September 02, 2021 12:25
New authors are often asked, ‘Why did you write this book?’ I’m going to give answering that question a go in this post.
I start with a self-aware caveat: I’m not an historian – I am that most English of things, the enthusiastic amateur. I have great admiration for those who’ve dedicated their lives to research and to teaching and cannot claim to be one of them; I work in the City, and history has always been a much-loved hobby.
I began telling the stories as a distraction for myself during the recent coronavirus lockdown(s) in a series of threaded tweets on Twitter (where my handle is @ajcdeane) under the hashtag #deanehistory. I’ve always thought that we can learn from the past, and the first few were just stories I had told to people from time to time over the years. Denied an in-person audience to inflict them on, I took to social media to air them there instead!
The surprising thing to me was how well they were received. They were widely shared and commented upon, and soon people who love history as much as I do were proactively suggesting new stories, as well as adding many interesting digressions and responses. That’s also where the demand for a book of stories began.
So, for a book about history it is a surprisingly 21st-century work – originating on social media and much of it crowd-sourced!
The book is light-hearted – much of the attention it’s received has kindly stressed how funny people have found some of the stories. But it’s also true that, in recent times, I’ve moved from loving history to being rather worried about it. When people are pulling down statues, I fear that we’ve gone too far.
There’s a real risk in modern views that people think this is Year Zero. That all that has come before us is ignorant and wrong and this is the sole generation of wisdom uniquely able to judge those who have come before. Apart from anything else, it’s less than positive because there will come a next generation, and one after that, and I assume we wouldn’t want them to think themselves uniquely enlightened and that we are bigoted barbarians.
What starts with statues doesn’t end with statues. In fact, what starts with statues isn’t really about statues. The destroyers won’t stop when they get their way on statues. They’ll move on to the next thing. Films. Books. Blue plaques. Street names. Town names. A veritable bonfire of the vanities awaits us.
So there is a little of that in the book, as well as the humour.
It’s worth saying that, freed from the strictures of the Twitter format, the stories that reappear in the book have been extended and elaborated on, and many other stories appearing in it were not posted online.
Finally, I was writing Lessons from History as my father was dying. Caring for him at home with my family, I was surrounded by his great collection of works of history, which reflected the wide-ranging and random interests that are reflected in the book – and though inadequate as a tribute, it is dedicated to his memory.
Alex's book Lessons from History is out now: order your copy here.
August 24, 2021 10:35
As his book China Vs America is published, Oliver Letwin explains the influences that drove him to write it...
When did you first become aware of China’s rising influence?
During the years 2010 to 2016, when taking part in continuous discussions at the UK’s National Security Council, it became increasingly clear that the West’s strategies of the late twentieth century were outdated. Whether we liked it or not, geopolitics were being transformed by the rise of China and India and by the uneasy triangle of relationships between them and Russia.
So I launched a series of ministerial visits to China in order to see first-hand what was going on there. The more I visited, the more impressed I became by the huge economic and technological strides that the Chinese were making.
And this wasn’t just an anecdotal impression. It was reinforced by analysis of the facts. The more I studied the data, the more certain I became that, in place of a world led by the US and its European and Japanese allies, we were entering an era of great power rivalry eerily similar to the situation a century earlier when the dominance of the British empire was being challenged by the rise of Germany and America.
What made you want to write a book about it?
When I left government, I was determined to study in more depth the history that had led to this state of affairs, and to get some real insight into the likely future. This research, combined with further visits to China, as well as discussions with colleagues elsewhere in Asia and in the US and continental Europe, made me even more worried than I had been when I was a minister.
It seemed to me that there were two almost equally dangerous tendencies at play in the West: one, an ostrich-like tendency to put heads in the sand and deny that the world was changing; the other, a hawk-like tendency to see the rise of China as a threat which needed to be resisted at all costs, including the cost of a new Cold War or even of a new hot war, which could threaten the welfare of our children and grandchildren.
So I decided to write a book explaining why I was so worried and what I thought we might do to reduce the chances of disaster.
How is the West reacting to China’s rising dominance – and how should it be reacting?
The essential problem is that neither the ostriches nor the hawks have any real strategy for dealing with the situation we face.
If the West tries to pretend that China will never really be a rival to the US this won’t prevent the rivalry occurring. The truth is that no predictions are necessary: China is already, both in economic terms and in terms of power, a rival to the US. And it is a rival with fundamentally different values. We can’t just wish that away.
At the same time, if we react to the rise of China by seeking confrontation we will find that the Chinese respond with confrontation of their own. And mutual confrontation will lead
inevitably to a Cold War – made all the more dangerous by the numerous flashpoints around the world that could all too easily turn a Cold War hot.
I don’t believe that we are likely to solve this huge problem by tackling it head-on. We have to be cleverer and more agile than that. We are never going to agree with the Chinese about the treatment of the Uighurs in Xinjiang or the Chinese attitude to Hong Kong.
