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BOOKS ON CURRENT AFFAIRS

All reviews in alphabetical order by title

Contents

  • "The Audacity Of Hope"
  • "The Changing Face Of China: From Mao To Market"
  • "Counterknowledge"
  • "The Crisis Of Islam"
  • "Don't Get Fooled Again"
  • "Globalisation And Its Discontents"
  • "Hard Choices"
  • "How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World"
  • "Jihad vs McWorld"
  • "A Journey"
  • "Kenya: Between Hope And Despair, 1963-2011"
  • "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map Of The Middle East"
  • "Mexico: What Everyone Needs To Know"
  • "Murder In Samarkand"
  • "The No Nonsense Guide To Globalisation"
  • "North Korea: State Of Paranoia"
  • "People Who Live In The Dark""
  • "Prisoners Of Geography"
  • "The Spirit Level"
  • "Stepping On White Corns"
  • "The Storm"
  • "Taliban"
  • "Time To Start Thinking"
  • "When China Rules The World"
  • "Why Do People Hate America?"
  • "Zone Of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran And Iraq"

  • "The Audacity Of Hope" by Barack Obama (2006)

    When this bestselling book was first published in 2006, Barack Obama had spent just two years as a United States Senator, the only African American in the upper chamber; by the time I read it in the summer of 2008, he was the presumptive Democratic nominee in the presidential election and the favourite for the White House. The title comes from a sermon by Obama's then pastor Rev Jeremiah Wright whom the politician was forced to repudiate in the course of the Democratic primary, while the sub-title is "Thoughts on reclaiming the American dream".

    Whereas Obama's first book "Dreams From My Father" was biographical and written almost in the style of a novel, this later work is essentially a set of nine political essays - over 360 pages covering Republicans and Democrats, values, the US Constitution, politics, opportunity, faith, race, the wider world, and family - although there are many personal anecdotes and the style is remarkably fluent. The overall impression is of a thoughtful, perceptive, measured and caring politician who in American terms is refreshingly liberal and empathetic. This is a man who life experiences ensure that he understands poverty in the USA and in the world and sides with the dispossed and the powerless.

    He sees government more as part of the solution than the problem, favours provision of healthcare and abortion rights, backs affirmative action for minorities and trade union representation for workers, wants greater investment in education, science and technology ,and energy independence, and believes than America should be less autocratic abroad and more willing to talk to opponents as well as allies. But he supports the death penalty in limited circumstances, understands the cultural meaning of guns in rural communities, and generally shows respect for the views of his political opponents. There is little detail to his policies but he sets out his principles very clearly and eloquently. His main theme is "the gap between the magitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics - the ease with which we are distracted by the petty and trivial, our chronic avoidance of tough decisions, our seeming inability to build a working consensus to tackle any big problem".

    For a top level politician, his frankness is astonishing - he admits at different times in his life to "a chronic restlessness", "self-indulgence and self-destructiveness", and a "style of communicating that can be rambling, hesistant and overly verbose", and even acknowledges that "of all the areas of my life, it is in my capacities as a husband and father that I entertain the most doubt". What drives him? "My fierce ambitions might have been fueled by my father - by my knowledge of his achievements and failures, by my unspoken desire to somehow earn his love, and by my resentment and anger toward him".


    "The Changing Face Of China: From Mao To Market" by John Gittings (2005)

    Gittings was China specialist and East Asia editor for the "Guardian" newspaper from 1983 to 2003 and in 1996 wrote a book titled "Real China: From Cannibalism To Karaoke". A decade later this latest similarly-titled work is an up-date on a nation in which more people are experiencing more change at a faster rate than at any other time in the history of humankind. The subject is fascinating and the book ought to be similarly so, but Gittings - who describes himself as "a semi-academic journalist" and provides a bibliography of almost 100 works - manages to make rather dull so much of his review of the changing political and economic policies of post-war China.

    The best chapters are the last three and the first. The last chapters begin with a more personal account of the Tiananmen Square massacre of June 1989 when several hundred protesters were shot down by the People's Liberation Army, at least 3,000 were injured, and subsequently thousands were arrested. The next chapter looks at economic change, social change, urbanisation, rural developments, the workers' plight, the environmental threat, and the challenge of HIV-AIDS. Finally China's place in the world is examined as problems like Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang remain unresolved, human rights become of more concern, and the country joins the WTO and experiences globalisation. In a sense, China is becoming less different from the rest of the world - a process Gittings calls "de-sinicisation" - and an American adviser is quoted as rightly asserting that "managing China's emergence as a great power could well prove to be the defining foreign policy effort of this era".

    Strangely the most interesting chapter is the first where Gittings poses four immensely challenging questions:


    "Counterknowledge" by Damian Thompson (2008)

    Thompson credits crime novelist Stav Sherez with coining the term "counterknowledge" which Thompson himself defines as follows: "The essence of counterknowledge is that it purports to be knowledge but is not knowledge. Its claims can be shown to be untrue, either because there are facts that contradict them or because there is no evidence to support them. It misrepresents reality (deliberately or otherwise) by presenting non-facts as facts."

    The book devotes a chapter each to four main targets:

    Thompson describes "credulous thinking" as "spreading through society as fast and silently as a virus" and blames the Internet for a situation in which "millions of people have unconsciously absorbed postmodern relativism". He feels that "we could be moving towards a world in which ideological and even religious struggles are replaced, or at least shaped, by battles between real and confected evidence".

    Perhaps surprisingly, Thompson is editor-in-chief of the "Catholic Herald". His writing is clear and sharp, his targets well-chosen, and his assertions well-evidenced but, except for a final reference to "guerilla attacks from the blogosphere", he exhbits little faith in our ability to counter counterknowledge. This short (162 pages) and elegant work would have been strengtheed by the addition of a brief toolkit on critical thinking.

    Link: book's web site click here


    "The Crisis Of Islam" by Bernard Lewis (2003)

    Bernard Lewis was born in Britain but he is now emeritus professor at Princeton University and widely regarded as the world's leading Islamic scholar. In November 2001, he wrote an extended essay for "The New Yorker" magazine which he has now developed into this short, but immensely informative and perceptive, book published in March 2003. Essentially the message is that Islam has a rich and honourable history but now suffers from "a failure of modernity" and, if we are going to combat the terrorism emanating from fundamentalist Islam, we need to understand much better both the past and the present of the Muslim world.

    What is Islam? Lewis puts it succintly: "The word Islam .. denotes more than fourteen centuries of history, a billion and a third people, and a religious and cultural tradition of enormous diversity" and he emphasises that: "Islam is not only a matter of faith and practice; it is also an identity and a loyalty - for many, an identity and a loyalty that transcend all others".

    He reminds us that: "Under the medieval Arab caliphate, and again under the Persian and Turkish dynasties, the empire of Islam was the richest, most powerful, most creative, most enlightened region in the world and, for most of the Middle Ages, Christendom was on the defensive". This history is known and remembered by Muslims today and "References to early, even to ancient, history are commonplace in public discourse".

    In 1918, the Ottoman sultanate - the last of the great Muslim empires - was defeated. Today - as Lewis demonstrates - on a wide range of economic, industrial and social indicators, Muslim countries are an underdeveloped backwater, compared not just to Europe and America but also to thriving Asian economies such as Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. There are 57 member states of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference but, except for Turkey, democratic institutions are unknown in these nations. Hence it can be concluded that sadly: "Almost the entire Muslim world is affected by poverty and tyranny".

    So, is Islam a threat to the West? Lewis's examination of this question is both lucid and balanced and he concludes: "Islam as such is not an enemy of the West, and there are growing numbers of Muslims, both there and here, who desire nothing better than a closer and more friendly relationship with the West and the development of democratic institutions in their own countries. But a significant number of Muslims - notably but not exclusively those whom we call fundamentalists - are hostile and dangerous". He is clear that the kind of horror we saw on 9/11 "has no justification in Islamic doctrine or law and no precedent in Islamic history".


