The Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism, by Anne Applebaum; and The Assault on Truth, by Peter Oborne

Summary: Lies, and the lying fascists who tell them

I was in Brazil just before Jair Bolsonaro was elected to the presidency there. Why not give him a chance, one taxi driver asked me. What’s the worst that can happen?

The soaring death toll from Covid in Brazil rather answers that question. As similar levels of carnage have shown, under Trump in the US, and Johnson in the UK, electing fascists is never good for the national health – literally. How could it be otherwise when people are but livestock and cannon fodder to them.

In spite of the setback that Joe Biden delivered fascism with his defeat of Trump in the United States presidential election, authoritarianism remains a potent threat to liberal democracy and to the lives and livelihoods of millions across the planet.

These two books are important contributions to the struggle against the far-Right not least because they are by conservative writers: Applebaum a moderate US Republican married to a centre-Right Polish statesman; Oborne is a former Brexiter.

Both books are concerned with the centrality of lying to authoritarian political projects. Applebaum’s perspective is more international, exploring populist political projects in Europe as well as the United States. Oborne focuses much more sharply on the UK and in particular how Boris Johnson has so throughly corrupted British politics and mounted a concerted assault on the independence of the civil service and the judiciary, and debased the notion of parliamentary accountability. It may be churlish to point out to Oborne, given that he has somewhat rethought his position on Brexit, that Johnson’s assault on democracy is more easily undertaken outside the European Union than within. But that is the case.

These are useful books, but hardly happy ones. The rational arguments and pleas for decency that they contain are unlikely to find purchase in the fevered fantasies of the ultras. But they do help the rest of us understand better the machinations of the far Right. And, if we ever hope to successfully oppose something it is first necessary to properly understand it.

The Slough House series, by Mick Herron (Slow Horses; Dead Lions; Real Tigers; London Rules; Spook Street; Joe Country; Slough House)

Summary: extraordinarily bingeable, spooky epic

I started reading Mick Herron’s Slough House series a month or so ago thinking this will be a series to keep me entertained over a year or two, a palette cleanser between volumes such as Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson or other more “worthy” reading material.

Thing is, once I’d finished volume one, Slow Horses, I had to check out volume two… and once that was done, there was an urgent need to find out what was going on in volume 3…

So, in the end, I’ve read all seven books in the series in about a month, and it’s one of the most pleasurable reading experiences I’ve had in many a year.

The Slough House series recounts the misadventures of the denizens of Slough House, a bunch of failed MI5 officers, stuck into a run down office in the Barbican area of London under the supervision of the vile Jackson Lamb. (“You broke the arm of a 23 year old woman.” “I’d have broken the arm of a 40 year old man too. This is what a feminist looks like.”)

Tina Fey once discussing her comic creation Jack Donaghy, for her sublime TV series 30 Rock, described him as an archetypal nightmare boss: not just one who was repulsive, but worse still one who was right an awful lot of the time.

Mick Herron’s creation, Jackson Lamb, turns this all the way up to eleven: a misanthropic, rude, bullying, flatulent, unsanitary nightmare who is, nevertheless, very funny, ferociously smart, protective of his subordinates from anyone apart from him bullying them, and just the sort of violent talent you want at your side when the chips are down.

Mick Herron has been compared with John Le Carre, and the Slough House series shares a similar milieu, and political concerns, charting the rise of authoritarianism in Brexity England. But this is Le Carre on acid. The books are very funny, often violent, and pervaded with a deep sense of dread that arises from the knowledge that your favourite characters dwell in these pages under mortal threat.

Having finished the latest novel in the series, Slough House, I am bereft. Treat yourself and jump in.

The Splendid and the Vile, by Eric Larson; and Destiny in the Desert, by Jonathan Dimbleby

Summary: Two somewhat contrasting views of Churchill as war leader

I know a lot of people have become passionate about The Splendid and the Vile, Eric Larson’s narrative of Churchill’s first year as prime minister. Drawing on accounts, such as private secretary Jock Colville’s diaries, the book seeks to paint a picture of both the private and the public man during this period when invasion seemed imminent.

