Saturday, 22 January 2011

Book Review: 22 Days in May

‘Instant History’ and how the Con-Dem deal was done
Book Review from the LSHG Newsletter, # 41 (Spring 2011)

22 Days in May
The Birth of the Lib Dem
Conservative Coalition

By David Laws
Published 2010 by Biteback,
Paperback 352 pp
ISBN 978-1849540803

The fashion for 'instant history' is not exactly new. Indeed, it can be argued that it goes back to the beginning of the age of mass circulation newspapers. An example might be the role of the then-new Daily Telegraph during the Crimean War in the mid-1850s.

Today the demand to understand very recent political history is arguably a spin-off from the 24 hour news format found on Sky and BBC channels and on the internet.

Eric Hobsbawm famously argued that socialists needed to become 'historians of the present', but how ‘present’ should the present be?

Right-wing LibDem MP David Laws, who was briefly Chief Secretary to the Treasury after May 6th before resigning [temporarily it appears] because of an expenses scandal later in the month, has produced a book, 22 Days in May, which is substantially about the discussions between the LibDems, the Tories and Labour that led to the current Con-Dem Government.

For Labour, Andrew Adonis has queried in the New Statesman the direction and some of the detail of the account.

Laws’ book does make an interesting read. The issue for historians is how useful it is as history beyond simply being a contemporary account by a direct player. Historically, the opportunity for a senior politician like Laws to write such a book did not exist. The 30 Year Rule on disclosure of official papers and the convention that politicians did not write memoirs dealing with events covered by this time span prevented such disclosures.

Richard Crossman and others effectively challenged and dented this blanket of secrecy, but even so, Laws could only really write the book because he had resigned to the backbenches. He does not use any official papers in his account primarily because there were none. As he makes clear, discussions between the LibDems and Conservatives about coalition deliberately excluded any civil servants who might have been expected to keep an official record of what was said, and so no such record exists. In a system bound by conventions and civil service practice, this is an extraordinary way of doing things, and it may have wider historical implications.

Even so, Laws’ book reveals some interesting points. Probably the overriding one for socialists is the pressure, from the media but also from senior civil servants, to agree a Coalition Government very quickly because of the supposed impact on ‘the markets’ of political uncertainty were this not done. Full scrutiny of the small print is often left up in the air for months in countries where coalition government is more normal.

Subsequently, commentators have argued that some of the mess Clegg and the
Liberal Democrats have got themselves into relates to the haste with which a coalition was put together, with a lack of full scrutiny of the small print.

Where Joseph Conrad in Heart of Darkness sees ‘the horror, the horror’ of the realities of imperial endeavour, Laws sees at every turn ‘the markets, the markets’ waiting to lead all to their doom.

Laws reveals that not a huge amount of thought was given to the question that has wrecked the LibDems − tuition fees − beyond noting that it was indeed a difficult issue. It was not so for the Tories, and the LibDemswere anxious to do a deal, so there was little discussion of it in the talks.

Laws’ book may not reveal anything particularly startling in terms either of immediate politics or the longer term historical record. But it does give a good sense of the mood of those May days. As instant history it probably adds little, but as an historical footnote it is worth a look.

Keith Flett

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