Plays Pleasant by Bernard Shaw

This sparkling collection of four plays illustrates the wisdom, range and wit of Bernard Shaw. Each play has its strengths and weaknesses, but Arms and The Man and Candida seem to outshine The Man of Destiny and You Never Can Tell.  Nonetheless, the quality gap is subjective and small between these colourful entertainments.

While the casual reader may enjoy the texts for their simple pleasures, it is interesting to note how serious themes are touched on in the course of the comedies. For example, there is a reflection on the class structure and the family in one play. In another of the narratives, there is a caustic attack on the confusing contradictions of the English national character:

“There is nothing so bad or so good that you will not find Englishmen doing it; but you will never find an Englishman in the wrong. He does everything on principle. He fights you on patriotic principles; he robs you on business principles; he enslaves you on imperial principles; he bullies you on manly principles; he supports his king on loyal principles and cuts off his king’s head on republican principles. His watchword is always Duty; and he never forgets that the nation which lets its duty get on the opposite side to his interest is lost.”

David Lloyd George. The Great Outsider. by Roy Hattersley

This biography was not written by a fan of the Prime Minister who tore up the rules of the political game. The pragmatism, cynicism and occasional unpleasantness of the Liberal orator are viewed through quite a censorious lens. Nonetheless, the achievements of Lloyd George as a pioneering Chancellor are not forgotten. The result is a complex text which is marked by the envy that a politician can harbour for a statesman.

Ideologically Roy Hattersley has few issues with the centrist Lloyd George. They both wanted to help the poor without bringing about a genuine social transformation. However, the admiration Lloyd George had for Keynesian economics and his contempt for the aristocracy meant that the Liberal did have a radical content. It was his antipathy to the socialism of the Labour Party which meant that some of his egalitarian rhetoric was deceptive.

As a biographer, Hattersley has the advantage of knowing some political realities. For example, he showed that he was aware that the electorate will not be told what an election is about. Theresa May should have consulted this text before losing her majority unnecessarily in the ‘Brexit’ general election. As a social historian, Hattersley is much less acute. This is evidenced by the sections on Irish Home Rule. Hattersley provocatively wrote:

“A negotiated peace might still have been possible if the Republicans- some of whom clearly killed for killing’s sake- had not been afraid that the leadership would settle for too little.”

“You campaign in poetry. You govern in prose.” Mario Cuomo

Jeremy Corbyn has clearly realised the power of the poem. At Glastonbury, he harnessed Shelley to inspire his audience. While the Conservative Party has been slow to form an awkward coalition with the DUP, the Labour leader has been quick to communicate his message of hope with large numbers of people.

It is uncertain if Corbyn will ever ascend to the summit of politics in the UK. However, he has already confounded a great many of his critics. Along the way, he has revealed a love of reading. His passion for Joyce made several people sit up.

If governing is a prosaic activity, does it have to be a fraudulent one? Is it possible for politicians to craft narratives which will take us to a fairer future? Will we continue to be led by Machiavellian monsters like Trump and Putin? The art of political studies is to live in the world of the possible. This does not mean we should be cynical, defeatist or neutral. Nonetheless, it does imply we must avoid making predictions.

Britain Since 1918 by David Marquand

This learned discussion of democracy in the UK received a positive review from moderate Labour’s Roy Hattersley. It is hard not to be impressed  by a text which informs and entertains. The democratic process might not always have delivered the goods for ordinary people in Britain, but appreciating the statecraft and ideologies which have led to negative results can be educative.

For Marquand, politicians should not be seen as cynical hypocrites. They have often been trapped by tradition just when they hoped to be innovative. Old influences like Edmund Burke have seemingly shaped some of their choices in the modern era. While political theorists may have been thinking in terms of Machiavelli, Marx, Althusser or Foucault, the behaviour of those they have been ruled by could have been shaped by less inspirational philosophy.

Nonetheless, Burke should not be viewed as a pure reactionary. His excessive distaste for the French Revolution did not make him into a simple conservative. This kind of complexity means that politicians have sometimes misread the lessons of the past. On other occasions, pressure from the people has obliged politicians to assume more collectivist ways of thinking. Marquand ends his narrative on a note which is not devoid of optimism:

“As petrol blockades, the Countryside Alliance and, most of all, the huge anti-war demonstration in February 2003 all showed, the ancient British tradition of peaceful protest was alive and well.”

Of the People, by the People by Roger Osborne

“Arguably the greatest failure of democratic governments in our time has been the surrender of power to the international financial system in return for short-term prosperity for their electors.”

This compelling narrative about the history of democracy is succinct. Nevertheless, it makes a significant number of telling points. It shows how democracy has been interpreted differently down the ages. It reminds us that the answer to problems in mature democracies is often more democracy.

For example, the author makes the point that democracy suffered major setbacks between the major wars of the last century. This was partly because of economic difficulties. However, it was also due to the rise of extreme nationalism. While vulgar forms of Marxism were also undemocratic, it was toxic fascism which emerged as the biggest danger.

If citizens of the world today want to avoid making the mistakes of the past, refusing to support overtly nationalist politicians is prudent. Socialism and liberalism are ideologies which have not got an innocent history. However, the optimism they share is necessary now.

Blair Inc. by Francis Beckett et al.

This fascinating text reveals what Tony Blair has got up to since he ceased being Prime Minister. He has become fabulously wealthy, overtly religious and embroiled in the politics of many countries. At the same time, his acolytes have fought bitter battles against Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn, greatly damaging the electoral prospects of the Labour Party.

The researchers were shocked by how secretive Blair has become. His staff were often reluctant to divulge information that was already in the public domain. Blair apologist Charles Clarke was abrasive when asked reasonable questions about the man who took the UK into the Iraq War before assuming a role as a peace envoy.

Clarke had wanted to stop Gordon Brown from replacing Blair as Prime Minister. When this proved impossible because of the momentum of Brown, his ideological colleagues worked through the opaque Progress group to prevent the Labour left from prospering. Miliband was always looking over his shoulder instead of being able to take the fight to David Cameron:

“As often happens, the Blairites said the things Blair only implied. Charles Clarke says that ‘some people find Ed Miliband weird and geeky’ and that he has failed to express clear policies. It’s code for ‘He’s not a proper Blairite’.”

Politics by Nick Clegg

This text argues that the coalition between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats was a positive thing for the people of the UK. It contends that compromise between the political extremes is always healthy. Further, it suggests that liberalism is an ideology which can stand next to conservatism as well as it can work with socialism.

On a human level, this book is a genuine irritant. The core idea is that the reader should empathise with Nick Clegg and his family. This may be an unwelcome thought for those profoundly affected by austerity or betrayed over the costs of being a student. However, it is the arrogance of the former Deputy Prime Minister which is ultimately of importance.

Clegg attacks Marx for being opposed to freedom, rationality and individualism. When engaging in philosophy, Clegg does not bother to engage with the target of his critique. Regardless of what later Marxists have done in practice, Marx was not hostile to the best Enlightenment values. Instead, Marx wanted freedom to be rolled out to groups excluded from it. In The German Ideology Marx and Engels wrote about how people could be liberated from social arrangements which were inimical to individual freedom:

“In all expropriations up to now, a mass of individuals remained subservient to a single instrument of production; in the appropriation by the proletarians, a mass of instruments of production must be made subject to each individual, and property to all. Modern universal intercourse can be controlled by individuals, therefore, only when controlled by all. “