Book Review: The Prime Ministers by Steve Richards

Steve Richards’s writing is detailed, concise and accessible: perfect qualities mixed into his book on leadership from Harold Wilson to Boris Johnson. Defined as the “television age” of Prime Ministers, Richards looks at the qualities needed to lead a country in a job that is notorious for failure. It is ideal for anyone looking to understand how we have ended up where we are today, as well as the real, though often flawed, people who have led Britain.

Looking through the ten Prime Ministers, Richards identifies common themes and criteria on which to judge these individuals. These broad ideas are then expertly woven into specific examples that highlight the author’s years of experience in the world of politics. One of the most engaging criteria he notes is the concept of being a “political teacher” with the ability to carry the public on the path the government is pursuing. Richards points to Thatcher as a prime example of this, with a specialist ability to simplify complex themes into accessible lessons, even where they may not be logically sound. An interesting example of this is Thatcher referencing her father’s grocery shop in Grantham; she argued that he could not spend more than he earned, and so neither should the country. Of course, Richards argues, the state is an entirely different unit in comparison to a shop, but Thatcher’s ability to create a simple story captivated the public.

The Prime Ministers: Reflections on Leadership from Wilson to Johnson paperback cover. (Credit: via Waterstones)

Naturally, there are those figures who do not possess these key skills. Continuing the idea of the political teacher, Richards notes that Theresa May was reluctant to give a running commentary on Brexit, preferring instead to give a number of high profile speeches but in doing so, allowing others to take control of the narrative in the interim. This, he posits, is the result of applying the same tactics as were deployed in her successful period in the Home Office: relying on familiar tactics in a job that was not designed to accommodate them.

Richards expands more widely and engagingly on this theme, tracing Prime Ministers’ actions and instincts – both positive and negative – back to their personal and political upbringings. For the 1970s leaders who grew up with the Great Depression, fear of unemployment was almost crippling and coloured their dealings with trade unions. Enter Margaret Thatcher – free of such inhibitions – and tactics changed markedly. Of course, these were not the only factors, but they have helped Richards develop a nuanced picture of our Prime Ministers.

This is why the stories are so compelling: they give a rich picture that goes beneath the popular myths: Wilson’s exiting office on his own terms, Thatcher’s luck in facing a fractured Labour Party in 1983, Brown’s fear of being a “tail-end Charlie” realised in 2010. Being Prime Minister is exposed as being contingent on a huge number of factors, many out of the individual’s control, for example the media, which Richard paints as having almost imprisoned Blair and Brown in their desperation to keep the newspapers of traditionally Conservative Middle England on their side. Prime Ministers are too often seen as all powerful, whereas Richards expertly outlines the complicated maze each must navigate to achieve their aims.

Overall, these detailed accounts of leaders’ personalities and careers show that they are never adequately classified by the binary good or bad metric, as so many seem to picture them. These are characters with huge expertise, experience and a human side that is often lost in popular memory. Having known or interviewed the figures he writes about, Richards is uniquely placed to track the paths to power of the ‘modern’ Prime Ministers, and it shows.

Joe Rossiter, History in Politics Writer

Judging the Past: Can We Really Afford Not To?

University of Edinburgh historian Donald Bloxham has provided much food for thought in his recent article for the March edition of BBC History Magazine, entitled ‘Why History Must Take a Stance’. In it, he challenges the dogmatic insistence on neutrality that pervades the historical profession. Instead of feigning an unattainable neutrality, he argues, historians should take ownership of the judgements they make and the moral ‘prompts’ that they provide to their readers. Proclaiming neutrality is misleading, and possibly dangerous. I am inclined to agree.

Whilst neutrality is an honourable and necessary ambition for any historian, it is an ideal, and it is folly to suppose otherwise. No morally conscious human being can honestly claim to provide a totally neutral account of British imperialism, for instance. We tell a story in the way that we want to tell it, and there are plethora ways of telling that story, all of which have moral implications in the present. Language, as Bloxham observes, is a key factor. Can a historian who writes about the ‘exploitation’ and ‘subjugation’ of millions of human beings as a result of the Atlantic slave trade truly claim that they are providing a ‘neutral’ impression to their reader? These words carry weight, and rightly so. To talk about the past in totally neutral terms is not only impossible, but also heartless. The stories of the people whose lives were torn apart by past injustices deserve to be told, not only out of respect or disengaged interest but because they bear lessons that exert a tangible and morally didactic hold over us in the present.