    "Don't Get Fooled Again" by Richard Wilson (2008)

    The author of this work - subtitled "The Sceptic's Guide To Life" - has a degree in philosophy and works for Amnesty International and his commitment to logic and evidence and his passion for human rights imbue every chapter in a highly readable book which represents a refreshing gale of common sense and rationality. Wilson critiques a wide range of contemporary nonsense including:

    Wilson helpfully identifies some of the many factors that permit and indeed encourage such acts of irrationality including wishful thinking, over-idealisation, demonising perceived enemies, moral exclusion, and groupthink. In a spirited defence of rationality, he asserts: "The basic principles of logic, consistency, evidence, and 'inductive reasoning' are common to every human society and present in all belief systems".

    Link: author's web site click here


    "Globalisation And Its Discontents" by Joseph Stiglitz (2002)

    This critique of globalisation is not particularly original and the prescription for reform is not very well developed, but what has rightly made this work an international bestseller and led to its translation into more than 25 languages is its authorship. Joseph Stiglitz was a member of the Council of Economic Advisors under President Clinton, he then became the Chief Economist at the World Bank, and he is a Nobel Prize winner for economics. If he states that globalisation is failing, then the world's politicians and financiers should take note.

    Stiglitz points out that, since the Second World War, close to 100 countries have faced financial crises. Today 1.2 billion people around the world are living on less than $1 a day and 2.8 billion people are living on less than $2 a day. In the face of such enormous challenges, the so-called Washington Consensus of the 1980s and 1990s promoted financial austerity, privatisation and market liberalisation. The consensus over-emphasized inflation and financial market liberalisation and under-emphasized land reform and financial sector regulation.

    Above all, the IMF adopts a policy of market fundamentalism and pursues the interests of (American) financial institutions. The catastrophic result of excessively rapid privatisation in Russia was a fall in GDP by 54% and a collapse in industrial production of 60%.

    The book examines in some detail how the International Monetary Fund - the chief butt of Stiglitz's criticisms and indeed anger - handled the transition of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe from centrally planned to free market economies and how it responded to the East Asia financial crisis of 1997. His central argument is that those countries that followed the IMF's policies - such as the Czech Republic, Thailand, Indonesia, Brazil and most especially Russia - experienced a collapse in output, employment and living standards - while those countries that pursued a more independent economic programme - such as Uganda, Botswana, Malaysia, Hungary, Slovenia, Poland, Vietnam and most especially China - fared much better in terms of transition or recovery.

    Stiglitz favours changes to the governance of the IMF and the World Bank to give developing countries a stronger voice, more transparent policy formulation and decision-making by bodies like the IMF and the World Bank, more consultation with countries about their development strategies, more attention to the sequencing and pacing of economic reforms, greater provision of bankruptcy and standstill arrangements, and interventions to reduce excessive short-term capital flows.

    Stiglitz is frank: "Globalisation today is not working for many of the world's poor", But he is clearly an optimist: "I believe that globalisation can be reshaped to realize its potential for good and I believe that the international economic institutions can be reshaped in ways that will ensure that this is accomplished". Sadly, however, he does not explain how this is going to be achieved practically, given the powerful forces at work in the American political and financial establishments. It is going to require a massive and sustained social movement.


    "Hard Choices" by Hillary Rodham Clinton (2014)

    This is quite a tome: some 600 pages (thankfully no footnotes or end notes). But it covers a lot of ground: the four years (2009-2013) that Hillary Clinton spent as Secretary of State during the first term of the Barack Obama presidency. Her natural abilities, plus a book team of three, ensure that it is well-written, informative and thoughtful, but there are no significant differences of opinion with Obama or criticisms of world leaders because Clinton is keeping her options open for a run at the presidency in 2016. Will she run? She simply states" "I haven't decided yet". I hope she does and I hope she wins. This was my position before reading her memoir and my view is simply reinforced by reading the book.

    When Clinton failed to win the Democratic primary race against Obama, she famously declared: “Although we weren’t able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it’s got about 18 million cracks in it”. When Obama won the presidential contest, she had no interest in becoming Vice-President and every intention of returning to the Senate. Then, when Obama invited her to become Secretary of State, she was “floored”, turned it down, and took two weeks to be persuaded.

    Obama kept his promise of access and she reckons she was at the White House more than 700 times during her four years in office. In the book, she mentions very few differences with the White House, perhaps the most important being her wish to arm rebels in the Syrian civil war and Obama's decision not to support this approach. It looks to have been a relationship that quickly developed mutual trust and at the end Obama declared that they had gone from "a team of rivals" to "an unrivalled team". She ended up visiting 112 countries and travelling nearly one million miles with more than 2,000 hours (equivalent to 87 full days) in the air. She claims that, over the years, she had developed the ability to sleep almost anywhere at any time (me too).

    She describes Secretary of State as being three roles - the country’s chief diplomat, the president’s principal adviser on foreign policy, and chief executive of a department of 70,000 personnel - and she characterises the nation’s foreign policy are comprised of the 3 Ds – defence, diplomacy and development. She makes the usual distinctions in foreign policy between 'hard power' (military forces in its various forms) and 'soft power' (diplomatic, economic and cultural influences) and advocates an approach of what she calls 'smart power' - the right combination of different elements of hard and/or soft power for each particular situation.

    After a couple of introductory chapters, “Hard Choices” does not follow a chronological approach but instead the bulk of the book (some 450 pages) comprises a series of chapters on different countries and regions around the globe: after a general chapter on Asia, specific ones on China, Burma, Afghanistan and Pakistan; then chapters on Europe, Russia, Latin America, and Africa; and, after a general chapter on the Middle East, dedicated chapters on the 2011 Arab Spring revolution, Libya, the 2012 death of the US ambassador in Benghazi, Iran, Syria and Gaza. Only at the end are there a few thematic chapters on global challenges such as climate change, energy and human rights. The book is dotted with some fascinating facts and figures on different countries and issues.

    A key feature of the Obama/Clinton partnership was the so-called "pivot strategy", an effort to re-focus American attention more towards Asia and so, in a break from precedent, Clinton's first trip was to Japan, Indonesia, South Korea and China with a first ever visit by a US Secretary of State to ASEAN. Understandably she expresses concern about tensions especially in the South and East China Seas where China is increasingly flexing its growing military muscle. Another distinguishing feature of the new administration was an attempt to “reset” relations with Russia and Clinton even presented a mocked-up reset button to Russia’s Foreign Secretary Lavrov. However, the button was labelled ‘peregruzka’ (overcharged) rather than ‘perezagruzka’ (reset) and the effort soon ran into Putin's belligerence.

    For anyone interested in international affairs or global politics - like me - this is a really interesting read which takes us through all the major trouble spots of the world, almost all of which - perhaps most notably the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iran's nuclear aspirations and the assertiveness of Russia - remain active. In each case, Clinton sets out the historic background to the challenge and then describes her efforts to improve the situation. Although inevitably in a memoir, the account is somewhat self-serving and there is very little in the way of rethinking, it is a sensible and sensitive review which reflects considerable knowledge, commitment and passion for social justice.

    The only real expression of a change of view is in relation to a decision before she even ran for the Democratic nomination: the vote to authorise military action in Iraq. She writes: "I came to deeply regret giving President Bush the benefit of the doubt on that vote" and "While many were never going to look past my 2002 vote no matter what I did or said, I should have stated my regret sooner and in the plainest, most direct language possible".

    The theme of the book - captured in the title and alluded to many times - is that all decisions in international affairs are complicated and difficult trade-offs of principle and pragmatism. As she puts it: "Keeping America safe, strong and prosperous presents an endless set of choices, many of which come with imperfect information and conflicting imperatives". She refers to "our classic dilemma" and asks" "Should we do business with a leader with whom we disagreed on so many things in the name of advancing core security interests?".

    As she explains: "The question of nations working together on some issues while clashing on others is part of a classic debate within foreign policy circles" and "Straight up transactional diplomacy isn't always pretty, but often it's necessary". In the end, she insists: "As you've seen throughout this book, there are times when we do have to make difficult compromises. Our challenge is to be clear-eyed about the world as it is while never losing sight of the world as we want it to become".


