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A metropolitan meets MigrationWatch - Nick (or is it Nicholas?) Boles's new book

By Paul Goodman

Screen shot 2010-10-21 at 16.29.44 Book Review: Which Way's Up? by Nick Boles (Biteback, £8.99)

Books by serving politicians tend to fall into three categories (novels excepted).

  • Those that are written for the moment which turn out to last far longer (for example, Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France).
  • Those that pursue a passion (such as David Willetts' "The Pinch" - a sustained assault on the author's own generation, and a mine of information on heavy petting, vampire bats, and how microwave ovens have raised IQs).
  • Those that are written for the moment which - unlike Burke's work or Paine's riposte - turn out to be of the moment only.

Nick Boles's "Which Way's Up?" seems to fall into the third category.  I write "Nick" because this is what the new MP for Grantham and Stamford calls himself on his website, although he's still "Nicholas" to "They Work for You", Wikipedia and Charles Moore, the greatest living Englishman.

The last author of a Conservative work of the moment who was shortening his name at about the time he wrote it was Chris Patten.  The book was "The Tory Case", published in 1983.  (We've not yet had an essay from the pen of "Dave Willetts".)

Can the comparison be taken further?  Yes.  Both authors, at the time of writing, are or were insiders: Patten had run the Conservative Research Department, Boles has done Policy Exchange.  Both were or are on the rise, although Patten was out of favour at the court of Queen Margaret and Boles is very much in at that of The People's Dave.

Both were or will be Ministers.  Patten wasn't among the first of his intake to be promoted; nor was Boles.  The latter can't go on to be Governor-General of Hong Kong (though I can imagine him not drowning but waving from the Royal Yacht).  However, high things beckon as long as the Cameron leadership endures in government.

Both divided their books neatly up by theme - looking in turn at (for example) economic decline, political renewal and the environment, and in roughly the same order.  Which isn't to say that Boles has read Patten - but, rather, that they tidily tick off their subjects in roughly the same order that these have political profile.

At first glance, the comparison doesn't favour Boles.  Patten was a scintillating writer.  Boles is direct and purposeful, but no more (though how many new MPs could write a book at all - an achievement this reviewer hasn't yet yet accomplished, either).  Patten had not just a hinterland but a whole continent apparently at his disposal.  I glance through his first chapter and find Charles Morgan, Dilkes, Southgate, Blake, Gash, Raleigh, Burke, Disraeli, T.S.Eliot, Popper, Adam Smith, and Hailsham (among others.)

I speed through Boles's and unearth two Nobel Prize-winning economists, Joseph Stiglitz and Amartya Sen, followed by David Beckham, Lewis Hamilton, Harry Potter, the Da Vinci Code, LesMis, Phantoms of the Opera, ColdPlay and Kylie.  This is certainly a hinterland, and the point isn't that it's better or worse than Patten's - but rather that it exists almost entirely in the present only.  This is a busier age and politicians must be accessible.

First impressions also suggest that Patten's book, complete with index and references (as Boles's is not) is the braver work.  Although he was on the rise, his book was essentially a tilt against Thatcherism, and thus unlikely to have gone down well with the Party's leader and her friends.  Boles's work, by contrast, has been read as boldly going where David Cameron really wants to go, by arguing that the two Coalition parties should fight the next election as one.

But although first impressions are important, they're sometimes misleading, and I think that they are in this case.  Patten was essentially defending, with the utmost elegance and ease, a social democratic economic consensus which had become untenable - a point that he later conceded.  Boles is, in one case at least, advancing to unexpected and perilous ground.  John Redwood picked up Boles's startling chapter about immigration, which I gave as much prominence as I could here, as soon as I'd first read about it.

To repeat: Boles wants non-EU migrants to pay a surety deposit, some EU migrants to be told to leave Britain, and no immigrants to be entitled to social housing until five years after arrival.  This is not how modernisation is meant to be.  After all, it's socially liberal and liberally social, and hasn't usually been thought to be consistent with excluding newly arrived immigrants from social housing, forcing some to hand over money and compelling others to leave the country.  Goodbye, trendy Nick.  Hello, Enoch Boles!

Some are bound to view these proposals as more positioning: a bit of category-defying, label-evading, you-can't-pin-me-down political business.  But I'm with Redwood in detecting a "raw edge and anger" in Boles's writing on the matter.  In most other respects, "Which Way's Up?" (towards Britain's own "shining city on a hill") is a reliable guide to Cameron's conservatism - the shift from soft-hearted save-the-planet rhetoric to hard-headed energy security arguments in the environment chapter, for example, or the hymns to localism that decorate others.

But on migration, and his unsentimental insistence that Scandinavian prosperity is partly to be explained by Scandinavian homogeneity, Boles is breaking new ground.  Elsewhere, he maintains that prisons should be handed over to local authorities, that the new Free Schools should be allowed to make a profit, and that councils should have far more power to raise (and, by the same token, reduce) taxes.  Perhaps all this is where modernisation goes next - and Boles, after all, was a moderniser long before the present Conservative leadership.

Elsewhere, I'm impressed by the way he's stuck his neck out on Islamist radicalism in general the Naik case in particular.  Boles's consistent support for the Coalition to fight the next election as a single force also makes the Independent this morning.  Burke it ain't, but if Boles's ideas on immigration control (and much else) are taken up, take wing, and fly, his book won't just be a work for the moment, after all.


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