.uk)

In the last section, Lagos recounts Chile’s role in the UN discussions around the resolutions sought prior to the invasion of Iraq. It’s interesting to see this told from the point of view of one of the smaller countries – to read of the schmoozing and arm-twisting employed by the US and to a lesser extent the UK to get the votes of the unaligned countries. Lagos uses the epilogue to ponder on some of the political challenges remaining to Chile as well as some of the global challenges such as climate change.

Overall, this book is interesting and easy to absorb. Sometimes a little self-congratulatory, that can surely be forgiven from a man who is clearly very proud of how far his country has come in such a short time. An enjoyable, informative and sometimes inspiring read – recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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Enoch at 100: A re-evaluation of the life, politics and philosophy of Enoch Powell

Arch-racist or misunderstood visionary?

😐 😐 😐

Enoch at 100The controversy surrounding Enoch Powell’s Rivers of Blood speech happened when I was a child, but its impact was still reverberating by the time I was an active union member in the late seventies and eighties and it continues to be used by the extreme right as a form of justification today. To the left (of whom I was and still am one) he was defined entirely by that speech; the arch-racist, reviled by those who believed in equality and integration; a man who used language that even in those less politically correct days was seen as shocking and inflammatory. I hoped this book would fill out my knowledge of the man and his beliefs enough to enable me to see if the left had done him an injustice.

This book sets out to re-evaluate Powell’s whole career of which the speech was only a part, albeit a seismic one. The editor, Lord Howard of Rising, says in the preface that the book is not intended to be a hagiography but rather to look at the relevance of Powell’s views to the politics of today across a range of issues. It is presented as a series of essays on different subjects written by a variety of authors.

(Source:Wikipedia)
(Source:Wikipedia)

The real problem with the book is that, despite the editor’s stated intention, it is in fact largely hagiographical. The contributors in the main comprise of some pretty right-wing politicians and journalists, most of whom are clearly inclined to see Powell as a misunderstood visionary. In fact, more than one of the contributors says in terms that Powell was frequently misinterpreted because we, the public, were fundamentally too stupid and/or ill educated to understand his intellectual analyses. For example, Roger Scruton in the section The Language of Enoch Powell says ‘…when alluding to the Cumaean Sybil in Book VI of the Aeneid, he imagined that his hearers would remember their Virgil, see the moral of the story and move on. In fact, those who garbled the quotation and imagined that Powell had referred to ‘rivers of blood’ promptly set out to destroy the man who had dared to allude to their own hidden fears. As Powell was to discover, rhetoric and allusion are dangerous, and never more dangerous than in the minds of those who do not understand them…’.

The overall lack of balance is unfortunate since there is much of interest in the book. Powell’s stand against Britain’s entry to the Common Market, his analysis of nationhood and the role of Parliament, his involvement in the Unionist politics of Ireland and his espousal of monetarism before Thatcherism are all well described and enhanced by substantial quotes from his speeches, some of which are also given in their entirety. But the obvious bias of most of the contributors means that there is a serious lack of critical analysis in most of the sections. Surprisingly, I found that the most balanced section was the one on ‘Immigration’, contributed by Tom Bower. He attempts to understand why a man who was obviously highly intelligent and considered to be a skilled orator should have failed to see that his speech would be political suicide and would, in the eyes of many, have the effect of closing down the possibility of rational debate on the subject of race and immigration for several decades.

(Source: bnp)
Would Powell be happy about this? I still don’t know.
Ultimately, I feel this book is a re-statement of Powell’s views rather than a re-evaluation and, as such, I’m not sure of its value. However, despite the fact that I disagree fundamentally with pretty much everything Powell stood for, the book at least convinced me that he was a thoughtful, intelligent man, albeit a cold and intellectually arrogant one. And on many of the issues that he involved himself in during his career, his views are similar to those expressed by those on the right and even far right today, so to that extent the aim of proving his relevance for a modern audience could be said to have been achieved. But would he be shocked or pleased to know that his best-remembered speech is still being used half a century later to bolster the arguments of racist groups at home and abroad (as a youtube search will demonstrate)? After reading this book, I feel no closer to knowing the answer to that question.

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Chirac: My Life in Politics by Jacques Chirac (English Translation)

Chirac book coverLe Bulldozer…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

That Chirac was admired by Margaret Thatcher and reviled by George Dubya gives an indication of the contradictions inherent in the man. Nicknamed ‘Le Bulldozer’, Chirac emerges from this sometimes frank, sometimes evasive memoir as a blunt, determined man with a fixed and overriding idea of the historical contribution of France and of the importance of maintaining a leading role for her in the world. As Ricardo Lagos said of him in his memoirs, Southern Tiger, ‘The French always did like to remind their allies that they were the true founders of democracy.’ Or as Chirac himself puts it ‘But is Gaullism anything other, in fact, than a demand for truth in the service of the only worthy cause: that of France, its grandeur, its unity, and the example of humanism that it has the duty to set for the rest of the world?’ Gosh!