Following Larson’s fascinating account of murder during the Chicago World Fair, Devil in the White City, I was warmly disposed to this book. I found it all a bit hagiographic though. Churchill is an interesting biographical subject because he is problematic. A racist and an imperialist contemptuous of the starvation of Indians during the 1943 Bengal famine, he nevertheless played a decisive role in the preservation of democracy in Europe. But Larson’s portrait of Churchill is one without the warts.

Dimbleby provides a much more balanced depiction of Churchill in his account of the north African campaigns. As with his later very fine book, The Battle of the Atlantic, Dimbleby pays lip service to Churchill’s genius. But, as with the fighting in the Atlantic, he shows that Churchill’s choices and decisions in the desert displayed a considerable operational fickleness in part influenced by geo-strategic and political considerations. Nevertheless, in both theatres one gets a very strong impression that Churchill had a tendency to get distracted with other enthusiasms and adventures before finishing the urgent task in hand. For example, he did not finish the conquest of Libya before peeling off troops from the North African armies in a forlorn effort to prevent Greece from falling into Axis hands. This then allowed Rommel’s entry to North Africa via Libya with all the bloody problems that that subsequently caused.

In other words, Churchill was often the author of the very problems that he said caused him sleepless nights. But he was forever adept at blaming others, and the desert generals were a rich source of scapegoats for him to pin the consequences of his own blundering on. Wavell carried the can for the failures in Libya. Auchinleck, in spite of brilliant success in first El Alamein, earned similar disfavour for refusing to launch a premature attack. Finally, Churchill settled upon the repulsive Montgomery who attacked on the very schedule that Churchill had sacked Auchinleck for advocating. 

Churchill used to say history would be kind to him as he planned to write it, which he did. But now there are other books available. So it is possible to obtain a more clear eyed, and interesting, view of the man than Larson manages.

Gettysburg: The last invasion, by Allen C Guelzo

Summary: a fine account of a key turning point of the American Civil War

At the beginning of July 1863 Robert E Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, invaded Pennsylvania. Lee reckoned that victory in the North, and the final defeat of the Army of the Potomac, would guarantee Confederate success in the war.

He picked his moment well. The Army of the Potomac was in disarray having suffered a major defeat at Chancellorsville in April. This brought about the replacement of that army’s latest commander, Joe Hooker, with the uninspiring George Meade. In addition after years of bloody conflict the people of the North were sick of fighting and Lincoln looked set to lose the 1864 election to a Democrat who would certainly sue for peace.

Lee’s plan was to concentrate his forces close to the town of Gettysburg and then defeat the Army of the Potomac in element as it moved up to intercept him. This would then have opened the road to Philadelphia and even the possibility of capturing Washington DC.

However Lee’s plan was thwarted by one of Meade’s subordinate generals, John Reynolds. Reynolds’ cavalry located Lee and alerted him to bring the rest of his Corps up to Gettysburg to disrupt the Confederate’s concentration.

So began three days of desperate and murderous fighting. One of the first casualties was John Reynolds, killed leading his troops into position. But the Union held the high ground at the end of the first day in spite of Lee’s best efforts. By the end of the day Meade arrived on the field, not exactly gruntled that he was being effectively forced by his subordinates to fight at a place not of his choosing .

Meade’s caution was understandable as the second day of the battle saw the Union almost losing the fight on multiple occasions. Famously Joshua Chamberlain held the extreme flank of the Union lines with an imaginative bayonet charge at a critical moment. But, as Guelzo points out, the fame of Chamberlain’s charge was principally the result of the fact that of the commanders on that flank of the army, he was the only one to survive. Paddy O’Rourke who commanded a New York regiment there, and their brigade commander, Strong Vincent, both made decisive interventions in the fighting but were killed and so did not live to tell the world their stories.

