Executive editor of Total Politics magazine and editor of So You Want to be a Politician Shane Greer gets Brought to Book.
What is your favourite book and why?
I don’t have a favourite to be honest. When it comes to fiction I like anything by Raymond E. Feist or Robert Ludlum. As for non-fiction, I’m a big fan of Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Drew Westen’s The Political Brain, Bastiat’s The Law and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom.
As a child, what was your favourite book and why?
Anything by Raymond E. Feist. But if I had to pick an absolute favourite, I’d have to go with Rise of a Merchant Prince.
What book would you take on holiday this year?
It depends where I’ve got to in my reading list. But Thanksgiving isn’t far away, so I’ll take a punt and say that I’ll bring Alice Schroeder’s The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life (which has been sitting on my bookshelf for far too long).
Do you have a favourite political book/biography?
I don’t have a single favourite. My favourites include those listed above. But to make this a little more interesting I’ll throw in David Plouffe’s Audacity to Win and Joe McGinniss’ The Selling of the President.
Which book published in the last ten years do you think is the most significant?
Significance is relative. But in the world of politics I’d probably go with the Alastair Campbell diaries.
Which literary character would you most like to be and why?
That’s a tough one. But I think I’ll go with Pug (who can be found in almost all the Raymond E. Feist novels). Seriously, who wouldn’t want to be a master magician whose best friend rides a golden dragon?
Shane Greer's So You Want to be a Politician is available from the Biteback website.
William Hague’s speech this week made much of the book sales at the Labour Party conference last week. That Tristram Hunt’s biography of Friedrich Engels outsold both Blair and Mandelson was taken as evidence of a resurgence of communism.
I spent a fair chunk of the week hanging around the bookshop at conference in Manchester, but I didn’t see any communists. I did see a pleasing number of people buying Labour’s Revival, and even more looking at it, and saying they would get a copy mail-ordered. Billy Hayes, general secretary of the CWU bought a copy. Even Ken Livingstone leafed through a copy.
It is always a thrill for an author to see their work in print (they’re lying if they deny it), and to see people buying and reading it. When Michael Crick from Newsnight filmed me signing copies (as though there was a queue of people wanting a signed copy), it was a highlight of the week.
I hope people who wish Labour well read the book. It’s designed to provide succour to the new leader (I’m glad I left that question open in the book) and a guide to what Labour should do next. There’s a pretty hard-hitting analysis of the failings of the last years of Labour in government. Looking back, it seems mild compared to the revelations coming out in my namesake Steve Richards’s book and radio series. Most of all there’s a plan for Labour’s next moves forward.
Rachel Sylvester of The Times says the new Labour leader should read Labour’s Revival. I know there’s a copy in Ed’s office, but I don’t know if he’s picked it up – yet!
Get your copy of Labour's Revival by Paul Richards for £12.99 here.
This week is Banned Books week and to coincide with that and the attention currently given to the early days of MI6 as a result of the publication of its official history and my own book SIX: A History of Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, Biteback is pleased to announce that it is to publish the original version of Greek Memories. We secured the rights to publish this important book several months ago but have withheld any announcement until now. Greek Memories was the third in a series of four books of memories of wartime published in the post-war period by Compton Mackenzie, then regarded as a leading literary figure, although he is now sadly remembered largely for Whisky Galore and Monarch of the Glen.
Mackenzie was already a famous writer before the war; his breakthrough novel was the critically acclaimed Sinister Street, which has mercifully recently been reprinted by Faber, so well done them. He was serving at Gallipoli when he became ill and as a result entered the intelligence world. Gallipoli Memories is purely about military intelligence although some of the characters he comes in contact with are in fact members of the predecessor of MI6. (I’m using MI6 here to avoid confusion since that is the title we now generally know it by.) <!--more-->
First Athenian Memories covers the early months of his time in Athens, at which point he had been recruited into MI6. Mackenzie paints a very grand picture of himself as the intelligence chief in Athens, although he was in fact tasked to do counter-espionage rather than intelligence-collection. But he was no fool and though he had a penchant for creating mayhem he swiftly expanded his empire. Nevertheless, though it no doubt sailed close to the wind, First Athenian Memories did not reveal any damaging secrets.