The Lady of Justice statute outside the Old Baily. (Credit: Into the Blue)

That is not to say that historical writing should take the form of a moral invective, lambasting the behaviour of dead people whom we can no longer hold to account. Nor is it to argue that historical relativism is not a vitally important and foundational principle of the profession. What I am proposing, however, is that when Richard J. Evans claims, in his otherwise brilliant ‘In Defence of History’, that we should refute E.H. Carr’s argument – that the human cost of collectivisation in the USSR was a necessary evil – in the ‘historian’s way’, by undermining its ‘historical validity’, he seems to be suggesting that we are not doing so with a moral purpose in mind. Indeed, suggesting that the costs outweighed the benefits is itself a moral judgement, for is it not judging the value of people’s lives? Whilst Evans claims that it is the reader who must infer this conclusion, not the historian, his economic argument (that collectivisation was no more successful than the policies that preceded it) is surely intended to ‘prompt’ it.

Evans, like most people, clearly opposes the morality of Carr’s argument, and his way of communicating this is in the (highly effective) ‘historian’s way’. But his purpose nonetheless is to influence the opinion of his readers, not simply to fulfil the role of historical automaton, providing those readers with every fact under the sun. The process of omission and admission is one that, try as we may to temper it, will always involve some degree of value judgement about which facts matter for the purpose of our argument and which do not. Such a value judgement will inevitably, at times, operate on a moral criterion.

This debate may, as is often the case with those that take historiography as their subject, appear somewhat academic. In a world in which our history does so much to define the identities of (and relations between) ethnic, social, cultural and political groups, however, it is anything but. What we can call the ‘neutrality complex’ runs the risk of imbuing the historical profession and its practitioners with a sense of intellectual superiority, forgetting the political consequences of its output. One can find little fault in Bloxham’s assertion that certain histories carry less moral weight, and are therefore more conducive to neutral assessment, but subjects with as much emotional resonance as the history of slavery, the Holocaust or Mao’s Great Famine cannot but be judgemental in nature. 

‘Neutrality’ can be a mask for the covert projection of nefarious ideologies and interpretations. Presenting something simply as ‘fact’ is irresponsible and shows great ignorance of the moral dispositions that influence what we write and how we write it. There is space and need for some degree, however tentative, of self-acknowledged judgement in historical writing. We owe it to our audience to declare our judgement and to justify it. The crimes of imperialism, genocide and slavery are universally evil. The historian has a concern and a duty to show their audience why those that claim otherwise, who hyperinflate relativism and claim neutrality, are guilty both of intellectual hubris and moral cowardice.

Samuel Lake, History in Politics Writer

Book Review: J. S. Mill’s ‘On Liberty’

John Stuart Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is a classic statement of liberal values and an iconic text in the arena of moral and political thought. Published in 1859, it was originally conceived as a short essay upon which Mill and his wife, Harriet Taylor, fleshed out the liberal values and morality that still provide much of the basis for political structures today. In essence, it seeks to address the question of how far the state or society as a whole should go in controlling individual beliefs and actions, and its answer is a resounding defence of individuality.

Title page of the first edition of On Liberty (1859). (Credit: Public Domain)

Mill opens his account with a historical assessment of the ancient struggle between liberty and authority, suggesting an evolving relationship between ruler and ruled whereby people came to believe that rulers no longer needed to be independent powers opposed to their interests, thus giving rise to notions of democracy. But, whilst government tyranny is a concern for Mill, ‘On Liberty’ focuses more on the dangers of democratic and social coercion and its hindrance upon the individual; perhaps an unsurprising view in the context of Victorian social conservatism. On Liberty sees Mill warn against a ‘tyranny of the majority’, and it is with this in mind that Mill sets out the individual freedoms and protections that ground liberal values to this day. 

‘On Liberty’ focuses on four key freedoms: freedom of thought, speech, action, and association, all of which would challenge the Victorian orthodoxy of custom and restraint in the social and political sphere. 

Freedom of thought, by which Mill means ‘absolute freedom of opinion and sentiment on all subjects’, is a staple in the genre of classical liberalism; a rejection of group-think and the elevation of individual thought over social customs. Mill’s conception of freedom of speech is arguably more profound and more contentious. His defence of free speech extends up until such speech becomes incitement to violence. He sees value in speech no matter how potentially hateful or self-evidently incorrect, for such speech is necessary to reinforce the strength of our convictions and stop our beliefs and values from becoming mere platitudes. One might perceive this opinion as at the crux of today’s disagreements over the limits of free speech.

Mill’s conceptualisation of freedom of act divides action into two categories: self-regarding action and other-regarding action, and sees only limitations on the latter as permissible. In essence, one should be free to act in any way they please, unless in doing so they directly harm somebody else; a classical liberal statement if there ever was one. Finally, freedom of association; the freedom to unite with any person so long as the purpose does not involve harm. 

