The Strange Death of Liberal England by George Dangerfield (1935)
This landmark book described how the Liberal party, apparently unassailable after their 1906 landslide, went into decline less than a decade later, never to lead a government again. The reasons, as Dangerfield set out, went far beyond parliamentary arithmetic. This was a ruling class failing to understand the pressures of the new century: suffragism, the trade union movement and Irish nationalism. This depiction of downfall of perhaps the original citizens of nowhere offers a lesson for today’s politicians in how a ruling class can be undone by contemporary events, and how establishment parties can be brought down by failing to change with the times.
In Defence of Politics by Bernard Crick (1962)
Politics, in its rawest form, is dirty, venal, messy, conflictual, imperfect – and that, according to this significant text of the 20th century, is how to do it properly. First published when he was just 33, and updated throughout the decades, it disrupted the paternalistic tendencies of both left and right by arguing that low politics is the cornerstone of democracy and essential to holding governments to account. The book is as relevant now as it was 55 years ago. Today, politicians, already held in low esteem after the expenses scandal, are abused and receive death threats on social media. But, without them, democracy would be surrendered to technocrats and vested interests.
The State in Capitalist Society by Ralph Miliband (1969)
The Marxist academic had fallen so out of fashion by the turn of this century that his sons and their roles in market-friendly New Labour were more famous. But Miliband Sr warned more than 30 years earlier that a failure to tame the markets would lead to “the increasing domination of key sectors… by a relatively small number of giant firms”, and that equality would never be achieved with a ruling class dominant across society. Reprinted in 2009 after the financial crash, the book’s themes linger in politics today, to the extent that the Conservative 2017 manifesto pledged a price cap to curb market dominance of energy firms.
The Politics of Thatcherism by Stuart Hall (1983)
In coining the term “Thatcherism” in January 1979, even before Margaret Thatcher entered Downing Street, Hall recognised that her impending victory would mean more than simply a swing of the electoral pendulum to the right, to be followed by a swing back left, but that she would change politics and society. In this collection of essays from Marxism Today, Hall blamed the left, including the trade union movement, for losing the trust of the working class and creating the conditions for Thatcher’s landslide. The left’s response, Hall argued, should be to offer something beyond politics: leading on environmentalism, gay rights and multiculturalism – setting the context for creating New Labour.
Whitehall by Peter Hennessy (1989)
If all the other books on this list are about the turbulence and upheaval of political parties’ fortunes, this is about the fixed point that provides continuity throughout: what Hennessy calls the “permanent government” of the civil service. It is a lively account of the history of Whitehall and the tension and “marriage” between civil servants and ministers, based on the former journalist-turned-academic’s extensive contacts and meticulous research. But there is also relevance today. While Hennessy advocates Whitehall reform, he defends the constitutional propriety of the civil service, which must act as a check against free-range politicians – something later challenged by the Tony Blair government’s obsession with special advisers and attempts to politicise Whitehall.
The State We’re In by Will Hutton (1995)
After more than a decade of Thatcherite free market reforms, the then Observer economics editor set out a vision for “stakeholder capitalism” in which the interests of employees and the public, rather than just shareholders and executives, should be given priority for the benefit of wider society. The book became a bestseller. Tony Blair, as prime minister in waiting, embraced these ideas in speeches when he pledged to serve “for the many not the few” – but went cool on the concept of greater regulation of markets under pressure from Gordon Brown, who was nervous about upsetting the City. And so it came to pass: the seismic impact of the 2008 financial crash highlighted the dangers of laissez-faire markets Hutton had warned about 13 years earlier.
Political Recruitment: Gender, Race & Class in the British Parliament by Pippa Norris & Joni Lovenduski (1995)
If it feels like women and ethnic minorities are poorly represented now, in 1995 there were just 60 female MPs, 9.2% of the total, and six from a black or ethnic minority background – less than 1%. This book, the first audit of UK representation for 25 years, argued that social bias of the political elite favoured wealthier white men. Labour had already decided to impose all-women shortlists, which would, in 1997, double the number of female MPs. The inclusion of this text has an extra significance, because, outside biographies and diaries, there are remarkably few political books written by women or people of colour.
Unjust Rewards: Exposing Greed and Inequality in Britain Today by Polly Yoynbee & David Walker (2008)
Published months before the banking crisis, this exposed the “because I’m worth it” mentality of bankers and City lawyers, out of touch with the low paid in society. In focus groups with high earners, Toynbee and Walker discovered these super-rich regarded themselves as merely middle class and thought the poverty-line income was around £22,000 a year, when at the time it was £11,000. The bankers wanted less state regulation and more tax cuts. What was remarkable was this culture of self-entitlement was present after 10 years of a Labour government that had pledged to halve child poverty by 2010. After the banking crisis, politicians finally began to wake up to bankers’ pay.
The End of the Party by Andrew Rawnsley (2010)
The most authoritative and detailed account of the tempestuous relationship between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, starting in 2001 and ending in the run-up to the 2010 election. The reader is shown the first-hand responses of Blair, Brown and their inner circles to major historical events, like 9/11, the Iraq war and the death of David Kelly. While electoral defeat for Brown was already on the cards by early 2010, this book exposed damaging revelations about bullying inside No 10 which hung over his campaign. Seven years on, with Jeremy Corbyn consolidating his grip on the Labour party, it now also reads as an obituary for New Labour.
After the Coalition: A Conservative Agenda for Britain by Kwasi Kwarteng, Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Chris Skidmore, Liz Truss (2011)
Barely a year into the coalition government, a group of newly elected Conservative MPs set out an agenda for the “new right” (as distinct from the alt right), which sought to break away from Cameronism and bring economic liberalism and Euroscepticism up to date: arguing for free schools to be able to make a profit, tax cuts and a greater role for the private sector in the NHS. The book was viewed by David Cameron’s circle at the time as the work of ambitious upstarts, but read today it is a foreshadowing of how the Conservative party has shifted right and embraced Brexit.
Jane Merrick is a former political editor of the Independent and a freelance journalist
This is part of the Observer’s 100 political classics that shaped the modern era. Please leave suggestions below of books that inspired and shaped your political consciousness and we’ll round up the best in next week’s Observer