    "How Mumbo-Jumbo Conquered The World" by Francis Wheen (2004)

    I enjoyed this book enormously because it reflects so well my own mode of thinking and it is written with such erudition and panache. The varied samples of 'mumbo-jumbo' attacked by Wheen include the neoliberalism of Reagean and Thatcher, the blandness of too much of Blairism, the exuberance of the 1980s stock market and the dot com bubble, the current version of globalisalisation, the dominance of the miltary-industrial complex, the popularity of self help manuals and motivational gurus, deterministic views of history, creationism, astrology, complementary and alternative medicine, unidentified flying objects, Christian fundamentalism, Islamic fundamentalism, and the excess reaction to Princess Diana's death. The whole thing is eloquently written (his vocabulary is huge) and eclectically sourced (his reading is immense).

    I do have some reservations though. First, the whole thing reads like an extended essay (very extended since it runs to over 300 pages) with a seemingly endless series of targets and the work would have benefited from tighter organisation and focus. Second, we know that, in contradiction to all this 'mumjo-jumbo', Wheen stands for the values of the 18th century Enlightenment - especially scientific empericism - but it would have been a better-balanced book if he had spelt out more the practical tools and positive benefits of a rational way of thinking. Third, the title and tone of the work is too defeatist - 'mumjo-jumbo' has not conquered the world, although rational thought may be in (hopefully temporary) retreat, and we need to celebrate the causes of science as well as condemn the absurdities of mysticism.


    "Jihad vs McWorld" by Benjamin R Barber (1995)

    My friend Catherine Waters advised that I read this book originally published in 1995. It's not a particularly easy read because it's long - 370 pages, of which 60 are notes - and the style is somewhat academic - Barber is an American professor of political science. But it is definitely worth the effort.

    Probably deliberately, Barber never defines the terms 'Jihad' and 'McWorld', although he uses them from the second page and on almost every page from then on. 'Jihad' is shorthand for tribalism and intolerance, whether of the religious or political kind, and represents opposition to technology, markets and modernity itself. 'McWorld' is a metaphor for free markets and mass consumption plus the global players who exploit the former and create the latter.

    Barber regards the two as not simply in opposition to one another, but interactive with each other, and he is incisive with his criticisms of both as antipatheic to civic society and democratic institutions. This is an enormously erudite analysis with an astonishingly eclectic range of sources and the standpoint is profoundly liberal and libertarian.

    However, in my view, Barber is overly pessimistic about the ability to choose and reject elements of 'McWorld' in particular, fails to appreciate the transforming effects of the Internet and electronic commerce, and offers too little prescription as to how countervailing forces - like the trade union movement and social democratic political parties - could arrest the apparent juggernaut of global markets.


    "A Journey" by Tony Blair (2010)

    Why is this memoir, by former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, given the rather low-key title "A Journey"? He uses the noun to describe three transformations. First and foremost, how he started as one kind of leader and finished as another - a leader who was sensitive to and reflective of public opinion to one who felt he had to do what he thought was right however strong public opposition. Second, how Labour used to be one type of political party - factional, conflicted and traditional - and was transformed into another - more united, progressive and modernising. Third, how his governments initially saw reform of public services as about the setting of the right multiple standards but then came to appreciate that it was necessary to create new structures that fostered choice and competition.

    To begin this review, some overall comments on the book.

    It is long, too long. It runs to almost 700 pages. On a number of occasions, he writes "but I digress" and he does. The book should have been much more tightly edited and in consequence a more manageable length. He wrote it all by hand over three years and probably took no account of the word count.

    It is well written in a style that is almost spoken and rather engaging. However, it is rather verbose and florid too, with much use of alliteration and constant use of three adjectives and three phrases which, while colourful, is probably more appropriate to a speech or an article than to a memoir.

    It is thematic rather than strictly chronological. This means that there is a focus on key subjects - like the invasion of Iraq and reform of public services - but he often wanders and much is missed out.

    Now to the substance of the book.

    In terms of foreign policy, Blair's wars are central to his memoir. Kosovo and Sierra Leone were striking examples of the beneficial power of his policy of liberal interventionism; Afghanistan was probably inevitable after 9/11 but it has been prolonged and inconclusive; Iraq of course is where his record has been a matter of savage attack and he does not dodge the criticisms.

    Blair devotes over 100 pages of the 700-page volume to the Iraq war. There are no new facts or revelations because - whatever many critics think - there was no cover-up or conspiracy, but he does explain at length his thinking and motivations.

    There can be no doubt that Iraq was in breach of United Nations Security Council resolutions and Blair lists nine with which the regime was in non-compliance. Whether there was UN authority to invade is highly debatable legally but Blair makes his case. Whether there were weapons of mass destruction (WMD) was widely debated but mostly assumed to be the case.

    He records: "We the key allies had no doubt that Saddam had an active WMD programme" but concedes that: "The intelligence on Saddam and WMD turned out to be incorrect. It is said - even I have said - that how this came to be so remains a mystery." Somewhat at odds with the "mystery" remark, he adds: "The intelligence was wrong. We admitted it. We apologised for it. We explained it even."

    He writes: "The military campaign of conquest was a brilliant success. The civilian campaign of reconstruction wasn't" and concedes: "That the planning for the aftermath was inadequate is well-documented".

    He writes: "So the aftermath was more bloody, more awful, more terrifying than anyone could have imagined. The perils we anticipated [use of WMD] did not materialise. The peril we didn't [the insurgency] materialised with a ferocity and evil that even now shocks the senses."

    He insists: "I can't regret the decision to go to war" but adds: "I can say that never did I guess the nightmare than unfolded" and "The truth is we did not anticipate the role of al-Qaeda or Iran". He concludes: "All I know is that I did what I thought was right. I stood by America when it needed standing by. Together we rid the world of a tyrant. Together we fought to uphold the Iraqis' right to a democratic government."

    In terms of domestic policy, the overwhelming theme is one of what he calls simply "modernisation" (and who could oppose that?) and he refers to his "boundless, at times rather manic, lust for modernisation". He describes his efforts to reform all our public services, acknowledging that he was not bold enough in his first term and that he did not receive the enthusiastic support of his Chancellor Gordon Brown in his second and (abbreviated) third terms. The mantra was 'investment and reform together' (New Labour) as opposed to 'investment without reform' (Old Labour) or 'reform without investment' (Thatcherism).

    As a result of this approach, he pushed through academies and trust schools, university tuition fees, foundation hospitals, benefit and welfare reform, changes to the legal and criminal justice systems. Everywhere he favoured choice and competition and greater use of market mechanisms. It was a controversial programme and, as the Coalition Government builds on those reforms, it has become an even more controversial one.

    The settlement in Northern Ireland - to which he devotes a whole chapter - was a huge achievement and his part deserves praise.

    Surprisingly Blair says comparatively little about his constitutional reforms, such as devolution to Scotland and Wales, incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights and reform of the House of Lords, but comes out as totally against the landmark Freedom of Information Act ("I quake at the imbecility of it").

    Blair writes constantly of "New Labour" rather than simply Labour and of "progressive politics" rather than Left or even Centre-Left politics. He sees contemporary politics as less about Right versus Left as right versus wrong or what works contrasted with what does not work.

    He defines New Labour as an understanding of, and support for, aspiration. He is clear that: "Labour won when it was New Labour. It lost because it stopped being New Labour." - which many will regard as an oversimplification.

    He argues that "progressives have to be as proud of policies that lead to efficiency as much as those that lead to justice". He asserts "I was and remain first and foremost not so much a politician of traditional left or right but a moderniser" and he admits "In order to circumvent the party, what I had done was construct an alliance between myself and the public".

    He is generous in his comments on almost all his party colleagues and political associates, even finding substantial praise for Gordon Brown. He describes "the Gordon problem" as "the combination of the brilliant and the impossible". This is a man who likes people and not a man who bears grudges.

