Though Broadsheet is – alas – gone, I am pleased to present my latest Annual Summer Political Reading List. (My first one was back in 2017). These are books/kindle texts, mainly non-fiction, which you may care to take away with you on holidays.
All bar one of the books I have selected this year are non-fiction – and while none of those could be reasonably described as a light read, they are all is informative, well-written and/or entertaining.
As in previous years, these books represent nothing other than my personal preference and taste. I did ask a few friends for recommendations, but the final selection is mine.
But before I start the full list, I should mention a book that I have not included in my “formal” Summer reading list, but which I can still recommend as a good addition to anyone’s library. It is Mark Henry’s In Fact: An Optimist’s Guide to Ireland at 100.
The book does precisely what it claims in the title. It gives a positive, optimistic look at Ireland’s first century of independence through undeniable 100 facts and stats demonstrating how far we have progressed. Things are getting better. We have never been individually wealthier, healthier, freer, or better educated than now. History tells us that the next generation will be even better off… or will it?
It reminds me of Prof Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature (2011), not in style or form, but in outlook. The history of the world is the history of life becoming better. But, as others have pointed out, while Pinker is correct and the percentage suffering violent war-related deaths has decreased, the absolute numbers suffering have increased more than would be expected from just population growth.
Thus, my issue with not with Mark’s book, but how some folks use it to suggest that all is well in today’s Ireland. Rather than seeing it as a history of Irish aspiration and the duty of each generation to improve things for the next, they see it as a means of downplaying the scale of the problems we face.
Mark’s work is definitely worth having on your shelf, a very handy reference guide for the other 11 months of the year.
Now to my Summer list proper… in no particular order:
Pandemonium – Power, Politics and Ireland’s Pandemic By Jack Horgan Jones and Hugh O’Connell
Written by two top-notch and eminently readable journalists, this is the story of how Ireland dealt with Covid-19. It recounts the backroom tensions, personality clashes and power-plays as politicians and experts differed – between each other and among themselves – as they strove collectively to cope with the biggest pandemic in a century.
According to the blurb Pandemonium is based on hundreds of hours of interviews and thousands of pages of unpublished and confidential documents. Just a few pages into the book you realise that this is no idle boast. Such is the detail that you can tell that their sources were at the centre of the battles and, unusually, features more policymakers than politicians.
A compelling insight into both the inelegance public policy decision making and how the institutions of the State can mobilise and work effectively when the political will is there.
(Though not actually on my reading list, I would also recommend Pandemonium – Saving Europe by Luuk van Middelaar. It is on the same subject, but looks at how the EU managed, after an initial misstep, to coordinate a formidable response to the pandemic, including an unprecedented level of financial assistance.)
Cathal Brugha: “An Indomitable Spirit” By Daithí Ó Corráin & Gerard Hanley
A welcome biography and study of the extraordinary life and contribution of Cathal Brugha, a man whose portrait (by John F Kelly) prominently hangs in the foyer of Leinster House.
Though there is a city centre street and an army barracks named for him, we know less about the man himself than we do about the legend, which as the authors say, was heavily propagandized after Brugha’s death in July 1922. The book charts Brugha’s political progress through the Gaelic League, the IRB, and Irish Volunteers, but also looks at the private man, the loving father and husband.
They tell of Brugha’s heroism during the 1916 Rising, as second in command to Éamonn Ceannt at the South Dublin Union garrison, surviving over two dozen gunshot wounds. They also detail Brugha’s critical political roles as the first Ceann Comhairle; as Minister for Defence during the War of Independence, and as a fierce opponent of the 1921 Treaty, becoming the Civil War’s first big name casualty when he was shot and killed by Free State forces.
The book offers an accessibly nuanced and balanced portrayal of Brugha as both the tenacious man of action, the ‘lion heart’ as De Valera called him, and a thoughtful, honourable, and compassionate man, who believed passionately in an Irish republic.
The Handover: Dublin Castle and the British withdrawal from Ireland, 1922 by John Gibney, Kate O’Malley
Publish by the Royal Irish Academy last January, to coincide with the centenary of the handover, this book looks not just at the handover of Dublin Castle and the massive power shift this move represents, it also considers that brief period in modern Irish history between the end of the War of Independence and the start of the Civil War.
Beautifully illustrated throughout, it reminds us of the importance and significance of the Castle as a symbol of British rule in Ireland from the Tudor days of Sir Henry Sidney right through to the handover on January 16, 1922 – an event the Freeman’s Journal heralded across its frontpage as “Dublin Castle Falls after Seven Centuries’ Siege.”
David McCullagh enthusiastically reviewed this as a “relatively short book which covers a lot of ground,” he is 100% correct. An entertaining and highly informative read.
Killer in the Kremlin by John Sweeney
Turning to current events, I have picked three books that examine different facets of today’s global politics. The first is a very personal pick as I am a great fan of John Sweeney.
Sweeney uses all the skills and experience honed from his thirty plus years as a serious investigative reporter to chart Vladimir Putin’s rise from KGB spy to tyrannical tsar. The title is meant to be read literally, not figuratively. Sweeney makes the case against Putin as a cold-blooded killer, who is as happy to sacrifice the lives of his fellow citizens in pursuit of his own ambitions as he is to see other others murdered.
Sweeney recounts the horrific tales of the Moscow apartment bombings which helped solidify Putin’s grip on power (a story I told here) to the atrocities Chechnya, the annexation of Crimea and the shooting down of flight MH17.