But the “sublime” moment of the battle, as far as Guelzo is concerned, occurred later on the second day when on the orders of another of Meade’s senior subordinates, Winfield Scott Hancock, the 1st Minnesota Regiment under Colonel William Colvill counter-attacked a Confederate assault that was all but assured to overrun the Union positions. Though the Minnesota troops were outnumbered 10 to 1 the impetus of their charge drove back the attackers and saved the day, and with that the Union.

The Union effort over the three days of Gettysburg was a fragmented affair, little coordinated by Meade. Instead the victory was much more a result of the initiative and courage of subordinate commanders and their troops responding selflessly to the crises that they encountered across the field. Guelzo argues that these soldiers knew that the future of the Union would be determined at Gettysburg and proved themselves ready to pay “the last full measure of devotion”, as Lincoln put it, if that was what was required. Eight score years later, it is difficult to reflect on any account of this battle with anything other than horrified awe.

Caste: the lies that divide us, by Isabel Wilkerson

Summary: an elegantly written exploration of the poison at the heart of the American nightmare

“The townspeople of the East Texas village of Leesburg hammered a buggy axle into the ground to serve as a stake. Then they chained 19 year old Wylie McNeely to it. They collected the kindling they would use for the fire at the base of his feet, despite his protestations of innocence in connection to the white girl they said he had assaulted. Five hundred people gathered that fall in 1921 to see Wylie McNeely burn to death in front of them.”

Violence has long been at the heart of American society. It was intrinsic to slavery and it is intrinsic to maintaining the systems of preference and privilege that persist in America. With her book, Caste, Isabel Wilkerson focuses with impressive clarity on this violence and how it manifests in small ways and large to maintain the system of prejudice and discrimination that still afflicts the United States.

Following the Civil War the lynchings of innocent black people, such as that of Wylie McNeely that Wilkerson describes in such depressing and horrifying detail, became routine to remind black people that whatever the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution said, they still had to know their place. The contemporary police killings of black people serve the same purpose. It is also why so many Americans voted for a corrupt and imbecilic white supremacist to be their president.

As it did for Martin Luther King, the introduction to the South Asia concept of caste helps clarify for Wilkerson the nature of the United States’ own hierarchical system. But, unfortunately, this book provides only a limited discussion on the plight of Dalits – the Untouchables – and Adavasi – tribal peoples – in South Asia where they continue to struggle against ongoing enslavement, and routinized violence comparable to the worst excesses of the United States.

Wilkerson defines caste as the “granting or withholding of respect, status, honour, attention, privileges, resources, benefit of the doubt, and human kindness to someone on the basis of their perceived rank or standing in” a hierarchy. She identifies Nazi Germany, contemporary India and the United States as the principal exemplars of caste societies. Indeed, the Nazis drew on the US South’s segregation laws as inspiration for their own anti-Semitic laws, though they did initially find some of the American laws too extreme.

Wilkerson draws some hope from the fact that casteism has been dismantled in German society. However its persistence in both South Asia and the US shows just what a pernicious and destructive idea it still is. But to have any hope of combatting it, it is first necessary to see it clearly, and this is what Wilkerson does in relation to the practice of caste in her own country

Perhaps having diagnosed with such clarity this sickness at the heart of US society, some US legislators may follow the advice of “the Martin Luther King of India”, BR Ambedkar, and propose new laws to help heal a body politic diseased with ignorance and hatred.

The Thursday Murder Club, by Richard Osman

Summary: The genteel art of murder

This book does much what it says on the tin: a small group of pensioners living in a retirement community get together on Thursday evenings to examine cold murder cases as a way to keep themselves amused and mentally active.

Then a real murder crops up in their midst. So it would be churlish of them not to investigate. As is the wont with these sorts of stories, the bodies soon pile up.