But I believe we could gradually build some mutual trust, and also help to improve the prospects for the world as a whole, by focusing on issues of common concern – issues that can’t be resolved without cooperation between China and the West. This is what I call ‘enterprise internationalism’.
If, notwithstanding the inevitable rivalry and the clash of values, we can find ways of engaging in joint enterprises – working together to tackle things like climate change, pandemics, food security, energy security and water security – we may gradually acquire sufficient mutual trust to be able to discuss more contentious issues arising in flashpoints like the South and East China Sea, the Himalayas, Bangladesh and central Asia.
What’s one thing you would like people to take away from reading your book?
The one thing I hope people will take away from reading my book is that we are in a new and dangerous world of superpower rivalry and that we have to find some way of managing that if we are to avoid catastrophe for mankind.
China Vs America is out now. Grab your copy from the Biteback website here.
July 30, 2021 10:04
As her new book, Behold the Dark Gray Man, is published, Katharine Campbell examines the similarities between today and post-war Germany...
While the coronavirus has been cutting its merciless path through the world and we have been in lockdown, I have finished my book, Behold the Dark Gray Man, an exploration of the life of my father Sholto Douglas and his long-term struggle with incipient post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Last spring, with the pandemic raging all around us, I was reading and writing about the period in Sholto’s life that caused him the greatest anguish, the heartbreak of which he relived over and over again in his old age: his time as Military Governor of the British Zone of occupied Germany in the aftermath of the Second World War.
I was reminded of the utter chaos that confronted him in war-ravaged Germany: the horrendous loss of life and destitute, starving and cold people, homeless or living in bunkers, cellars and bombed-out buildings, having been stripped of everything. We have lost sight of how appalling it was, and we have also forgotten the magnificent men and women whose deep-seated humanitarian ideals enabled them to resurrect Germany, and indeed Europe, from the ashes, a task in which Sholto played his part but which came at a profound cost to him.
The challenges to mental wellbeing posed by that extreme situation are echoed in those that we face today, and we minimise their significance at our peril. Dr Adrian James, the president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, has said that the coronavirus crisis poses the greatest threat to mental health since the Second World War, the consequences of which will be felt long after the virus has been brought under control.
And what of those making crucial decisions in the midst of catastrophe? Sholto held the lives of 22 million people in his hands, agonising each day over how to do his best for them. He described himself as having a ‘stern conscience’, and it wasn’t just the remembrance of Germany that troubled him later. The effects of PTSD are cumulative, and when we see people traumatised by a particular situation, we might not realise that they may be carrying hidden vulnerabilities from previous wounds, both mental and physical.
Sholto served in both world wars and had been dealing with death and suffering ever since he was twenty years old. As a young squadron commander in the Royal Flying Corps on the Western Front, not only did he lose his much-loved brother, likewise in the RFC; he also had to send young men out on patrol knowing that some of them would never return, and he often risked death himself. Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, was similarly tortured by his decisions as medical officer to the First Battalion Royal Fusiliers from 1914 to 1917. He described his responsibility for certifying his unit as fit as ‘like signing the death warrant of two hundred men. And I might be wrong,’ writing in 1945: ‘Even now after twenty years my conscience is troubled…’
Many years after his experiences in the First World War and his treatment for what we would now call PTSD, the poet Siegfried Sassoon described his continuing struggle with his memories, writing of ‘that garret of uneasy gloom which is your brain’. It is my hope that those who read my book will find in Sholto’s story an acknowledgement and understanding of the nature of trauma and its effects, a first step to healing.
Behold the Dark Gray Man is out now. Order your copy here.
July 08, 2021 09:26
Ahead of the publication of the third edition of his book 101 Ways to Win An Election, Ed Maxfield put his own advice to the test- by running for election!
If you were going to stress-test the new edition of 101 Ways To Win an Election you could ditch thirty-five years of party affiliation and run for election as an independent candidate. An extreme step, maybe, but we have to make sacrifices for our craft…
I’ve been a member of Norfolk County Council for the past four years. I’ve enjoyed the job immensely and felt that, in a small way, I have been able to make a difference for the communities I represent. Of course, it was those reasons, not because I needed to test the effectiveness of our election campaigning manual, that made me decide to run for re-election. Having left my party last year, that meant running as an independent, giving up on all the resources that come with being a party candidate. I genuinely did turn to the book to remind myself of the key bits of advice we gave to candidates. Here are the key lessons I learned:
Set the terms of the election. I often say the most important takeaway from the book is a line of my co-author Mark Pack: define the job you are seeking as one that you, and only you, can do. Failing to define a winning message is a mistake I see repeated over and over in elections. Sometimes candidates will forget to come up with a clear message at all. Sometimes they will talk about issues they care about but that don’t chime with the electorate. Sometimes they will rely on slogans without substance. Often, more often than not, they fail to explain why the things they are talking about matter – why they can do the job in a way the others cannot. I didn’t have a party brand but I did have the benefit of experience and a record of working hard for local people. I knew my opponents would spend as much time attacking each other as they did talking about the things they wanted to achieve – that created the space to explain why an independent candidate could get things done.