Sweeney is unashamed in exposing Putin as a tyrant and does not hide his own support and admiration for those in the Russian opposition forces and Ukrainian resistance who openly defy Putin, seeing in them the means to end the Putin despotism.
Freezing Order : A True Story of Russian Money Laundering, Murder, and Surviving Vladimir Putin’s Wrath by Bill Browder
Where Sweeney exposes the despotism of the Putin regime, Bill Browder completes the picture chronicling Putin’s greed and corruption in stealing and laundering hundreds of billions of dollars.
Not that there aren’t major areas of overlap. Putin’s avarice has cost many lives, including that of Browder’s own lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, who was beaten to death in a Moscow jail. Browder made it his life’s mission to go after Magnitsky’s killers and to follow the corrupt money trail the young lawyer had uncovered via dodgy accounts across the globe which ultimately had Putin as beneficiary.
Though it reads like a thriller, the reader is regularly reminded that Freezing Order is based on fact. The threats, the thefts, bullying, the corruption, and the killings are all real. Some done by Putin’s hired assassins, others by his highly paid enablers sitting in offices across the western Europe and the U.S.
It tells the story of how the campaign to expose Putin’s corruption resulted in the Magnitsky Act becoming law in 34 countries giving governments the power to sanction human rights abusers and kleptocrats and seize their corrupt assets. It also may explain Putin’s interventions in the 2016 presidential election.
Xi: A Study in Power by Kerry Brown
After feasting on two works that detail the brutality and greed of one autocrat, I offer this useful primer on a very different autocrat, Xi Jinping, as a palate cleanser.
In this shortish book, academic and former diplomat Kerry Brown sets out to paint a multi-dimensional portrait of a leader who still remains an enigmatic figure in the West.
Brown argues that while Xi’s power is real and unparalleled, it is also largely contextual, coming less from Xi’s personality and more from the party he leads and his good fortune in emerging as leader during a time of plenty in China. Brown points out that more Chinese people travel abroad now than ever before (almost 170 million in 2019) and that more Chinese young people attend university today, both at home and abroad than ever before.
Thus Xi’s political priority is to keep Chinese society stable. This involves a delicate balancing act of maintaining the economic growth that makes most Chinese content, while ensuring that nothing upsets the political status quo that maintains him and his party.
Brown doesn’t ignore the human rights abuses in the Xinjiang region or the unrest in Hong Kong, nor the spread of the Covid-19, but makes the case for a better understanding of Xi’s personality, outlook and what this means for the rest of us.
Britain Alone: The Path from Suez to Brexit by Philip Stephens
Given the battle for the Tory leadership, wonderfully described as: like Oasis vs Blur… only shit, I wanted to include a book on British politics. My first thought was Simon Kuper’s Chums, sub-titled How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK but opted instead (at the suggestion of a colleague) to go for Philip Stephens’ Britain Alone.
I decided to pick Stephen’s masterful work as it puts flesh on the bones of my all-time favourite quote from US statesman, Dean Acheson, who in 1962 said that Britain “had lost an empire and had not found a role”. The book has been hailed as an instant classic. It is a well researched and presented treatise on the development of modern British foreign policy and its phobia with the EU.
At almost 500 pages Britain Alone is easily the heaviest book on the list, but Stephens’ writing makes it a remarkably easy read, notwithstanding the complexities of the 6 decades covered and the array of characters from Eden to Wilson to Heath, to Thatcher Blair and Cameron. Prepare to see Britain Alone quoted in countless articles in the years ahead as journalists attempt to put the misantropic actions of the next Tory PM… be it Sunak or Truss (and it’s more likely to be Truss)… into some context.
Factory Girls by Michelle Gallen
Last on my list is the one piece of fiction, but you quickly sense that the story and characters are based on some reality. Set in what the author herself calls a shitty wee town in Tyrone in the Northern Ireland of 1994, it revolves around three friends, but princially the foul-mouthed Maeve Murray, who start summer jobs in the local shirt factory so they can save money to escape to study in the U.K. when their A Level results appear in August. But there are many obstacles to clear beforehand… and one of them is the marching season.
The book is hilariously funny and darkly real. It tells the personal stories of a difficult time in Nortrhern Ireland, pre Good Friday Agreement and gallops along at a pace from the very first line. The characters are true to life and earthy, as are the wealth of great put downs and one-liners. This book will expand your vocabularly.
It is richly comic, but never at the expense of the storyline. Roddy Doyle called it: “bang-on, and seriously funny” – and he’d know. But the final word should go to the review that features on Michelle’s Twitter Bio: Factory Girls: sew funny!
As a reward for reading through to the end can I offer you a free copy (PDF) of a book on Brexit with which I was most pleased to be associated.
Written by my good friend and long-standing work colleague, Tom Hayes of BEERG and HR Policy Global, Brexit: Negotiating impossible things is less a book about Brexit – though it clearly has a strong view that Brexit was a bad deal – and is more a book on how NOT to negotiate.
The premise of this book is that the conduct of the negotiations between the UK and the EU over Brexit is the story of the UK, embarking on a major economic and constitutional change while being ill-prepared to do so. As an experperienced negotiator with over forty years experience in high level labour relation negotiations, Tom looks at the negotiation tactics employed by the British side, step-by-step.