“Mankind are greater gainers by suffering each other to live as seems good to themselves, than by compelling each to live as seems good to the rest”.

J. S. Mill, ‘On Liberty’

‘On Liberty’ is evidently a defence of individualism and individual freedoms, but it represents a major departure from previous liberal thinkers. Mill’s support for liberty is rooted in his utilitarianism. Whereas liberal thinkers such as John Locke see liberty as a valuable end in itself, and man as endowed with natural rights by way of existing, Mill’s individual liberties merely serve a purpose, that purpose being utility. In short, ‘in proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others’. He has come under severe criticism for this, with many doubting his liberal credentials, but as he states in ‘On Liberty’, without firm grounding, ‘there is only too great a tendency in the best beliefs and practices to degenerate into the mechanical’.

Mill’s ‘On Liberty’ is not liberty merely for liberty’s sake, but rather it is liberty with a purpose, and his robust defence of individual freedoms still providing the framework for liberal thought today makes ‘On Liberty’ one of politics’ greatest hits.

Leo Cullis, History in Politics Writer

Book Review: Han Kang’s ‘Human Acts’

Han Kang’s novel ‘Human Acts’ details just that: the experiences of a range of individuals suffering from the actions humans inflict on each other. The narrative flows through different times and places, centred around one boy, Dong-ho. 

The first UK edition cover of ‘Human Acts’. (Credit: Portobello Books Ltd, via Amazon.)

Dong-ho is revealed to be based on a real child who the author was distantly connected to and one of many massacred in 1980 in Gwangju, a city in South Korea. 

At the end of 1979, South Korea’s military strongman Park Chung-hee was assassinated. Having been in power since his coup in 1961, he had increased repressive measures to create a de facto dictatorship, declaring martial law in response to demonstrations throughout the country’s south. 

His assassination saw Park’s protégé Chun Doo-hwan gain power. Chun was nicknamed his adoptive son, and his measures reflected their surrogate familial connection. By May, Chun expanded martial law to the entire country, and had introduced a range of restrictive measures, banning political activities, limiting freedom of the press, and closing universities.

In response, student demonstrations sprung up in Gwangju on May 18. The government reacted to the students from Jeonnam University by shooting and beating them. Outrage saw the protests spread as citizens took to the street in solidarity, opposing the lack of democracy and protesting the harsh conditions workers endured during South Korea’s rapid industrialisation. Paratroopers were sent in against civilians, schoolchildren were shot as they tried to surrender, people were beaten, raped, and tortured by government troops, with the fighting in the city finishing on 27 May.

Official figures, which remain unchanged, suggest around 200 died, whereas some foreign press reports estimated 2,000. The death toll is hard to fully ascertain – many bodies were thrown in unmarked graves, Chun worked to suppress discussion of the Uprising, and the brutalities resulted in suicides which cannot be directly attributed. 

Only foreign press were allowed to cover the uprising and Chun Doo-hwan blamed the rebellion on Communists sent from North Korea. With authorities trying to suppress memories of the event, it was only in 1997 a day of commemoration was created. The Uprising has yet to be confined to history; as with Japan’s use of Korean “comfort women” in World War Two and Chun Doo-hwan’s Samchung re-education camp, the event remains raw. Regional hostilities against people from South Jeolla, Gwangju’s province, created by the dictatorship to minimise the protests continue and the Uprising is still contested by certain right-wing groups. 

A May 18th memorial in Gwangju, South Korea. (Credit: The May 18 Memorial Foundation)

Kang’s book is an attempt to grapple with this history, offering an attempt to reconcile the cruelty shown to people by their own nation. Kang was born in Gwangju, moving to Seoul aged 10, and the final chapter of the book presents her own experience with the Uprising – seeing her parents trying to hide it from the children, opening a book of photos showing a woman shot in the face – and the need to tell the story of the voices left. The focus on scenes outside the traditional dramatic scenes of tanks arriving allows the novel to act almost as a range of historical sources, guiding you through the effects of history.

The novel was published in South Korea in 2014, the year after Park Chung-hee’s daughter’s presidential inauguration. Park Geun-hye’s ascent to the highest office of Korea motivated Kang to write a book discussing part of Korea’s traumatic past which is rarely spotlighted. It is hard for a country to admit to shooting its civilians – think of Kent State, where in 1970 the Ohio National Guard killed four unarmed students protesting American involvement in the Vietnam War. Kang’s questioning of why Gwangju residents sang the national anthem as corpses were wrapped in the Taegukgi (the national flag) demonstrates how such wounds can fester, changing a person’s identity. The narration of a corpse reminds how people’s suffering cannot stay in the grave, especially when not given a proper burial.