(Source: Wikipedia)
(Source: Wikipedia)

The book is very readable and well translated, meaning that the reader gets a real feeling for the personality of the man – proud, forceful, supremely self-confident, verging on the bombastic. (‘It would be improper of me to dwell on my war record…I will just mention the episode which won me the military valour cross…’) Although there are chapter headings that suggest the book is split into themes, in fact Chirac has a tendency to jump from subject to subject and time-period to time-period within a chapter. This, combined with his not unreasonable assumption that his readers would know the background to some of the events and people he mentions, left this insular Brit a little bemused at times, especially when he was discussing domestic policy. A right-wing Gaullist, he displays a strange mix of almost Thatcherite thinking towards the economy mixed with an outlook on social issues that in this country would be seen as fairly left-wing.

(Source: Guardian)
(Source: Guardian)

On foreign affairs, as well as discussing Europe and Africa, Chirac naturally gives us his version of the events leading up to the war in Iraq and it’s interesting to get his account of why France took an opposing stance to the US on this. However, he also talks interestingly and informatively of France’s relationships with other players in the middle-east, particularly Syria and Lebanon.

Overall, I found this both informative and enjoyable and, despite his sometimes jaw-dropping boastfulness and sense of self-importance, I warmed to the man as I read. Given his outspoken pride in his country, its history and its people, a pride that he carried with him when engaging with the rest of the world, I began to understand why, despite having failed to achieve a good deal of what he set out to do and even having been convicted of embezzlement of public funds, he apparently remains one of the most admired politicians in France. Highly recommended.

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Reagan and Thatcher: The Difficult Relationship

ReaganEnjoyable despite some weaknesses…

🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂

In this book, Aldous sets out to challenge the view that Reagan and Thatcher enjoyed a close political friendship based on shared ideology and beliefs, particularly in regard to foreign policy and the Soviet Union. He takes some of the major events of the era – the Falklands War, the US invasion of Grenada, Reagan’s Star Wars initiative – to show how in fact the two leaders were often at odds both in policy and approach.

reagan3Aldous is a very accessible author and this book, like his earlier The Lion and the Unicorn, is an enjoyable read. However, it seemed to me that his central premise was faulty to the extent that I’m not convinced that a UK audience at least ever believed that the two leaders were fully in tune on the subjects he raises. The failure of the US to provide full and early support over the Falklands crisis was publicly known at the time, as was the UK Government’s dismay over the way the US intervened in Grenada. The various disagreements in approach to arms reduction and the Strategic Defence Initiative have been discussed in many previous books, not least in Thatcher’s own autobiography The Downing Street Years, which Aldous uses extensively as one of his sources.

Margaret_Thatcher_cropped2

Despite these differences, there was no doubt that Thatcher and Reagan shared an over-arching world view particularly with regard to economic matters (which oddly Aldous barely touches on) and the on-going Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union. Aldous doesn’t dispute this, concentrating instead on highlighting divisions on a few less significant incidents. As a result, the central argument of the book seems both weak and unproven.

Nonetheless I feel the book is well researched and gives a good, readable account of some of the most interesting aspects of the Reagan/Thatcher era, as well as a sympathetic and often amusing view of both leaders as people, and on those bases I would recommend it as well worth reading.

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Interventions: A Life in War and Peace by Kofi Annan

InterventionsFiddling while Rome burns…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

This is a book that everyone should read, voluntarily or not, just to see how incompetent, ineffectual and complacent our ‘leaders’ really are.

The book is well written, clearly laid out around a number of themes and obviously heartfelt. Kofi Annan himself is obviously a decent man, hard working, caring and diplomatic. But to what end? This book is a record of failure after failure, procrastination, buck-passing and extraordinary complacency; of societies riven by dictatorship and despotism while the UN agonises over methodology. A story of democratically elected leaders failing time and again to act in a way that would encourage improved security in the trouble spots of the world, failing to live up to promises on aid, failing to provide troops for peace-keeping missions, failing to do the one thing we pay them to do – that is, lead.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan addressing the...(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

However good Annan’s intentions may have been, even he can find very few successes to point to, and as head of an organisation with a $10 billion per annum budget and 44,000 staff (figures he gives himself) that’s a fairly damning indictment of the UN and the international community in general. Drawing up policies and goals is one thing, living up to them quite another. But again and again Annan congratulates himself and the UN on simply coming up with a form of words or getting people round a table – the process is celebrated regardless of outcome.

As you may be able to tell, this book made me furiously angry – the resumé of some of the worst horrors we have witnessed over the last two decades, together with the description of blind-eye-turning or worse on a massive scale, may not be telling us much we don’t already know, but it draws it together into a stark tale of failure and futility that made me question, for the first time in my life, whether there is any point to the UN at all. Not what Annan intended, but then unintended consequences seem to be a recurring theme of the book.

An important book – if we want an effective UN (and I do) then we need to be aware of how the people we elect are undermining and abusing its principles every day. And on that basis, highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by Amazon Vine UK.

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