That was not the case with Greek Memories which dealt with his secret service activities in Greece in 1916. It was published in 1932 and immediately banned. The publishers Cassell were advised politely that they should withdraw it. It was an offer they could not refuse and, while a few review copies had been issued, contemporaneous court reports state that it was withdrawn on the morning of publication and not a single copy went on sale.
Greek Memories named the wartime Chief of the secret service, Mansfield Cumming. He had been dead for nine years by the time the book was published but revealing his name was still regarded as a heinous crime. More importantly in some ways, Mackenzie had reproduced parts of various MI6 documents at various points in the text and named a number of other MI6 officers who were still living. This was a red line for the authorities who decided they had to put an end to unauthorised disclosures and hauled Mackenzie up before the courts.
Mackenzie was in fact dealt with quite lightly, being fined £100 with a further £100 costs. He took his revenge with the satirical novel Water on the Brain, ridiculing the secret service MQ9(E) and its mysterious ‘Chief’, Colonel Nutting, known only as ‘N’, whose offices at Pomona Lodge were not yet 'officially' a lunatic asylum, but would eventually become one, full of typists ‘feverishly’ typing out reports ‘that will never be read even in eternity’.
Greek Memories was eventually re-published in 1939 in a heavily censored form but the original unexpurgated version has never been published since. Technically it remains banned. But our motto here at Biteback Towers is ‘publish and be damned’ so we will be publishing a special hardback collector’s edition of the original 1932 text in February for the extraordinarily reasonable price £19.99. Since the few copies of the 1932 book trading on the internet would cost you between £120 and £250, with one uncorrected proof copy even priced at the spectacularly grand sum of £880.69, the Biteback edition would be a snip at even five times the price!
Michael Smith is a Commissioning Editor of Biteback Publishing, a former intelligence officer and award-winning journalist, as well as one of the world’s leading experts on Britain’s secret services. He is author of the No.1 bestseller Station X.
Buy your copy of Mick's book Six: A history of Britain's Secret Intelligence Service part 1: Murder and Mayhem now for £19.99.
The book, which so far has only a working title ‘Nick Clegg: The Biography’, is being written by the writer and broadcaster Chris Bowers, and will be published by Biteback in time for next year’s party conference season.
“We’ve been looking to appoint a biographer of this year’s breakthrough figure in British politics,” says Biteback’s managing director Iain Dale, “and in Chris Bowers we believe we’ve found an experienced biography writer in the perfect position to give the background on who Nick Clegg is and what drives him.”
The book will chart Clegg’s rise from MEP to deputy Prime Minister and lynchpin in the historic coalition government. It will also look at the extraordinary family history that helps define him as a politician.
Bowers, 49, is a journalist and commentator, and author of the recent best-selling biography of the tennis ace Roger Federer.
He also works as a communications consultant for the European Federation for Transport & Environment and is a Lib Dem district councillor in East Sussex, he worked loosely with Clegg on revising the Lib Dems’ environment policy in the run-up to the last Lib Dem leadership election.
Three Days Closer to a New Politics?
The 11.00 am from Euston to Manchester is heaving with politicos and hacks: a nod here, a hug there. The trip starts well with the man opposite leaning over to say that he had read Talking to a Brick Wall over the summer and really enjoyed it. Feel very chuffed.
At the Conference Centre there are already long queues stretching around the exhibition stands (fewer corporates and more campaigning groups reflect the harsh commercial realities of opposition).
I settle with tea and a sandwich in a café, and watch as all five candidates and their entourages sweep by. Broad smiles all round. They won’t all be smiling by the end of the afternoon.
It’s twenty five years since my first Labour Party Conference and I think they’ve been playing the same tape of eighties ‘inspirational’ music in the hall ever since. The atmosphere is tense.
When David Miliband’s final vote tally is announced it is clear that Ed has won, but there are no celebratory whoops, rather a stunned silence from both brothers’ camps.
Much later, as I head off to bed, David’s campaign team are settling into a corner of the bar of the Midland Hotel for a long night of commiserations, while the Ed team, equally exhausted, are already working on first drafts of the big speech.<!--more-->
Up early to Harriet Harman’s Women’s Summit. A room big enough to hold 150 had been booked back in the summer, but the delegates just kept on coming. On the day, the meeting was in the Town Hall, with 800 women registered – still so over subscribed that nearly that many again were turned away. Harriet, after her successful stint as acting leader, is the hero of the day.
