Getting lost in PMQs? Here are five books you should read

  • July 28, 2020 10:00
  • Vicky Jessop

It’s time for Parliamentary recess, but one thing won’t change over the break: the discord being felt between many MPs that is currently on display so spectacularly during the weekly Prime Minister’s Questions.

Confused? Take advantage of the few months off to swot up on the ins and outs of Parliamentary life, from finding out what the Speaker’s role is all about to learning the knack of shining at the despatch box.

 

Punch & Judy Politics, by Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton

This is a comprehensive guide to all things PMQs, written by political veterans Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton. Containing a handy history of the tradition, with all its quirks and foibles, the book also draws on the pairs’ own experiences prepping MPs for the big day and reporting on it. Full of strange anecdotes and unique insights, it’s the one you need to have to hand when watching Starmer face off against Johnson on a Wednesday lunchtime!

Find out more here.

 

 

John Bercow: Call to Order, by Sebastian Whale

The Speaker is somewhat of an enigmatic figure in the Commons: what does he actually do, and how can you become one? Find out the answer in Sebastian Whale’s detailed biography of the life of the last Speaker, John Bercow. Call to Order dives into Bercow’s early years, but also recounts the run-up to Bercow’s bid for the Speakership and his life in the Speaker’s chair- including the way he revolutionised Prime Minister’s Questions.

Find out more here.

 

 

Confessions of a Recovering MP, by Nick de Bois

Now you know what the Speaker’s role is, what’s it like to be sitting in the benches during the big day? Nick de Bois knows: for five years, he was the MP for Enfield North, and this book is the history of his time in Westminster Palace. From his first days in Parliament through to his days as a Special Adviser and Chief of Staff to Dominic Raab, this is definitely a peek behind the screen of being an MP, including the all-important PMQs…

Find out more here.

 

 

 

How to be an MP, by Paul Flynn

Fancy trying your hand at asking the questions yourself? Then you’ll need to be an MP. But where to start?

This handy guide by Paul Flynn has it all. From the all-important Backbenchers’ Commandments to guidance on how to socialise at work parties, it’s an indispensable look at how to do the job- and how to inveigle your way to a question slot on a Wednesday…

Find out more here.

 

 

 

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Elitism: A Progressive Defence

  • July 20, 2020 10:00
  • Eliane Glaser

Ahead of the publication of her book, Elitism: A Progressive Defence, author Eliane Glaser discusses what theatre's coronavirus crisis can teach us about how we see elitism...

 

The UK’s creative and media industries are on the brink of devastation. The government’s £1.5 billion arts bailout is unlikely to save many venues: a leading theatre company in Southampton has already closed. The Southbank Centre has warned it may have to cut two-thirds of its staff. The Guardian has announced the axing of 180 jobs; the loss of 520 posts in BBC News is surely just the start. Tech giants are gobbling up yet more of the book trade; the majority of small publishers in the UK fear for their future. Museums and galleries are losing half their revenue and are set to jettison more than half their workforce. The Creative Industries Federation predicts that the UK’s creative sector will be hit twice as hard as the wider economy.

            As for higher education, the government has announced a rescue package for universities at risk of collapse, but with restrictive strings attached. There is a jobs freeze for academics, with no end in sight.

            The coronavirus crisis has shown us how much we rely not only on those who save our lives but on those who make our lives worth living. Released from the demands of work and dutiful sociability, many have been reminded – through tantalising online performances, virtual exhibitions, radio broadcasts or finally opening those novels languishing on the bedside table – the joys and consolations of music, theatre, art, literature and contemplation.

            Yet this glimpse of what is really important to us is in danger of being stuffed back into its box. Instead of a collective effort to save our national treasures, there is instead a right-wing backlash against so-called elitism. ‘It is time to get tough with the anti-business arts elite,’ writes Matthew Lynn in the Telegraph. Even those who produce and thrive on arts and ideas seem curiously tongue-tied in its defence. ‘Theatre culture in this country can often seem elitist,’ theatre producer Amber Massie-Blomfield hastened to acknowledge recently while making a case for the survival of pantomime.