    The overall impression of the memoir is of a man driven by passion and principle, a man of almost messianic mission. Tellingly, he writes: "I have always been more interested in religion than politics". Tony Blair might just have been the least ideological occupant of 10 Downing Street in its long history. In spite of accusations to the contrary, it is clear from this memoir that he is a caring and compassionate man but equally a calculating and cunning one and tough, very, very tough.

    Three years after his (effectively forced) resignation, Tony Blair's legacy is still viewed by many largely through the prism of Iraq which is itself an unfinished story. In years to come, his legacy will be revisited and his programmes of domestic reform - both public services and constitutional affairs - and their influence on the succeeding Coalition Government will be viewed more sharply and probably more positively.

    In the meanwhile, what cannot be denied is that Blair was a unique leader of the Labour Party: someone who became Prime Minister without ever previously holding any ministerial position, someone who at 43 was the youngest Prime Minister since 1812, someone who won three successive General Elections with large majorities when Labour had never previously won even two full terms, someone who never lost a seat to the Conservatives during his entire term of office, someone who served as Prime Minister for 10 tough years and took the country into four wars, someone prepared to take huge political risks again and again, and someone who - largely for the better - has changed the face of British politics.


    "Kenya: Between Hope And Despair, 1963-2011" by Daniel Branch (2011)

    Between visits to Kenya by President Barack Obama and Pope Francis in the second half of 2015, I made my first trip to the country and was recommended to read this book to understand better this nation of some 45 million with no less than 42 different tribes, most notably Kikuyu 22%, Luhya 14%, Luo 13%, Kalenjin 12%, Kamba 11%, Kisii 6%, and Meru 6%. This post-colonial history of nearly half a century is a tale of three presidencies: those of the Kikuyu Jomo Kenyatta (1963-1978), the Kalenjin Daniel arap Moi (1978-2002), and the Kikuyu Mwai Kibaki (2002-2013).

    Daniel Branch is associate professor of African history at the University of Warwick in the UK and his meticulously researched work is sadly a depressing read because of the events he records and examines. The main theme of his work is that politics in Kenya has not been about the redistribution of resources between different social classes as in most democracies, but about the calculated assignment of power and influence to different ethnic groups - what is called the politics of recognition rather than redisribution.

    He laments: "Elites have encouraged Kenyans to think and act politically in a manner informed first and foremost by ethnicity, in order to crush demands for the redistribution of scarce resources." The result - which Branch narrates in grim detail - has been continual ethnic conflict (often promoted by political elites and tolerated by police and security forces) which have frequently resulted in hundreds of deaths and considerable displacement, constant repression of any opposition to the controlling elites with regular political assasinations, corruption of a ubiquitious nature and on a massive scale, and for most of the populace deep-seated poverty and lack of education.

    Branch describes Kenya as "a half-made place" with a public life of "amnesiac collusion" and " a schizophrenic political system". He explains: "On the one hand, it has a vibrant political society and a free press that routinely exposes corruption scandals and demonstrates the links between senior political figures and electoral violence. On the other hand, groups like Mungiki [a militia suppporting Kikuyu politicians and communities] thrive and its politicians are accused of crimes against humanity." Somewhere between hope and despair, he concludes: "Kenya may never be prosperous or be a nation; but armed with a government that it deserves, it can be a state whose citizens live side by side in peace and enjoy equal opportunities."

    Since this book was published, Kenya has had another general election and chosen a new leadership: Uhuru Kenyatta (Kikuyu) as President and William Ruto (Kalenjin) as Vice-President. In 2010, both men were accused by the International Criminal Court (ICC) of crimes against humanity relating to the violence which followed the 2007 elections that killed more than 1,100 people and displaced 600,000.


    "The Kurdish Spring: A New Map Of The Middle East" by David L Phillips (2015)

    Who are the Kurds and what is Kurdistan? Phillips - formerly a senior adviser to the US Department of State during three presidencies and now an academic at Columbia University - explains just how differentiated are the Kurds – “the largest stateless people in the world” – geographically, linguistically and religiously.

    The total area of Kurdistan is about 600,000 square kilometres, roughly equal to the size of France, and the total number of Kurds is an estimated 32 million. But there are four major geographic sectors:

    Around 75% of Kurds are Sunni Muslims. Most of the rest are Shia Muslims but there are significant pockets of Alevi, Sufis, Yazidi and Christian.

    The core of this book is two sets of four chapters describing the experience of the Kurds in Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran respectively. The first quartet summarises the history of these groups from the defeat of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 and the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923 up to around the time of the invasion of Iraq and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003. The main themes are the repeated betrayal of Kurdish aspirations for autonomy and independence and the multitudinous factionalism of the Kurds themselves (there are 16 Kurdish parties in Syria alone). The second quartet looks at the events in these countries in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. The main theme is that the Kurds in Iraq are set for independence at last, although none of the countries in the region or the USA wants this and formidible obstacles will have to be overcome for an independent Iraqi Kurdistan to be viable.

    The Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), now led by Masoud Barzani (the son of the founder), was established as long ago as 1946. Its principal rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), was founded in 1975 and is led by Jalal Talabani. In 1992, the KDP and the PUk created a unity administration for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) - although they fought a brief civil war in 1994 - and now represent by far the most stable part of Iraq and the most effective opponent of ISIS. Phillips avoids criticism of his friends in Iraqi Kurdistan (where there is a great deal of corruption) but is not averse to challenging the policy of his own country, calling the US approach "self-contradictory", referring to Obama's "ambivalence", and characterising the President's foreign policy as "too deliberative, cautious, and defined by limitations".

    "The Kurdish Spring" is immensely informative with lots of names, dates, and events but it is quite heavy-going because of the multiplicty of organisations and acronyms and the sense of despair about the problems of this region. Overwhelmingly this is a work of narrative with little analysis, but an overt sympathy for the plight of the Kurds everywhere and clear support for independence statehood for the Iraqi Kurds.


    "Mexico: What Everyone Needs To Know" by Roderic Ai Camp (2011)

    I read this book on a holiday in Mexico in 2016. It was an easy and informative read because it takes the form of mini-essays answering 104 questions, an accessible format but one that necessitates a little repetition.

    It starts with the headline issues of security and violence and then looks at political, economic and social developments, before backtracking to give quite an extensive historical background to these current issues and developments. Finally there is an examination of Mexico's democratic transition from 71 years (1929-2000) of rule by the same semi-authoritarian political party, the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), to the present situation where there is now a genuine contest for power and experience of non-PRI presidents.

    Camp is very clear what are the three most important challenges facing Mexico today and how these challenges are inter-related.

    First is "its ability to increase its economic growth while simultaneously reducing high levels of poverty". Reasons given are the absence of competitiveness in numerous economic sectors, the lack of labour flexibility, the low levels of transparency, and the high levels of corruption.

    Second - which "receives far more attention from American policy makers" - is its security situation. Camp (an American) emphasises that the security problem is in large part created by the economic situation and argues that both Mexico and the United States "are spending most of their resources on the consequences of crime and poverty, not on the causes".

    The third issue is the effect that the economic and criminal problems are having on the process of democratisation. The lack of accountability and transparency seriously undermine the rule of law and the promotion of human rights.

    It is not a pretty picture but Mexico is a wonderfully vibrant nation.


    "Murder In Samarkand" by Craig Murray (2006)

    Craig Murray had already been a career diplomat with the British Foreign Office for 20 years when he obtained his first ambassadorship in 2002. Uzbekistan had only recently gained its independence from the former Soviet Union and was still ruled by the former Communist hardman Islam Karimov, but it was now on the 'right' side in the 'War on Terror', offering base facilities to the Americans for their operations in Afghanistan. So this was a sensitive appointment and one can only wonder why the Whitehall mandarins put such a character in such a place at such a time.

