Writing about politics is far too important to be left to politicians – the 100 best political books – The Guardian

David Cameron has bought a posh shed for his back garden in which to do the writing. Now all the former Tory leader has to do is get down to it and finish his memoir. I am sure he will produce something. There is a reported advance of £800,000 to earn. The only question that matters a damn is whether his book will be worth reading.

We thought now was an excellent moment to publish a supplement which highlights outstanding books that have shaped political thought, deepened our understanding of how politics ticks and offered signposts to future directions for our world. It felt timely because this era is characterised by exceptional flux. Today’s orthodoxy can turn into tomorrow’s redundancy and today’s unthinkable can become tomorrow’s inevitable.

Our selectors have not chosen many books by politicians themselves. I can see why. My shelves groan with memoirs produced by politicians, and it is fair to say that the pearls are outnumbered by the dross. Too many autobiographies are self-serving attempts to write a favourable history of themselves.

One of the better recent memoirs came from Tony Blair, who was disarmingly frank about how frightened he was of power when he first became prime minister and unusually honest about the calculations he made before taking decisions. He is occasionally too candid for some tastes. On one occasion he takes us with him into the loo.

There’s a case to be made for the political diary, because it ought to capture how things felt in the heat of the action. This works only when the writer is capable of being honest about themselves, and one is always bound to be a little wary of any diary clearly written with a view to later publication. For my money, the best of the diaries have been those produced not by the leading political actors, who are too consumed by events and their own ambitions to be reliable witnesses, but by lesser players.

Jock Colville, Churchill’s private secretary, is more interesting about the great man than his cabinet contemporaries. From the Thatcher period, the priapic would-be Tory grandee Alan Clark was a failure, his admiration for the lady never reciprocated by a place in one of her cabinets. It is because of this that his diaries are so much more entertaining and illuminating than the self-puffing of more high-ranking politicians. From the New Labour years, my personal favourite is Chris Mullin, who is brilliant on the miseries of being an impotent junior minister.

Writing about politics is far too important to be left to politicians. So you will find here our selectors’ choices from philosophers, novelists, playwrights, political scientists, campaigners, historians and journalists.

Democratic Presidential aspirant John F. Kennedy meets smiling crowds in August, 1960



Democratic Presidential aspirant John F. Kennedy meets smiling crowds in August, 1960

I would say this, but our understanding of how we are governed would be much thinner without the efforts made by journalists to reveal and analyse events and the leaders enmeshed in them. It is more challenging work writing about live prime ministers and presidents than about dead ones. Live ones can sue. This genre was pioneered by Theodore White when he published The Making of the President, about the 1960 campaign which brought John F Kennedy to the White House. White’s quasi-novelistic style, which paid as much attention to the influence of politicians’ personalities as to policy, established a rich tradition of journalists writing contemporary history.

The most ambitious books here are those that seek to offer all-encompassing theories about politics. This can be a hazardous enterprise. The 1970s felt like a bleak time for the west, with America in a post-Vietnam malaise, various forms of terrorism stalking western Europe and oil price hikes contributing to crises in the economies of the democracies. This prompted a huge amount of literature forecasting the ineluctable decline of the west. By the end of the next decade, the Soviet Union had imploded. Francis Fukuyama celebrated what appeared to be the triumph of liberal capitalist democracies with a work boldly entitled The End of History. We now know that history had not stopped. It was merely taking a breath.

The latest additions to my bookshelves are dominated by a wave of books seeking to explain the forces which have produced a Donald Trump presidency in America, Brexit Britain, a populist surge across much of Europe and a resurgence of authoritarianism in a worryingly extensive swath of the world. Why is democracy, which looked so ascendant after the Berlin Wall came down, now feeling besieged? I am not sure we have a comprehensive explanation, nor a reliable prognosis of where we are headed next, but plenty of clever people are asking lots of the right questions.

The other large theme in the second decade of the 21st century is automation and robotics. The lesser pessimists forecast that most people will lose their livelihoods and the greater pessimists that AI will become so self-improvingly potent that the human species will be fortunate if our machine overlords allow us to be their pets or chattels. I don’t share that dystopian view, but I’ve had plenty of intellectual stimulation from the work of those who do.

You don’t have to agree with a political book to find it valuable. I am confident that you will quarrel with some of the choices made by our selectors. I don’t agree with all of them myself. I do think they have picked outstanding examples from the spectrum of genres.

Perhaps these selections will inspire David Cameron to finish his memoir. Perhaps they will make the challenge of producing a worthwhile book the more intimidating.

  • The 100 best political books will revealed online between Sunday and Tuesday – and in print as a supplement with the Observer on Sunday. Read the first instalments of the series here

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