            We are led to believe that these are luxuries we can no longer afford, their losses inevitable sacrifices in straitened times. Yet even in the midst of the pandemic, over three quarters of the world’s richest families – who have an average fortune of £1.25 billion each – have reported an increase in their already vast fortunes. In the UK, the amount of wealth in private hands stands at a stunning £13 trillion. There is £4.3 billion in personalised number plates alone.

            It’s easy to forget that culture and intellectualism were being undermined way before Covid-19: the Arts Council’s budget has been cut by 30 per cent since 2010, meaning reduced grants to the Royal Opera House, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre. Almost £400 million has been cut from local authority arts budgets since the advent of austerity. British culture has been hit disproportionately hard: local government funding for culture in the UK is now almost the lowest in Europe. The proportion of its GDP that the UK spends on the arts is less than half that of France.

            As I argue in Elitism: A Progressive Defence, the long-term decline of our arts, culture and higher education is being hastened and justified by a pervasive anti-elitism. Right-wing populists have diverted public anger away from the obscene profiteering of billionaires, banks and global corporations and turned it onto cultural and educational high standards. They have persuaded us that the real masters of the universe are ‘liberal elite’ commentators on dwindling salaries, MPs – themselves victims of mass trolling, death threats and even murder – and members of the cultural precariat. Vast disparities of wealth and power thus escape scrutiny, while everything that gives life value and meaning has to fight for its very existence. It’s time for liberals to throw off their nervousness about being branded elite and stand up for the things that enrich us, stretch us and lift us away from the immediate and the everyday. We must urgently reject the dangerous distortions of anti-elitism while we still have something to save.

 

Eliane's book, Elitism: A Progressive Defence is out on 18th August 2020: take a look here!

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The Secret of 93 rue Lauriston

  • July 03, 2020 09:00
  • Christopher Othen

Ahead of the publication of his book The King of Nazi Paris, Christopher Othen offers us a look at one of Paris' most infamous destinations: the home of Henri Lafont's gang of collaborators and gangsters...

 

Paris is the city of light and love and literature. It has so much history that the ghosts are coming out the walls. The Eiffel Tower looms down side streets like a metal monster on the attack, the Musée d’Orsay glows with a fine selection of mid to late-nineteenth century art, and the locals show their love of culture by giving over prime real estate to bookshops and art galleries.

The city has a darker side. Take a stroll down rue Lauriston in the exclusive sixteenth arrondissement keeping the reservoir and the Polish Science Academy on your right. Stop at number 93. You'll find four storeys of high ceilings and huge salons, with a grey and beige stone facade. On the wall of the building is a plaque:

‘In homage to the resistants tortured on this site during the occupation 1940–1944 by Frenchmen, auxiliary agents of the Gestapo from the group known as “Bonny-Lafont”.’

Back during the Nazi occupation of Paris, 93 rue Lauriston was one of the most infamous addresses in the city. It was headquarters to the Carlingue, a gang of crooks, corrupt cops, and fallen celebrities led by the orchid-loving thief Henri Lafont. They worked for the Nazis and lived like kings – until the Allies arrived and a price had to be paid.

When the Nazis invaded France in July 1940 they looked for local collaborators. Many volunteered, including those from the underworld. Lafont was a petty criminal with a high voice who became the most powerful crook in Paris thanks to the Nazi occupation. A chance encounter with a Nazi spy in a prison camp led to a life of luxury running a ruthless mob of gangsters who looted the city for the Germans. All it took was a talent for treason, treachery and deceit.

Lafont teamed up with former policeman, turned criminal Pierre Bonny. The pair looted Jewish properties; bought low and sold high on the black market; scammed illegal gold deals; stole priceless art; ran protection rackets; intercepted parachute drops; infiltrated resistance groups; gunned down rivals; and sprung anyone from prison for the right price. They drafted in Chamberlin’s gangster friends from prison and the underworld. Soon they had an all-star team of France’s most-wanted crooks.