Devise a winning plan. I knew that my opponents would have resources that I could not match. I knew we would all be campaigning in the midst of a pandemic and its ever-changing restrictions. I knew my strengths and my weaknesses and I had a pretty good idea of theirs. I thought I knew the timetable but even that was thrown into doubt with debate over whether the elections would take place in May. It was a great test of my aversion to ‘off-the-shelf’ campaign plans because, as an independent, I had to start from scratch – I had no shelf, let alone a plan! That really made me think about all the strengths and weaknesses, the external factors and shifting landscape that feed into any successful plan in any field.
Build a team. This really was an election like no other. It was difficult or even illegal to do many of the things we normally do to get our message across. But that didn’t alter the scale of the task. It is so easy to underestimate the amount of work that is needed to win an election. Especially as an independent. I never forgot that everyone who voted for me would be changing the way they normally vote. I never took anyone’s vote for granted. I could not have won without the support of a large team of friends and local residents who helped my campaign – you cannot do it alone!
Listen and learn. The pandemic forced even an old dog like me to take digital communications seriously. I set myself some rules to protect my sanity and actually had a lot of fun with it. On every aspect of the campaign I made sure I listened to trusted friends and acted on their advice (sometimes after a bit of sulking if they told me I was getting it wrong). I also listened to local voters and watched what my opponents were doing. Never letting them dictate the campaign, never complaining when they did smart things. But always being willing to adjust and tweak and adapt.
Make sure you know why you are doing it. It’s a theme running through all three editions of our book. Whatever your politics, it is vital that you run a campaign that is consistent with your own values and beliefs. That way, win or lose, you know you will have made the right choices.
Ed Maxfield is co-author of 101 Ways to Win an Election, which has just been re-published in its third edition. In May 2021 he ran for election as an independent candidate in the Norfolk County Council elections. He won by seventy-six votes and continues to represent Mundesley division on the council.
Get your copy here.
June 23, 2021 12:00
To mark the publication of his new book Brexit Unfolded, Chris Grey explains why so many people are dissatisfied with the way it turned out...
The long title of this book is intended to capture two things: one obvious and the other provocative, and both with big implications.
The obvious bit is that Brexit wasn’t a single event that happened on the day of the 2016 referendum, or the day Britain left the EU, or even the end of the transition period. It was a process which, indeed, unfolded over time. The referendum was the beginning, not the end.
The provocative bit is that Brexit hasn’t delivered what its advocates promised and many of its supporters wanted, and that this was, if not inevitable, then, at least, always highly likely.
The two are linked. At the time of the referendum, the exact meaning of Brexit was left undefined and there were many different versions of what it could mean. So, after the vote to leave, what Brexit actually meant in practice got defined in the process of doing it.
This inevitably meant that some of the versions of what people wanted for Brexit didn’t happen. But, more than that, in the process of ‘doing Brexit’ many of the claims made for it beforehand proved factually incorrect. In particular, assurances that Brexit had no implications for Northern Ireland’s borders were false, as were many of the ideas about what kind of trade arrangements the UK could have without also having the freedom of movement of people.
But if that were all, then Brexit would not have been as dramatic and divisive as it turned out to be. That happened partly because a very narrow vote to leave was treated as a licence for a far more extreme form of Brexit than was necessary to honour that vote. Worse, those who didn’t want Brexit were treated as ‘enemies of the people’ and ‘traitors’. No attempt was made to create a consensus with them, or with those parts of the UK which had voted to remain.
Worse still, amongst those who did want Brexit some invariably denounced any specific Brexit plan as a ‘betrayal’. That was partly because of the original lack of definition but, more, because one strand of Brexiter psychology actually wanted to be betrayed so as to confirm a sense of victimhood. Sometimes it even seemed as if they would have been happier had they lost the vote.
Even amongst those for whom that wasn’t the case, at the heart of how Brexit unfolded was an undeliverable idea. It was that leaving the EU would be cost-free, not just in terms of economics but in any way at all, and all suggestions to the contrary were rubbished as ‘Project Fear’. Since that could not be delivered, blame was put on ‘Remainer traitors’ and ‘EU punishment’.
This book tells the story of how and why the events since the 2016 referendum happened. It is a story of great complexity, with many twists and turns, and moments of high drama. Although it ends when the transition period finished, Brexit is still unfolding. And the ways in which it is doing so grow directly out of what happened in the five tumultuous years that we have just lived through.
Brexit Unfolded is out now and available to order. Why not take a look here?