David Mytton

Book Review (4/5) – Reflections: Conversations with Politicians (Peter Hennessy, Robert Shepherd)

Published (updated: ) in Book Reviews.

Originally published on Goodreads.

I was initially skeptical about reading transcripts of radio interviews because a) interviews of politicians often aren’t particularly interesting (because they have to be so careful about what they say); and b) live interviews often don’t translate so well into plain text. However, I actually enjoyed reading all of the interviews and found them quite insightful into historical, political events. 

Aside from highlighting that every story has many sides, and what you know about a situation will quite likely have another aspect to it, there were two key things that stood out:

1) It is crucial to work with people who you can have a proper debate with. There’s little use in being told what you want to hear and you must be able to really get into the details, even if it means heated discussion. The business side of this is brilliantly described in The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, and in the interview with Shirley Williams:

I’m passionately against Francis Maude’s mad idea of letting ministers appoint their own civil servants, because frankly I’ve seen America and although there are many things about America I admire, one of the worst things is the appointment of the first two or three layers down, because it means you begin to lose any sense of what it is to be part of a national community, and you don’t get the right advice. Because you’ve appointed them you get advice which you want to hear.

2) You can probably find at least one historical event that closely matches events today. The more history I read, the more important I think having a proper historical perspective is on dealing with current events. This paragraph from John Major really could have been written to describe the last few years:

Well, it wasn’t just political inhibitions. It was money. I mentioned earlier the terrible economic recession that we had at the beginning of the 1990s: we spent the best part of five to six years putting that right. And it was very unpopular putting that right. And, of course, when you’re doing that, you do not have the resources, or in some ways the political capital – with a tiny majority which was shrinking all the time – to actually make those sort of changes. And I couldn’t, because we were preoccupied with the economy; we were overwhelmed with disputes about Europe; Northern Ireland also took a great deal of time. But in terms of the social reforms I would like to have made, I’m not sure we would have had the majority for them in the House of Commons. But above all, we didn’t have the money for them.