Honourable Friends

Honorable friendsHonourable Friends by Caroline Lucas is a tour through her experience as a Green Party MP over the last five years and a look at the work she’s tried to progress.

Part of the book describes what it was like to enter Westminster when Lucas was first elected, with no party machinery in place to support her and no experience of the strange traditions of the place. Part of the book is a discussion about the change Lucas wants to see in both policy and procedure. A chapter is devoted to subjects like the environment, the NHS, housing and foreign policy. Lucas describes how she’s worked to find support from MPs in all parties and where she’s succeeded or failed. She points out how some of the ‘quaint’ archaic traditions of the British parliament hold back progress and block democracy. For example, Lucas talks about how voting works and how the process gets in the way of MPs giving votes serious consideration, or about how MPs are appointed to committees or reviews and how knowledge and experience is seen as unnecessary.

The book has a tone of ‘if people could just see how dangerous these policies are, they’d all change their minds’, a kind of bafflement that anyone could think austerity was a good idea. I’m not sure it’s a sophisticated persuasion technique, but I suspect Lucas is preaching to the converted with this book.

If you’re interested in the mechanics of how politics is done in the UK, or how democracy is expanded or contracted, then there is a lot of detail in here. Lucas’ style is conversational and it’s an easy read. I enjoyed it.

A Great and Terrible King

I’ve been reading a lot of non-fiction lately. Sometimes I don’t notice until I write my reviews. A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris is an historical biography of Edward I, king of England 1272 – 1307.

Historical biographies are as much about the social and political landscape of the times as they are about the person at the centre of the story. Which is why I will read historical biographies but have very little patience with contemporary ones. But give me a bit of medieval history and I’m happy.

Given that Edward didn’t become King until he was thirty-three and the book starts with his birth, it also covers the second half of his father’s reign. Henry III, by contrast, came to the throne at the age of nine. The two men were of very different character, which provides a nice ‘compare and contrast’ element to the story.

What comes across was that Edward I was an effective king. Many of the things he did were questionable by modern standards, such as his treatment of the Jews or of the conquered Welsh, but he wouldn’t have been judged as harshly by his contemporaries. There is some interesting discussion on the changes in the moral climate and I liked that Morris didn’t excuse or gloss over anything while at the same time put his actions in context. It’s a fine line to walk.

The book also highlights how hard it is to judge an entire life. Edward I did more than any other medieval English king to create the modern kingdoms that form Britain. And we still live with the legacy of that today. He was an action-hero figure of a king, constantly on the move and almost permanently at war.  His expertise at diplomacy was a bit patchier; sometimes he seemed to have a golden touch and at others everything went to pieces.

There is much more to Edward I than being the villain of Braveheart. This was a fascinating read, I learnt a lot, and I really enjoyed it.