Harriet has asked me for a polling presentation. I talk about the importance of the women’s vote. I update on voters’ views of the coalition government: it’s been a much shorter Honeymoon than Labour’s in 1997. Recruiting focus groups by September of that year, I simply couldn’t find anyone who would admit to voting Conservative.
Dozens of women activists queue patiently to speak. Then Oona King and Diane Abbott talk about their experiences as candidates. Diane is visibly moved by the warmth of Harriet’s introduction. She talks about entering politics in her parents’ memory. Then Harriet makes a shock announcement: ‘There’s a man in the room!’ We all leap to our feet as Ed Miliband walks through. It is, as he says, a rock star’s welcome.
Off next to be a Dragon at the Fabian Society’s Dragons’ Den (typecasting?). Fellow Dragons are David Lammy MP and journalist David Aaronovitch. Policy pitchers include blogger Will Straw (a land tax), new MP, Stella Creasy (Labour Party gap year from meetings) and Sadiq Khan, Ed’s Campaign Manager (review of detention without trial). The debate is lively.
Later that evening I opt for liver preservation, shun the various receptions and leave the Conference Centre early for dinner with my parents who live just outside Manchester.
Just as well I got a nice early night as I’m up at 5.30 to be on the Today Programme: what does Ed Miliband need to do? I identify the economy as the biggest issue for swing voters, especially those in the ‘squeezed middle’ that Ed has set his sights on. Labour’s reputation for economic competence was hard won and, right now, is shot to pieces. The Government’s consistent attack on Labour’s record has worked. Winning back voter confidence must be top of Ed’s ‘to-do list’.
The mood at Conference has changed. Most people have stopped picking over what happened on Saturday and started anticipating what Ed will say tomorrow. The consensus is that he needs to flag up a fresh start and a clean break with the past. Also that he must rap the Unions on the knuckles pretty firmly.
I bump into Ed walking back to the hotel and make a couple of suggestions to him. He thanks me “That’s great, really helpful - I don’t want to find myself Talking to a Brick Wall…”
A flurry of media activity, doing interviews for BBC and ITV news as well as the Daily Politics Show with the Times’ Phil Collins and blogger John McTernan. I say Ed Miliband is a blank piece of paper in the voters’ minds and that, shown photos of both Milibands, recent focus groups got them muddled up. He needs to use the speech to get people looking at Labour again and to start to define himself before others do.
The first Ed era poll gives Labour a lead for the first time in three years. 1% is statistically insignificant but psychologically highly significant. Delegates have more of a a spring in their step.
In twenty five years I have never seen such a long queue to get into the Leader’s speech. Is this a good sign for Ed? Or just chaotic organization? Either way I go for lunch first and thus fail to make it into the main hall. The atmosphere in the overflow hall is a bit flat at first, but Ed wins them over with some home truths about New Labour’s lost ability to challenge conventional truth, some stern admonishments to the Trade Union brotherhood and cheerleading for a higher banking levy (which won the largest cheer).
Best attack line painted Cameron, once a sunny optimist, as a "miserable pessimist".
The call for New Politics is close to my heart and Ed made a powerful case. “I’m in politics and I find it depressing” He pledged to support AV and House of Lords reform.
He also refuses to be "imprisoned by focus groups and polling". This is, of course, the right sentiment. Focus groups and polling should be an aid to decision making, not a substitute for it.
But Ed must not forget that focus groups are a unique and invaluable tool for connecting with voters. They help prevent politicians becoming imprisoned by vested interests like unions and big business.They give politicians a frank heads up on what people really think rather than a point of view expressed in meetings and surgeries, filtered and edited because a politician is in the room. They enable politicians to explore policy options and language nuance from the public’s perspective. Ed knows this better than most. In the early days of working for Gordon Brown he sat through dozens of them with me.
It’s a delicious irony that the "imprisoned by focus groups" line will have been very well received in focus groups.
I resolve to send Ed a copy of Talking to a Brick Wall when I get back to London in case he ever supposes that he might be able to stay in touch with voters without them.
Stay in touch and buy a copy of Deborah's excellent book Talking to A Brick Wall: How New Labour Stopped Talking to the Voter and Why We Need a New Politics now.