If you want an introduction to British postwar politics which you can enjoy without having to work too hard, a short time spent with Roy Hattersley’s Fifty Years On (Little, Brown, 1997) would do the trick. It is, as its sub-title says, a “prejudiced history” of Britain since the war, pacey and energetic, written with all Hattersley’s brio.
If you then want the main course and don’t mind working a bit harder, Peter Hennessy’s The Prime Minister – The Office and its Holders since 1945 (Penguin, 2001) is probably the best thing on the menu.
If you’ve done all that, it’s time to go to the grimy underbelly of politics which most people never examine. Here are three books I have found illuminating. As with Hattersley’s book, my selection joyously reflects my prejudices.
Nothing like a Dame – The Scandals of Shirley Porter by Andrew Hosken (Granta, 2006) tells us more about the grubby, greedy world of Thatcherism than any vast, worthy economic tome. Porter was the Conservative leader of Westminster City Council at the time that it became embroiled in the Homes for Votes scandal in the late 1980s, when council houses were sold to potential Tory voters in marginal wards. It’s a splendid book, as easy to read as a good thriller.
Nicholas Jones, like Hosken a BBC journalist, is the writer to look out for if you want to take a microscope to the Blair era. From a large selection, I’d start with The Control Freaks – How New Labour Gets Its Own Way (Politicos, 2001) which does exactly what it says on the cover.
If you want to understand the political world that Thatcher and New Labour swept aside, study Harold Macmillan, starting with Harold Macmillan, Three Friends and the World They Made by Simon Ball (HarperCollins, 2004.) Macmillan, Oliver Lyttlelton, Bobbety Cranborne and Harry Crookshank went to Eton together in 1906, to the Grenadiers in 1914, into government in 1940, and were the world Macmillan knew when he became prime minister in 1957. The book is full of unexpected insights into the way they thought, lived and ran Britain.
Francis Beckett is an author and historian. His next book is What Did the Baby Boomers Ever Do For Us? to be published by Constable and Robinson in 2010