    Murray had valuable experience in Poland and Ghana, but his flamboyant style included plenty of drinking and leering, blunt language, and a direct and unorthodox 'can do' approach to issues. Although married with two children, he admits to a string of earlier liaisons and in Taskent fell hopelessly in love with a women half his age on first sight. This is not your conventional ambassador and, at some point, his career was bound to implode.

    Yet on the substantive issues at the heart of Murray's differences with the FCO - that Uzbekistan was making no genuine moves to liberalise the economy or respect human rights and that political prisoners were being tortured and the tainted evidence that resulted given to MI5 and the CIA - he was right. Of course, the Foreign Office chose to tackle him more on procedural than substantive issues and he was charged with a list of 20 misdemeanors. Ultimately, 17 of these were dismissed with no case to answer, two were judged to be unsupported by the evidence, and the one substantiated charge was Kafkasquesly that he spoke to embassy staff about the allegations. In 2004, he was compelled to resign.

    Murray's book - like his career - is not what one would expect of a former senior diplomat. It is written like a novel with lots of reported conversations, making it very readable but overlong (its 383 pages could have been trimmed by a third). Also the bluntness and even profanity of his language are certainly unorthodox in what is really a political memoir. Indeed one suspects that he would have been a better Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament than an ambassador in Central Asia.

    Murray repeatedly makes clear that his book has been censored and that he was not allowed to quote key documents. He professes to have circumvented this restriction by posting the said material on his web site but, when one accesses the site, one finds that most of the documents have had to be removed following a threat of prosecution from the Treasury Solicitor. However, all the documents can still be seen on the Blair Watch site. A few comments by Murray on his own site since publication of the book make one wonder about the balance of his judgement, but his book does raise sharply some important issues about how democratic countries fight terrorist forces that threaten our lives and our liberties.

    Links:
    Craig Murray site click here
    Blair Watch site click here


    "The No Nonsense Guide To Globalisation" by Wayne Ellwood (2001)

    The advocates of globalisation argue that it prevents the protectionism and economic collapse that we saw in the late 1920s/early 1930s, that it promotes economic efficiency and therefore economic growth, that it maximises the creation of wealth, that it promotes world-wide communication and technological advance, and that ultimately economic freedom leads to political freedom.

    The opponents of globalisation insist that at best it accentuates the gap between rich and poor and at worse lowers overall living standards, that it promotes gender inequality through its adverse impact on women, that it undermines human rights by damaging trade union and worker organisations, that it massively strengthens corporate - especially multinational - power, and that it damages and even destroys the local and world environment.

    Canadian writer Wayne Ellwood, in this contribution to the "New Internationalist" [click here] series of "No Nonsense Guides", is clearly in the latter camp. In this short but informative review, he starts by summarizing the colonial history of globalisation and explains the nature of its current institutions:

    Ellwood explains the nature and impact of the structural adjustment programs (SAPs) imposed on debtor countries by the World Bank and the IMF and reminds us that in the 1990s most years debt interest paid by developing countries actually exceeded new loans to those countries. He traces the five-fold increase in the debt of the non-oil producing Third World between 1973 and 1982, the melt-down of the Russian economy in the early 1990s, the 1997 collapse of Thailand, Taiwan, Malalyia, Singapore & South Korea, and the Brazilian crash of 1999.

    The figures are mind-blowing: total Third World debt is now around three trillion (million million) dollars, while every day an estimated 1.5 trillion dollars is traded on global currency markets. Today some 50 of the top 100 economies of the world are not those of nation states but of multinational corporations, while average income in the very poorest countries is less than one dollar a day.

    In the face of this compelling evidence, it is impossibe not to draw the conclusion that globalisation is in crisis and needs serious reform. Ellwood himself does not offer a cohert and comprehensive programme; instead he hands over the final chapter of his book to five activists who each set out one particular reform:

    Of course, none of this will come about without a mobilisation of opinion and pressure world-wide to demonstrate to the global power élite that trade must be fair as well as free.

    Link: Trades Union Congress globalisation site click here


    "North Korea: State Of Paranoia" by Paul French (2014)

    In the global community, no nation is as closed and inscrutable and unpredictable as North Korea, often called 'the Hermit Kingdom' but officially known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). This is why I was keen to read French's book. It is a well-written and insightful work, but rather repetitive (it runs to over 400 pages). More seriously, much of the data - and French admits "essentially no reliable statistics have been published by the DPRK since 1965" - is a decade old (especially on the economy on which he writes at length) and the book has the feel of something written 10 years ago and up-dated only minimally.

    What the book does tell us is deeply troublimg. Throughout its life-time, the DPRK has been ruled with utter totalitarianism by a succession of three dictators:

    All of them have followed a peculiar political philosophy called ‘Juche’ said to be Kim Il-sung’s “original, brilliant and revolutionary contribution to national and international thought”. French describes it as ”an indigenous revolutionary doctrine fusing the basic tenets of Marxist-Leninism with elements of Maoism and Confucianism and traditional Korean social systems”. The theory is that popular masses are placed in the centre of everything and the leader is the centre of the masses. In practice, it is an attempt to make the nation self-reliant and self-sufficient and involves a policy of ‘military first’ in terms of power and resources.

    The reality is that North Korea is desperarely poor and massively dependent on international aid. While it seeks to develop nuclear arsenals, its populace is constantly on the edge of famine. Aid agencies have estimated that up to two million people have died since the mid-1990s because of acute food shortages caused by natural disasters and economic mismanagement. French is clear that no significant political or economic reform is possible within the strict terms of 'Juche' amd observes that "Juche has become, in effect, the state religion and thus major revisions are unlikely".

    The last chapter - ironically number 13 - is titled "How will the story end?". French explores a few scenarios - such as mass exodus, economic collapse or military takeover - but concludes" 'It is anyone's guess, however, whether the demise of North Korea will be peaceful or violent, gradual or immediate." Meanwhile North Korea remains what the book's conclusion calls "the world's most dangerous tripwire" with the South Korean capital of Seoul a mere 37 miles away from the DPRK's formidable battery of artillery and missiles.

    French repeatedly criticises American policy towards North Korea as being episodic and reactive and there is little sign of that changing. The country which most fears a collapse of the DRPK and is most likely - we hope - to reign in its military escapades and stimulate meaningful economic reform is China.


    "People Who Live In The Dark" by Andrew Blick (2004)

    The sub-title of this work is "The history of the special adviser in British politics" and the odd title is a quote from a critic of such advisers who believes that they operate surreptitiously. I approached the book with a personal interest and somewhat subjectively because I served as a Special Adviser at the Northern Ireland Office (1974-76) and the Home Office (1976-78), in both cases when Merlyn Rees was the Labour Secretary of State, while at the beginning of 2005 my son Richard became a Special Adviser at the Department for Education and Skills, working for the Labour Secretary of State Ruth Kelly.

    In his 'note on historiography and sources', Blick states that "There is no comprehensive history of the special adviser". Well, now there is because his work is a careful and chronological account of the use of such advisers by successive British governments over the last four decades. While the governments in power in both the world wars used outside advisers, effectively the system of special advisers - or political advisers appointed to give temporary and partisan support to senior ministers - was introduced by Harold Wilson in his governments of 1964-1970. Although the Heath administration made modest use of such advisers, the system really came into its own with the Wilson/Callaghan governments of 1974-79 when I spent four years in Whitehall. The Thatcher and Major administrations continued the practice, but the Blair governments have made the most extensive use of special advisers in terms of both numbers and influence.

    The system has worked well overall and it is now a permanent feature of British politics. Critics argue that the system is now too large, but Blick points out that, even under Blair, the total number of special advisers is only around 80 compared to 3,500 senior civil servants and a professional civil service of 400,000 in all. The same observers frequently claim that such advisers are too powerful, but their influence has been grossly exaggerated by a sometimes hysterical media and, in so far as they do achieve some authority, this is because their democratically-elected ministers want then to.

    Blick's book is not a racy read, since he is scrupulously cautious in his judgements and prodigiously comprehensive in his sourcing. There are over 1,500 footnotes, including ones referencing articles I wrote for the "Times" in 1974 and 1978. If the whole thing looks and reads somewhat academically, then this is clearly because it started life as a PhD dissertation, but it is a fascinating insight into the nature of government in the last half of the 20th century.


