People Power: Remaking Parliament for the Populist Age by Richard Askwith, Biteback Publishing: London, 2018, 155 pp, £10.00
Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to our Country? By Steve Almond, Red Hen Press: Pasadena, 2018, 257 pp, US$16.95
People Power: Remaking Parliament for the Populist Age is part of a series of short political polemics titled, ‘Provocations’, curated and edited by Yasmin Alibhai-Brown in the UK. The series aims to encourage discussions into the controversial political foray. With just 155 pages and compact enough to carry in your coat pocket, this book is the type one buys at the bookstore at the train terminal in a hurry to catch the train for the short weekend commute to the country!
Throughout the short journey to Swindon, I was in awe of the press freedom in the UK which could allow the publication of such a series. In my home country in Fiji, such a publication would result in an interview with military personnel at the military barracks and sedition charges for everyone, from the author to the retailer.
Askwith is the former associate editor of the Independent with over 13 years of journalism experience and is the author of several books including ‘Feet in the Clouds’ and ‘Olympic Legend to Cold War Hero’, which was shortlisted for the Cross Sports Book Awards.
Askwith writes a compelling case for the dissolving of the current UK parliament and giving power back to the people. He begins his argument by stating that the crumbling physical structure of parliament is a hint at the state of political power in the UK. He makes a case for the distribution of power to the people who are selected like that of jury service in the US. This ensures that career politicians do not infiltrate the system and people that hold the power genuinely want change. The arguments put forward by Askwith are compelling and in line with the prevailing mood of populism in the UK and the US, however, the details are missing and there aren’t rigorously tested proposals to ensure people power itself does not become susceptible to corruption.
He writes of the rot in British politics which have bred a ‘caste of career politicians more concerned with serving patrons than constituents and, as a result, increasingly incapable of even feigning sincerity when interacting with the public’. So, the solution he comes up with is dismantling parliament to allow for the £6 billion work of restorative work to go ahead and in its temporary replacement set up a people power structure where power is summoned and temporarily bestowed on a group of people.
The book is short so unsurprisingly lacks specifics leaving a lot of room for the reader to work out the possibilities of a new order. A point to also ponder on which the author repeatedly makes is the degradation of truth in the fourth estate. He states the worrying fact that in 2016 the Oxford dictionary had post-truth as its word of the year and in 2017 Collins dictionary had fake news.
The other political polemic I picked up the same week is titled, Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to our Country?, by Steve Almond explaining how Donald Trump came to be the leader of the free world. I had opened a twitter account post-American election just to read his twitter rages and try to understand the power he held. Perusing his posts left me more confused than ever and with a new feeling of depression that other political novices like me may relate to. So, this book came at a good time and it is so thought-provokingly good that I have sadly butchered my copy with my sticky notes stuck on pages and handwritten notes on the margins.
Steve Almond hosts the New York Times podcast Dear Sugars and he teaches at Nieman Fellowship for Journalism at Harvard. Having authored eight books, his brilliance and smart commentaries on American current affairs are engaging and informative.
He uses various sources to reference his work and his use of classic literature including Moby Dick and Shakespeare makes for a very enjoyable read. Released on April 1, 2018; this book alludes to Facebook’s explicit knowledge of the Russian involvement in American politics. Considering that book production takes months, I can’t help but feel that Russian involvement was a well-known secret in Washington.
Almond talks of the degradation of journalistic standards when they make no effort to vet, investigate, outline policy or critique of the world and journalists were now purely entertainers who sell newspapers. He also tries to explain how most white women in America helped vote in a man who would have no qualms touching their private parts.
I love how Almond writes, he uses words sparingly and sentences are backed by facts which he has in spares. He writes that Trump, the casino capitalist with gold toilets was capable of pivoting between only two poles of action- the pursuit of adulation and the desecration of his critics. I believe he has hit the nail on the head when he said that Trump won because he reflects the State of us as humans. We have become pathologically competitive and thus we were more concerned with winning rather than policies. This is reflected in his trade deals which he cannot see as ‘mutually beneficial because America can only win if other countries are losing’.
Again, this makes me think of my home country which is looking to have general elections this year and how the waters have become muddied by dog-whistle politics, fixation on polls, increase in small parties diving votes up and thinly disguised vote-buying tactics which have capitalised on natural disasters and socio-economic poverty.
Would I recommend this book? Yes, I highly recommend this book to anyone wanting to make sense of politics. I have managed to understand Trump and drown out his noise, but I still feel sad that this is how we have come to be. I usually give out the books I have read so others can have a read, but this is one book I will hold on to and re-read before the year is out. Thats how good it is!