The gang wore the best clothes, ate at the best restaurants, and did whatever they wanted in occupied Paris. They lived on a poisoned honeycomb. Chamberlin and Bonny moved into 93 rue Lauriston where every Saturday they hosted parties at which collaborationists mixed with ambitious young actresses and well-mannered German officers, before everyone headed off to a nightclub in one of Chamberlin’s white Bentleys. Down in the cellar, the rest of the gang worked late torturing resistance prisoners.

By 1944 the gang had become so enmeshed in the German net that it had started running the Brigade Nord-Africain, a paramilitary outfit of Algerian and Moroccan nationalists. The brigade raped, robbed and murdered the locals under the cover of fighting the resistance. But when the Allies came Chamberlin and Bonny found themselves on trial for their lives.

‘For four years, I had all the most beautiful women, orchids, champagne, caviar by the bucketful,’ said Lafont as he faced the firing squad. ‘I lived the equivalent of ten lives.’

He regretted nothing. The French still spit on his memory and 93 rue Lauriston burns like a wound that will never heal in the streets of Paris.

 

Christopher Othen's exploration of the lives of Henri Lafont and Pierre Bonny, The King of Nazi Paris, is out on July 14. Take a look here!

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Last Rights: The Case for Assisted Dying

  • June 12, 2020 16:00
  • Sarah Wootton and Lloyd Riley

Death and dying have become everyone’s business, so isn’t it time we had more of a say in what they look like?

The coronavirus pandemic has revealed new problems in the way we care for dying people. Decisions about who should receive life-sustaining treatment, communication around the circumstances in which CPR might not be in a person’s best interests and how people can plan for their future treatment are more prominent in the public consciousness than they have ever been.

Once we emerge from this crisis, we will have to find ways to build a better and fairer society and the public’s clear willingness to engage with these issues shows that reforming the rules which govern how our lives end should be near the top of legislators’ to-do lists. This should also focus our attention on the problems in end-of-life care that were present long before coronavirus; problems like the lack of an assisted dying law in the UK.

It is unfathomably cruel that we withdraw mechanisms of control from people at a time when they would have the most value. As dying people come to terms with dramatic changes in their lives and the grief and loss of knowing that time with their loved ones is rapidly running out, we actively deny them an option that would bring so much comfort and reassurance – the knowledge that while death cannot be avoided, the suffering that may accompany it can be.

Our book, Last Rights, sheds light on how this outdated, broken and unpopular status quo has been sustained for so long. It explores how fault lines in society are created by a small minority who hold back the tide of public will and cling on to old ways of thinking, which they believe others must subscribe to.

Dying people have not been listened to. They have been repeatedly ignored, shouted down and gaslighted.

Last Rights draws parallels between the people who spend their final months fighting for the option of assisted dying and those who campaigned for votes for women, equal marriage and other expansions of personal liberty, which once prompted such bitter cultural battles but have since been woven seamlessly into the fabric of society. How will history judge us if we insist dying people must continue to suffer in order to protect a blanket prohibition that nobody can coherently defend?

The case put forward to oppose change is hollow, based on disproven hypotheses and fear-based arguments that crumble under scrutiny. Why are we refusing to learn from the increasing number of compassionate and pragmatic nations around the world which have passed assisted dying legislation? How can we be content with a two-tier system of dying, where those who can afford it can buy the death they want at Dignitas, while others are left at home to take matters into their own hands behind closed doors? Who can justify why, in 2019, Mavis Eccleston was put on trial for murder for helping her terminally ill husband Dennis end his own life?

84 per cent of the British public demand change on assisted dying, but Westminster and Holyrood have shied away from a mature, thoughtful, open-minded consideration of how our laws could be fixed. These are laws which place unnecessary restrictions on our freedom, autonomy and control; laws which can rob us of the option of a peaceful death and our ability to protect our loved ones from having to witness us endure unimaginable pain and suffering in the final chapter of our lives.