    “Prisoners Of Geography” by Tim Marshall (2015)

    The sub-title of this book makes a bold claim: “Ten maps that tell you everything you need to know about global politics”. While it is true that there are 10 double-page maps, there are another 10 smaller maps; the maps do not, of course, stand alone, but are supported by some 240 pages of text; and “everything” is inevitably a subjective judgement.

    Having said all that, this is an exceptionally accomplished work with many admirable features: it covers every continent and major nation (except Oceania); it is immensely informative and bang up-to-date; it covers so much material in a commendably concise text; and the writing is clear while the judgements are insightful – all these attributes reflecting Marshall’s experience and skill as a British media reporter of international affairs and global conflicts.

    The main theme of the book – reflected in the title – is that overwhelmingly geo-politics has been, and largely still is, shaped by the geographical characteristics of nations and their neighbours. As he puts it: "… the choices of those who lead the seven billion inhabitants of this planet will to some degree always be shaped by the rivers, mountains, deserts, lakes and seas that constrain us all”.

    This central argument is illustrated in detail through 10 chapters looking at different nations or regions:

    Russia: He explains the strategic thinking of the biggest country in the world that perceives two military weaknesses. First, the North European Plain that has been the route for successive invasions of the country since the Poles in 1605, leading the Russians to want a buffer of friendly nations to its west. Second, the lack of a warm-water port with direct access to the oceans that was one of the major factors behind the take-over of Crimea so that it retained clear control of the port of Sevastopol.

    China: He sets out the importance to China, the most populous country in the world, of the province of Xinjiang conquered in the 18th century and the territory of Tibet annexed in 1951, so that it has secure borders on all sides. Now China is building a Blue Water navy to assert its power in the East China Sea and the South China Sea and it is investing throughtout Asia, Africa and South America to create strategic assets like ports and acquire strategic minerals, metals and sources of energy.

    USA: He argues that this is the nation most blessed by geography: a huge expanse territory with no threatening neighbours, vast resources with plenty of navigable rivers and extensive infrastructure, and access to and protection by two massive oceans. He is not one of those commentators suggesting the imminent decline of America: ”The planet’s most successful country is about to become self-sufficient in energy, it remains the pre-eminent economic power and it spends more on research and development for its military than the overall military budget of all the other NATO countries combined”.

    Western Europe: He spells out the geographical reasons for Europe becoming the ‘First World’: mild climate, the right soil, navigable rivers, natural harbours, and no deserts or frozen wastes. As for modern times, he sees the European Union as having "worked brilliantly" in locking France and Germany together and preventing further European wars.

    Africa: He is not optimistic about the future of the continent. Geography is against it with lots of hostile climates, a lack of navigable rivers, and nation states artificially created by former colonial powers. He describes the Democratic Republic of the Congo as ”the great black hole” that has been home to the world’s most deadly conflict since the Second World War.

    The Middle East: He explains the problems created by the drawing of artificial lines on the map by Britain and France after the First World War, the nature of the Arab/Israeli conflict, the failure of the so-called Arab Spring, the nature of the Sunni/Shia divide in the Muslim world, and the growth of jihadist movements which ”may be the Arab version of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War”.

    India and Pakistan: He reminds us that these two nations – once a single British colony – have fought four major wars and many skirmishes with the Kashmir issue remaining the most serious area of conflict. He despairs of Pakistan which has been in a state of civil war for more than a decade but is hopeful about the continuing economic growth and political power of India.

    Korea and Japan: He sets out the territorial disputes over control of various islands between Japan and Russia, China and South Korea respectively, but understandably sees the greatest risk of conflict between nuclear-armed North Korea and South Korea, although he is confident of the superior strength of South Korea and its ally America.

    Latin America: Like Africa and for similar geographical reasons, he is not optimistic about the future of the 20 countries in this region. The rainforest, the mountain ranges, the lack of navigable rivers, the lack of cooperation between nations, together with the poverty and corruption, do not auger well for this southern section of the globe.

    The Arctic: He explains how climate change has allowed easier access to the region and the discovery of large energy deposits leading to new interest in this part of the world, especially by an aggressively assertive Russia. But the Arctic region includes land in parts of eight countries and there are currently at least nine legal disputes and claims over sovereignty.

    This is a work that should be read by every national and international politician (especially in the USA). If it is the only such book they read and they can take all the messages on board, they will have achieved a great deal of wisdom and insight.

    Inevitably, one wonders whether geo-politics will continue to be as shaped and constrained as it has been by geographical features and, at the beginning and the end of his book, Marshall hints at some of the factors which may be loosening the bars of these 'prisons', such as air power, the Internet, climate change, and space. For now though, geography remains the most powerful influence on everything from national wealth to military strength and this book is a wonderful primer on geo-politics.

    Link: Tim Marshall's web site click here


    "The Spirit Level" by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett (2009)

    This is one of the most important books that I have read in five decades of reading because its scope is so wide and its message so compelling and because it resonates powerfully with my own political principles and passion for social justice. The authors are both British academics who are personal as well as professional partners. Both are professors specialising in epidemiology, but Wilkinson originally studied economic history while Pickett started in the field of physical anthropology, and this expertise in a range of disciplines infuses this fascinating work.

    The core message can be simply stated: on a whole range of significant social indicators, countries with less inequality do markedly better than those with greater inequality. Hence the subtitle for the hardback edition of "Why more equal societies almost always do better" and the subtitle for the paperwork edition (which I read) of "Why equality is better for everyone" (perhaps the stronger second formulation derives from what the authors describe as "the extraordinarily positive reception to the hardback edition").

    So what are the indicators that are examined by Wilkinson & Pickett? For the key graph showing the powerful relationship between lower income inequality and better outcomes, they construct an index of health and social problems made up of level of trust, mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction), life expectancy and infant mortality, obesity, children's educational performance, tenage births, homicides, imprisonment rates, and social mobility. In subsequent chapters, they explore these indices in more detail. In the course of the book, over 400 sources are referenced. The only social problem which is found to be more common in more equal countries is, perhaps surprisingly, suicide.

    What are the countries compared for this study? The thesis of the authors is that, once a nation has reached a certain level of development, further rises in overall income make little difference to health and happiness; instead what matters is the distribution of income within the country. Therefore the focus of their work is nations which are developed and for which robust and comparable data is available: a total of 23 rich countries, most of them in Europe and North America. A vital sub-section of their thesis is that, lower levels of inequality provide better social outcomes not just for the less privileged in a country but for those at all levels of the economic hierarchy (although, of course, the poorest gain the most). The authors find that the same conclusions apply to the individual states of the USA which could be thought of as 'a nation of nations'.

    So who does best and who does worst? Wilkinson & Pickett show repeatedly that the most successful countries are Sweden, Norway, Finland and Japan, while the least successful are the UK, the USA and Portugal. Among the states of the USA, those which perform well are New Hampshire, Minnesota, North Dakota and Vermont, with those doing least well being Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama.

    The case for a strong correlation between lower inequality and better outcomes is powerful and evidenced again and again and again. The case that we have here not simply correlation but causation is not proven beyond doubt, but a chapter discussing causation finds no other credible explanation for such dramatically different and consistent outcomes. At the heart of the explanation is the assertion that we define our sense of worth by how we perceive ourselves in relation to others who are doing better or worse than us and when there are wide inequalities more people are likely to become mentally ill or commit serious crime and so on.

    Where "The Spirit Level" is weak is in relation to the actions necessary to bring about greater equality and better social outcomes. While there are brief references to some of the policies which governments ought to pursue, there is no detail. Instead there is much enthusiasm for employee share ownership and participation and a call for a larger non profit sector of the economy which, while desirable, would hardly be sufficient to reduce and reverse the massive inequalities of income, wealth and power which we see in nations like the UK and the USA. They argue: "At this stage, creating the political will to make society more equal is more important than pinning our colours to a particular set of policies to reduce inequality."