Osman’s book is a genteel affair: there is little jeopardy for our heroes; the murderees are a thoroughly reprehensible bunch so there is little grieving for their losses. But it is still a very enjoyable book. It doesn’t quite have a twisty plot but it does have an engagingly droll and rambly one. The likeable cast of characters are thoroughly multicultural but are never troubled by racism or Brexity xenophobia. So it’s a quintessentially English story, even if the England it portrays, if it ever existed, is as dead now as the crooks and gangsters whose corpses the Thursday Murder Club pore over.

Joe Biden: American Dreamer, by Evan Osnos

Summary: a hopeful portrait of the man striving to rescue American democracy

Joe Biden: American Dreamer is a brief but engaging biography of the US President-Elect, by an author who has covered Biden’s career for over a decade.

Much of the book has previously appeared in New Yorker articles over the years. But it is well researched and elegantly edited together into a highly readable and intriguing portrait of a man who has found a third act to his career just when most other people would be putting their feet up in retirement.

Even before reaching the presidency, Biden’s life has been marked by spectacular achievement and almost unbearable loss. Elected to the Senate just before his 30th birthday appalling personal tragedies followed soon after with the death of his wife and young daughter in a car accident. Tragedy struck again when Vice President and his son died of cancer. The grief he has had to bear has eroded much of the arrogance typical of senior politicians and enhanced his legendary gift for empathy.

Still, after decades in the Senate and eight years as Vice President, one might think that a Biden presidency will offer few surprises. But, Osnos describes Biden as a man with a remarkable capacity for learning and acknowledging error and hence an almost Lincolnesque capacity for personal growth and political evolution.

A cautious politician, Biden nevertheless has a keen eye for the historic opportunity. So, appreciating the shifts in the current political environment, most notably the growing hunger amongst young people for social democracy, Biden has incorporated into his campaign leading advisers from the Left of the Democratic Party to help craft key plans for government including on health and the environment.

Biden has suggested a number of times that he wants to have not just a transitional presidency to a new generation, but also a transformational one, comparable to FDR.

In defeating the openly fascist Donald Trump for the presidency Biden has already earned a place in history by helping rescue American democracy itself. And, as Osnos’ book indicates, it would be a fool who would suggest that this is the last service he will do for his country before he finally puts his feet up for that well earned rest.

The Clare in the Community Collection, by Harry Venning

Summary: the iconic hero we need right now

This book is an exquisite collection of Clare’s adventures from her earliest days, through her legendary years in the Guardian, battling government cuts, office politics, and global patriarchy.

Helpfully the book contains facsimiles of the Guardian front pages that accompanied many of the strips, reminding the reader of the events that would have been irking Clare that week.

Self-righteous, occasionally mean, but always with her heart in the right place, Clare is the wonderful creation of Harry Venning. Together, she and he represent the finest social justice traditions of British society, with better jokes than Orwell.

It’s a sardonic love letter to the do-gooders at the sharp end of a broken country, the ones who will ultimately rebuild a decent society after the old Etonian parasites have finally shuffled off the stage.

Just lovely.

A Foreign Country; A Colder War; and A Divided Spy (The Thomas Kell trilogy), by Charles Cumming

Summary: A fine set of twisty thrillers set in the contemporary world of Western espionage operations against Islamist extremists and functionaries of the Russian kleptocracy

Any contemporary spy novel is going to draw comparison with John le Carre. So, if it’s George Smiley you are most familiar with, these are stories from the lower ranks, the roles occupied by the likes of Peter Guillam or Toby Esterhause in the Smiley books.

When we first meet Thomas Kell he is pretty washed up. On indefinite leave due to allegations of torture plaguing him, with his marriage to a habitually unfaithful wife on the rocks. However he is quickly called back into service to track down a friend who has gone missing: a fellow MI6 officer, Amelia, who is on the verge of being appointed head of the service.

The reader is quickly pitched into the minutiae of the trade craft of intelligence operations. Hence it takes a while to get to know the sort of person that Kell is, as operational priorities dominate the characters’ actions and Kell’s assessment of individual colleagues and targets.