The onus should no longer be on dying people and their families to explain why choice at the end of life is needed. It should be on politicians, via formal inquiry, to question how, in the twenty-first century, it can possibly be denied.

 

Sarah Wootton and Lloyd Riley's book, Last Rights: The Case for Assisted Dying, will be out on 23 June. Take a look here

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Rule Britannia: Looking back at getting Brexit done

  • June 05, 2020 09:00
  • Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson

Ahead of the publication of Rule Britannia in paperback, authors Danny Dorling and Sally Tomlinson take a look back the past two years of electoral chaos and what that might mean for Britain going forward...

Who now remembers 2019, a year of panic and chaos, in which so many Brexit deadlines were missed, promises to die in ditches were not kept, and eventual claims were made that Brexit was ‘done’ and ‘we’ had taken back control? The first edition of this book ended in January 2019, when all this was to still come.

After the fireworks and triumphal gong-banging came a global pandemic that wiped Brexit off the headlines and out of minds. This edition of Rule Britannia is an updated version, revealing the truly sorry story of 2019 and the first half of 2020, a time when notions that Britain could embrace a new post-imperial identity, and that a civilising process could begin, rapidly disappeared. The low points of 2019 included the appointment of a special advisor in No. 10 who planned to employ ‘weirdos and misfits’, and the spreading of a now demonstrably false narrative that people in deprived northern areas had won the Leave vote.

This is a hopeful book. However, for those who relish misery we point out that, long before the word pandemic was uttered, every sector of the British economy was in deficit; more and more British children were growing up in poverty; homelessness had become normal; the nation was living on borrowed money with increasingly poor mental health; and Iain Duncan-Smith’s universal credit was revealed to be a cruel universal failure. The British state was already in crisis.

It was a year of elections, votes and lies. The Conservatives lost 1330 local councillors in the spring elections, while Labour lost just 84. Nevertheless, this was reported by the BBC as ‘voters delivering a stinging rebuke to both parties’. And at this time (the last time local elections were held anywhere in the UK), despite claims that far right movements were rising, in fact support for the far-right was declining rapidly in Britain. This good news was overtaken on 24 May when Theresa May resigned.

The Tory leadership contest which followed demonstrated again the influence of an elite, the same group whose forbears were used to running an empire, with all the feelings of entitlement and self-interest that entails. Most of the thirteen candidates were privately schooled Oxford alumni, and a man whom only 10 per cent would trust to babysit their children was elected leader of the Conservative Party: Boris Johnson.

The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn had expanded its membership to over half a million, but the leader continued to be demonised. His support for the two-state solution in Israel-Palestine was behind the campaign to paint him as an anti-Semite. It was ironic that the spending programme on which Labour was defeated in the general election in December 2019 was adopted and then doubled in size, at least in scale, by the Tories in spring 2020, when billions were promised to shore-up a locked-down population and economy. It turned out that such generous spending was possible.

The Conservative government continued its imperious trajectory. MPs defeated in the general election were elevated to the House of Lords. Dominic Cummings, who had been found in contempt of Parliament in March for refusing to appear before a select committee, was appointed special advisor. Privy to insider information, when he fled London for Durham he made clear what he thought of those he left behind, those who continued to follow the lockdown instructions he had help devise.

This is not a book about the Covid-19 virus, of which hundreds of books will be written. Instead this book tries to explain why Brexit is so closely mixed up with a particularly abject lack of knowledge about Britain’s imperial past and a deep anxiety about Britannia’s place in the world, combined with a nostalgia for days about which we do not tell ourselves the truth. The British have been presented with lies about their future out of the European Union, by people who are so used to lying they may not know remember what it is like to speak honestly.

This book ends with the good news. There is hope for the future, but it will not involve taking back control or rekindling a lost empire.

Rule Britannia is available to pre-order now as a paperback and will be out on 23 June. Take a look at it here!

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