    To their credit, Wilkinson & Pickett have not just written a book. They have created the Equality Trust with the aim "to create a groundswell of opinion in favour of greater equality".

    Link: the Equality Trust click here


    "Stepping On White Corns" by Jim Moher (2007)

    Two years after I moved to the London borough of Brent (where I still live), in 1986 the borough became politically infamous for bitter racial divisions sparked by the suspension of Maureen McGoldrick, the headmistress of Sudbury Infants School, for an alleged racial remark. At the time, my son was a pupil at Sudbury Junior School which was located on the same site (since 1999, the two schools have been combined) and suffering from the chronic teacher shortages that were a major feature of the chaotic education policies of the borough.

    Two decades later, the episode and its wide ramifications have been written up by a local Labour politician who played an active role in many of the debates at the time and whom I have known since moving to to the borough. Jim Moher obtained his PhD with a thesis on the history of the millwrights and he has brought to this political history all the research and forensic skills that he deployed on that thesis.

    “Stepping On White Corns” is a formidable work: almost 300 pages of close text representing a meticulous chronicling of events, a diligent noting of comprehensive sources, and a genuine attempt to present different viewpoints, although he admits that it is “somewhat subjective”. It is an account enlivened by a vast cast of characters, colourful in both senses of the word, and some - like Ken Livingstone, Paul Boateng, and Trevor Phillips - still around the political scene.

    The spark for the traumatic events was an angry and unrecorded telephone conversation between McGoldrick and a junior town hall official called Shelagh Szulc. Moher's personal conclusion is that "she [McGoldrick] may have said something which was capable of misunderstanding or misinterpretation in a heated telephone conversation" but he is very clear (as I am) that the headmistress was not racist and had not made a racist remark.

    Sadly for McGoldrick and many others, the potent mix of politics and race - combined with personal ambition and many misunderstandings - of that time exploded into what Moher calls Brent's "nervous breakdown". Of course, the borough was not alone - especially in the capital - in acting with possibly good intentions but often political obsessiveness. He writes: "Those were looney days in Brent and London in many ways. People caught up in these events acted strangely and, in most normal people's eyes, were quite mad to be involved at all in such activities".

    Reading "Stepping On White Corns" is a sobering and often disturbing reminder of a dreadful time for politics and education in Brent. Fortunately my son managed to secure good examination results and the borough now is what Moher describes as "a model of social and multi-racial, multi-cultural cohesion".

    [The book has been published privately and is available from the author at 51 Medway Gardens, Wembley, Middlesex HA0 2RJ price £11.50 including postage & packaging.]


    "The Storm" by Vince Cable (2009)

    If there were a coalition government in Britain, a prime candidate to be Chancellor of the Exchequer would be the Liberal Democrat economic spokesman since 2003, Vince Cable. First of all, he has the knowledge: he was Chief Economist for Shell from 1995-1997. Second, he has the reputation: up to and during the global economic crisis which started in 2007, he has been an impressive voice of reason. So this book - his take on the crisis - has to be welcomed. It is commendably short (just 170 pages), no doubt mainly because he is an active politician who wrote it "in some haste in the gaps left in a very busy few months in the summer and autumn of 2008". It is lucid and balanced but ultimately somewhat disappointing in not providing a clear set of policies to avoid such 'boom and bust' in the future.

    Cable puts the current 'credit crunch' into perspective in two important respects. First, he shows that it is only the latest, if one of the largest, in a succession of economic crises over several centuries - arguably the sixth since the Napoleonic Wars - and therefore should not have been as surprising as it was to most politicians and financiers. Second, he demonstrates how this perfect economic storm is in fact a set of interlocking failures in the global financial system which makes a solution neither obvious or easy.

    The components of the crisis - as he identifies them - are:

    As a British commentator, Cable obviously devotes special attention to the crisis in the UK economy which has led to the bail-out of Northern Rock, the effective nationalisation of Royal Bank of Scotland/NatWest and HBOS, and a minority government stake in Lloyds TSB. He asserts: "few now question that the Anglo-Saxon model of finance was deeply flawed, unstable and unsustainable". A shame then, that he does not offer a clearer and more radical policy alternative.


    "Time To Start Thinking" by Edward Luce (2012)

    The subtitle to this book describes much better its topic: "America And The Spectre Of Decline". The fact that the author is not himself American adds perspective but Luce is a very well-informed observer: he spent a year in Washington DC as speechwriter to former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers (whom he is not slow to criticise) and he was the Washington Bureau Chief of the "Financial Times" from 2006-2010.

    The author's choice of sub-titles for his chapters neatly summarise his main themes:

    Luce states from the start: "This book will not predict America's collapse. But it will prove skeptical about America's ability to sharply reverse her fortunes." He argues: "If America is to restore its competitiveness, it will need to do many things, few of which will be possible without a much more effective federal government. In today's world, smart government is a critical ingredient of national competiveness. Unless America can address government's role in a more pragmatic light, it may doom itself to continued decline."

    This is an interesting message from a journalist who has worked for the Right-wing "Financial Times" since 1995. It is a line that will appeal to most Democrats, independents and even old-style Republicans, but the current leadership of the Republican Party (and most especially the Tea Party movement) would regard it as heresy. I read Luce's book on a trip to America in the run up to the 2012 presidential and congressional elections and I would love to make it compulsory for all the candidates to read this evidenced, balanced and insightful challenge to the whole US political and economic establishment.


    "Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil And Fundamentalism In Central Asia" by Ahmed Rashid (2001)

    Rarely can a book have been so timely and so topical. Rashid is a Pakistani journalist who has been writing about Afghanistan for over 20 years. His book was published in 2000 to critical acclaim but a limited readership. Then, on 11 September 2001, there came the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington and the book became required reading for anyone wanting a better understanding of the complex politics of Afghanistan and the wider region. I was only able to start reading the work as the American bombing commenced and the collapse of the regime proved so surprisingly swift that I was struggling to finish the text before the Northern Alliance finished the Taliban.

    Rashid describes the history of Afghanistan as "one of the greatest tragedies of this century” and reminds us several times that the invasion by the Soviet Union and the subsequent civil wars have cost some 1.5 million lives in a desperately poor country of some 20 million where life expectancy is just 43 years. The Taliban appeared almost out of nowhere when they took over Kandahar on 5 November 1994. The capital Kabul fell to the Taliban on 26 September 1996 and, if it had not been for American intervention, who knows how much longer the reign of terror would have lasted.

    The tragedy of Afghanistan is its position – surrounded by many neighbours with their own agendas – and its ethnic mix – providing plenty of proxies for the adjacent states to use to their own ends. The Taliban would never have arisen, but for the support of Pakistan and Saudi Arabia - supported by the US - who wanted to use the Pashtun ethnic group to block the influence of the Tajiks, Uzbeks and Turkmen who eventually formed the Northern Alliance, backed by Iran, Turkey, India, Russia and most of the Central Asian Republics.

    The Americans created a Frankenstein regime that later harboured Osama Bin Laden, because the USA forgot about Afghanistan once the Soviet Union withdrew and was content to leave matters to its Pakistani and Saudi friends. As Rashid puts it: "The pipeline of US military aid to the Mujaheddin was never replaced by a pipeline of humanitarian aid that could have been an inducement for the warlords to make peace and rebuild the country".

    Rashid's book is particularly fascinating in explaining how this regional stand-off has at its heart the issue of access to the oil and gas riches of land-locked Central Asia, the last untapped reserves of energy in the world today. Indeed I learned so much from this articulate and well-informed book, including the meaning of the term 'Taliban' (students of Islam) and the proper interpretation of the word 'jihad' (the inner struggle of a Muslim to become a better person).

    If we want lasting peace in Afghanistan, we have to be prepared for a long haul: "Ethnicity is the clarion call of the modern era. Trying to resolve ethnic problems and keep states together needs persistent and consistent diplomacy rather than virtual bribes to keep various warlords quiet".