In the pauses in the action Kell is often found reading Seamus Heaney, which is always a dependable indicator that someone is a good egg. As the books progress there is more opportunity for rumination on a profession in which treachery is stock in trade, the toll this takes on its practitioners, and the challenges of the contemporary world, particularly the threats from Islamist extremism, a resurgent kleptocracy in Russia, and most troubling, their points of overlap.

But none of this is allowed to get in the way of mounting narrative tension and twisty plotting: the books often end up in completely unexpected places from where they start out. The Kell trilogy are gripping thrillers and across these three books Kell is an engaging protagonist, wounded and conflicted, but striving towards a moral purpose that often eludes him.

Anatomy of a Killing, by Ian Cobain

Summary: an exceptional work of history and journalism, exploring in careful detail the tragedies and atrocities borne and perpetrated by ordinary people in war

On the morning of 22 April 1978 the IRA assassinated Millar McAllister, a police photographer, in front of his young son. The trigger man, Harry Murray, was one of the IRA’s few Protestant volunteers. A former member of the RAF, Murray had been embittered against the Loyalist community when it had driven him out of his own home early in the Troubles for the offence of marrying a Catholic.

Of course Murray did not act alone, and in Anatomy of a Killing, Ian Cobain presents a horribly gripping account of the operation, not only examining the various roles of those involved, but also their motivations and rationales for their choices, and the strategies, arising in part from history, of both the British and the IRA which led to their actions.

In Cobain’s account the IRA’s adoption of the tactic of “close quarters assassinations” was in response to the revulsion caused by the burning to death of 10 civilians on an evening out at La Mon House hotel. This atrocity was directly facilitated by spectacular incompetence in issuing a warning by the IRA unit who planted the blast-incendiary devices on the hotel’s dining room. But this sort of bloodshed was almost an inevitable outcome of the campaign of “economic warfare” which the IRA in their dubious strategic wisdom had fixed upon.

So rather than risk the bad publicity that outrages such as La Mon provoked, the IRA leadership decided that it was a more moral course to focus on members of the state forces. McAllister was mistakenly believed to be a special branch detective, so this, combined with the opportunity of carrying out an attack in the garrison town of Lisburn led to him being targeted.

Of course the idea that such a killing would have any influence upon establishing a more just British policy in the North was as deluded as the idea that “economic warfare”, the destruction of Northern Irish businesses, would shift British thinking.

The Northern Ireland Secretary at the time, Roy Mason, was a rancid anti-Irish bigot, bone-headedly enamoured with tough talk and aggressive military action. Callaghan’s Labour government, as so often with British Labour misjudging the imperative moral issues of the day, was preoccupied by Britain’s economic travails, rather than any effort to create a just and lasting peace in Ireland.

In other words, both Callaghan and Mason displayed a similar contempt for Irish peace as Stanley Johnson, the father of “Boris”, who in a 2018 interview dismissed the risks to Ireland posed by Brexit: “the Irish will shoot each other if they want.”

Hence Callaghan and Mason were promoters of “Ulsterisation”, the policy that the brunt of security responsibility in the North of Ireland should fall to people from there. People like Millar McAllister, rather than to English, Scottish or Welsh soldiers whose lives Callaghan and Mason valued more highly. Hundreds more ordinary people died as pointlessly as McAllister did until John Hume and others managed to organise a flawed but vital peace process – something that might no longer exist if the European Union had not stopped Stanley’s supercilious son from completely vandalising it.

Anatomy of a Killing is an extraordinary work, informed by careful research, interviews with the, usually unrepentant, perpetrators, and a proper understanding of the pity of war. It weaves together discussions of both state and paramilitary “high” strategy with unflinching descriptions of its squalid and tragic consequences. It is one of the finest books yet written on the Troubles, and is a vital contribution to writing on the histories of Ireland and Britain at this bleak moment in our shared history.