The book’s strength is in its ability to offer a range of perspectives from the event. Historical literature’s merit is often limited by a narrow focus, single scope, and distorting historical facts. Through Kang’s use of the Korean literary tradition of a linked narrative, the reader is connected to Dong-ho throughout the novel but can see the effect of the Uprising from a multiplicity of perspectives. Giving the narrative to the unionised women who drove the pro-democracy movement, the survivors, and even a corpse, creates a novel which can educate about the event and how people experienced it. The detached tone adopted in all Kang’s work allows for a lack of sensationalisation or didacticism as literal torture is presented to the reader. 

The novel reminds us that history remains in our present politics and all spheres of life. Novels and other works of literature offer an opportunity to act as a historical source, presenting people’s responses to events, and as a way to expose ourselves to areas of history unknown. Human Acts forms part of history and has continuing political significance.

Ellie Williams-Brown

Book Review: ‘The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence’ (2013) by Gary A. Haugen and Victor Boutros

This book has blown my mind. Honestly and truly, this is not an overstatement. The title itself encapsulates the purpose of the book, one which evidently drives every chapter. Gary Haugen, the book’s main author, is the founder of the International Justice Mission; a mass organisation that seeks to end the global injustice of human trafficking. The Locust Effect is an in-depth account as to why violence is the predominant hindrance to ending poverty in the developing world.

The metaphor, indicated by the title, The Locust Effect, which is not addressed until the third chapter, refers to the plaguing effect of violence (the locusts) to the well-intended humanitarian work built-up in small communities (the harvest). Haugen uses this chapter to emphasize his point and does not grow shy of arguing that violence devours progress as easily as a swarm of locusts ravish a harvest. 

He evidences the main argument throughout the book, but most emphatically demonstrates this through an intimate and horrifying example portrayed in the powerful first chapter. This case details the pathetic masquerade of ‘justice’ after the murder and rape of an 8 year old Peruvian girl called Yuri. Haugen describes, through the rural surroundings, how Yuri’s family had tried so hard to provide a life for her that transcended that of their past, particularly through education. Yuri’s murder had been at the hands of a local oligarchical family, who hired a lawyer to protect their murderous son, and destroyed all evidence that would allow justice to prevail on behalf on Yuri.

The cover of Haugan’s ‘The Locust Effect’. (Credit: Oxford University Press)

Thus, we come to the conclusion of this book; in too many developing countries in the world, justice is a commodity the poor simply cannot afford and are in fact consistently victimised by. A reason this is the case is fully investigated in the chapter entitled ‘Colonial legacies and a failure that makes sense’. This chapter is one of the most profound examples of history working in politics today that I have come across. Through his observation of justice systems in the developing world since 1994, Haugen ascertains that these systems are so ineffective because they have had next to no reform since colonial years. In an interview with former Punjab Director- General of Police in India Kirpal S. Dhillon, it is stated that the colonial Indian Police Act of 1861 still governs India up to the publication of the book. The Police Act specifically protected the ruler and not the citizens of the country.

Other examples are used by Haugen to establish how entrenched colonialism and oppression still is in these legal systems. In Malawi, a former British colony, the legal system is still conducted in English, a language which only one percent of the country speaks. This means millions of people are stuck in the legal system often without trial and are unable to defend themselves. Often, the poorest people are randomly picked and abused as scapegoats for the crimes of the wealthy.

Without a functioning legal system that posits democratic justice, efforts to assist the poor in the form of schools and food supplies will not have their full and well-intentioned effect if, for example, girls are too susceptible to becoming victims of violence to be able to walk to school. The need for reformed justice systems in the developing world and a rejection of imposed colonial manifestations of history in these legal systems, cries out from every page of this book. For me, it is a perspective shattering insight.

Haugen’s book is well evidenced by both statistical and case study evidence. Through this convincing argument, the book concludes by stating that although there are huge injustices in the legal systems in the developing world, there are successes from sustained efforts to reform them. One example of this is the huge success of a collaborative legal efforts against child prostitution in the Philippines. Thus, the book ends on a charged yet positive note: there is possible success working with the representatives of justice in the developing world, but a sustained global effort has never been tried to reform these systems wholesale. Therefore, it has never failed.

I would recommend this book to anyone passionate about social justice, a topic which I feel is deeply cloaked in the implications of history in politics.

Anna Shepherd