    "When China Rules The World" by Martin Jacques (2009)

    British academic and writer Martin Jacques brings a very distinctive approach to this impressive study of modern China: he was editor of the Communist Party of Great Britain's journal "Marxism Today" from 1977 until its closure in 1991 and he was married to a young Malaysian of Indian origin who tragically died only six years after they met in 1993.

    It is a long book - a main text of 435 pages with more than another 100 pages of bibliography and notes - but it is very well-written and combines erudition and insight to make this a must-read work for any serious student of China. If, as Jacques himself contends "Understanding China will be one of the great challenges of the twenty-first century", this work is a considerable aid in that understanding.

    In a serious and comprehensive analysis, Jacques puts modern-day China into a long historic context and explores contemporary (and possible future) relations between a resurgent China and other East Asian states, the United States , and other parts of the world. His main themes can be summarized as follows:

    Jacques states: "The underlying argument of the book is that China's impact on the world will be as great as that of the United States over the last century, probably far greater." He insists that: "China, with continuing economic growth (albeit at a reduced rate) is destined to become one of the two major global powers and ultimately the major global power".

    And what are the prospects for economic liberalisation leading to political liberalisation and even fully-fledged democracy? Jacques believes that there is little demand for democracy within China and that the country is not ready for multi-party democracy based on universal suffrage. He feels that the supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party is secure for the next couple of decades but that eventually there will be reform, probably on the basis of particular provinces or municipalities and possibly through changes in the party itself.

    Link: author's web site click here


    "Why Do People Hate America?" by Ziauddin Sardar and Merryl Wyn Davies (2002)

    After the horrific events of 11 September 2001, Americans and non-Americans alike have struggled to understand the reason for such an all-out assault on the USA and this international bestseller - published in 2002 - has proved to be one of the most thoughtful and influential contributions to a debate of profound importance. Significantly it comes from two British-based Muslim writers - Pakistan-born Ziauddin Sardar, a writer and broadcaster, and Welsh-born Merryl Wyn Davies, a writer and anthropologist.

    Many Americans will find this an exceptionally difficult book to read because it challenges so many beliefs which are central to the American psyche but, if they are open-minded enough, they will find it illuminating if disturbing. This is in no sense a 'balanced' analysis, since there is no effort to delineate what is 'good' about American society - that is taken as understood. Equally this is not a prognosis for change, since it does not attempt to set out specifically what needs to be done to address and resolve the hatred - the reader is left to infer this from the analysis, but I think that this is a serious weakness in the work.

    So, just why do so many people around the world hate America with such a passion? As one would expect from intellectuals like Sardar and Davies, the answer is not singular or simple.

    Sardar and Davies argue that, since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, America has become not simply the only super power but a "hyper power" without historical precedent in its wealth and strength. If their criticisms could be reduced to a single charge, it would probably be that this immense power results in overweening arrogance which in turns results in a blind belief in the superiority of all things American and an inability to engage openly with other countries, cultures and opinions.

    The authors conclude:"To avoid a clash of civilisations, the USA must accept that all civilisations have the same right to exist, the same freedom to express themselves, and the same liberty to order their society guided by their own moral vision. Moreover, all other people of the world have the right and the freedom to disagree with America".


    "Zone Of Crisis: Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran And Iraq" by Amin Saikal (2014)

    Amin Saikal is an Afghan-born scholar of international affairs who is Director of the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies at the Australian National University. He has written a study of four West Asian countries that are adjacent to one another and rarely out of the headlines, what he calls "a volatile, uncertain and unpredictable zone, with serious implications for changing world order". He is an immensely knowledgeable observer with a balanced and insightful view of events and he writes clearly although a little academically in tone. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, he has little original to say about how to sort out the chronic messes that he describes.

    Afghanistan and Pakistan are predominately Sunni states, while Iraq and Iran have a Shia majority population (the only such countries in the world except for tiny Bahrain and secular Azerbaijan). Afghanistan and Iraq have suffered recent invasions by predominately American and British military forces, while Pakistan and Iran have 'only' faced drone attacks and economic sanctions respectively. Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq have some of the veneers of a democracy, but their political institutions are massively flawed, while Iran - the most stable of the states examined - has its own version of elective power that is counterbalanced by a more powerful theocratic elite.

    In his commendably short but nevertheless informative book, Saikal has four long chapters and, in the case of each nation, he sets out the complicated mosaic of ethnic groups and a brief account of the recent historical legacy, he examines the current governance and economic performance, he explores the country's position in international relationships, and finally he attempts a look at the way forward.

    So, for Afghanistan, Saikal explains how the Taliban and their supporters largely come from the Ghilzai part of the Pashtun community, while former President Karzai and most of his cohort belong to the Durrani segment of the Pashtuns, so that "the conflict within Aghanistan since 2001 has been essentially an intra-Pashtun one". He is scathing of Karzai insisting: "His approach and policies gave rise to politics of patronage, corruption and inefficiency in both the civilian and military spheres at all levels." But he is equally critical of the Americans: "the Bush administration failed to draw up a comprehensive and coherent programme of reconstruction for Afghanistan. The approach that it adopted was piecemeal, poorly coordinated and badly implemented." In this chaotic state, opium cultivation has continued to expand, so that "Afghanistan has for all practical purposes become, once again, a narco-state."

    Akthough Pakistan of course has its own chapter, Saikal notes that "Developments in the two countries have been so intertwined that some analysts and policymakers have opted to lump them together under the joint designation, 'Af-Pak'." But Pakistan has its own ethnic mix with the largest groups (in order) being the Punjabis (who back the Pakistan Muslim League political party), the Sindhis (who support the Pakistan People's Party), the Pathans as the Pashtuns are called here (responsible for a Taliban insurgency), and the Baluchis (supporting another insurgency). Political power has oscillated between the PML, the PPP, and the military with the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) always massively influential. This is a nation that spends around one quarter of government revenue on defence (which includes a nuclear arsenal) but less than 2% on education and under 1% on health.

    Iran is less socially fragmented than Afghanistan, Pakistan or Iraq, with a substantial majority of Iranians being of Persian ethnicity, which has enabled it - unlike the other countries - to have a clear national identity as opposed to the tribal, sectarian or religious identities to which the citizens of the other states adhere. Also, since the Ayatollah Khomeini seized contol of the revolution of 1978-79, the country has had a unique political system that Saikal characterises as an uneasy and fluctuating balance between the 'sovereignty of God' (as expressed through the fundamentalist Shia leaders with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard as their shock troops) and the 'sovereignity of the people' (as represented by the elected president and parliament). Saikal sees some hopeful signs following the recent election of President Rouhani.

    It is in the case of Iraq that Saikal is at his bitterest about American policy in the zone of crisis following the occupation of the country from 2003-2011. He opines that "Washington's misreading and underestimation of Iraq's complexity boggles the mind" and writes "The United States, as the leading occupying force, could neither fully grasp the complexity of the Iraqi situation, nor put in motion an appropriate and effective post-invasion strategy of political reform, governance and reconstruction for the country." But, of course, Iraqis do not escape his criticisms. We are all very familiar with the divisions and conflicts between the Shias in the south, the Sunnis in the centre, and the Kurds in the north, but Saikal highlights further cleavages between secularists/semi-secularists and Islamists and between centralists and regionalists. He is damning of the leadership of al-Maliki who he insists "has increasingly acted like a dictator, cementing patronage and nepotism as hallmarks of Iraqi governance."

    So, what is to be done? Saikal points out that "Neutrality and openness are required of all parties if progress is to be made" (what are the chances of that?). He insists: "political systems must be created to allow for and promote plurality, compromise, moderation and the acceptance of dissent" (he is a fan of the Lebanese model). He suggests revisiting the possibility of a reformist Islamist model (he appears to have in mind Iran under Khatami). In a wider context, he points out the need for a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the Indo-Pakistani contestation of Kashmir. A huge and complex agenda then ...


    All reviews by ROGER DARLINGTON

    Last modified on 30 May 2016

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