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Best books of 2020: Politics



Twilight of Democracy: The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends, by Anne Applebaum, Allen Lane, RRP£16.99/Doubleday, RRP$25, 224 pages

Applebaum is as comfortable writing about people and their motivations, as about the big forces shaping politics and history. The result is a delightfully readable account of the erosion of democratic norms in the west, focusing in particular on the countries she knows best: Poland, the UK and the US.

Putin’s People: How the KGB Took Back Russia and Then Took on the West, by Catherine Belton, William Collins, RRP£25/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, RRP$35, 640 pages

An exhaustively researched and entertaining account of Putin’s rise to power and his 20 years in office. Belton, a former FT correspondent in Moscow, is particularly good on the group of powerful Russians surrounding the Russian president, many linked to the former KGB. Her discussion of the mixture of corruption and anti-western ideology that defines Putin’s inner circle is compelling.

The Room Where It Happened: A White House Memoir, by John Bolton, Simon & Schuster, RRP£25/$32.50, 592 pages

Badly written and lacking in humility, shame or self-awareness, Bolton’s is nonetheless the best insider account of the Trump White House yet to emerge. It is full of jaw-dropping revelations, such as the president’s private words of encouragement to Xi Jinping about the internment camps in Xinjiang.

Joe Biden: American Dreamer, by Evan Osnos, Bloomsbury, RRP£18.99/Simon & Schuster, RRP$23, 192 pages

A timely and well-written biography of America’s president-elect by a New Yorker correspondent, who has covered Biden for several years. Although Biden will be the oldest president ever to take office, Osnos argues that one of his defining characteristics is an ability to move with the times. As a result, he expects him to be a more radical president than his centrist roots suggest.

Diary of an MP’s Wife: Inside and Outside Power, by Sasha Swire, Little, Brown, RRP£20, 544 pages

As the wife of a minister in Cameron’s government, Swire was part of the prime minister’s inner circle. Her gossipy and disloyal diary has delighted political junkies in Britain, while confirming many prejudices about Cameron’s “chumocracy”.

Eat the Buddha: The Story of Modern Tibet Through the People of One Town, by Barbara Demick, Granta, RRP£18.99/Random House, RRP$28, 336 pages

An award-winning journalist, famous for her intrepid reporting and her ability to tell larger stories, through the lives of ordinary people, turns her attention to Tibet. Demick highlights how the region’s culture and autonomy has been crushed since China claimed the area in the 1950s.

The Sword and the Shield: The Revolutionary Lives of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr, by Peniel E Joseph, Basic Books, RRP$30/£25, 384 pages

In the year of Black Lives Matter, this comparative biography of two of the great figures in the struggle for racial equality in the US stands out. The book argues that while King and Malcolm X are often regarded as representing fundamentally opposed viewpoints, their approaches had begun to merge by the end of their lives — with King becoming more radical and Malcolm more pragmatic.

Cynical Theories: How Universities Made Everything about Race, Gender, and Identity — and Why this Harms Everybody, by Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Swift Press, RRP£20, 352 pages

The authors became heroes to some and villains to others by placing hoax articles about race, gender and diversity in academic journals designed to highlight bogus thinking and weak research. Here they argue that academia’s embrace of “critical studies” is damaging society. A book for the year in which “woke” and “cancel culture” became buzzwords.

Black Wave: Saudi Arabia, Iran and the Rivalry that Unravelled Culture, Religion, and Collective Memory in the Middle East, by Kim Ghattas, Headline, RRP£20/Henry Holt, RRP$27, 400 pages

An original and compelling account of the politics and culture of the Middle East that places Saudi-Iranian rivalry at the centre of what has gone wrong in the region. As well as portraying the broad religious and geopolitical forces at work, Ghattas tells the sometimes tragic stories of individuals caught up in the turmoil — such as Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered in his country’s consulate in Istanbul.

Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, by Helen Lewis, Jonathan Cape, RRP£16.99, 368 pages

Telling the story of feminism through the struggles of individual women, and the causes they championed, is a clever literary device and Lewis is a skilful storyteller. The women she portrays are “difficult” in two senses. They are willing to battle established power. But some also held views that modern feminists find hard to stomach.

Losing The Long Game: The False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East, by Philip H Gordon, St Martin’s Press, RRP$29.99, 368 pages

From Iran in 1953 to Libya in 2011, via Iraq in 2003 (as well as Egypt and Syria), successive American administrations have attempted to “fix” the Middle East by overthrowing disagreeable governments. A veteran of the Obama White House provides an insightful account of why this keeps happening, and keeps failing.

The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World, by Vincent Bevins, Public Affairs, RRP$28/£14.99, 320 pages

A fascinating and disturbing account of what the author calls the “mass murder programme that shaped the world”. A former correspondent in Jakarta, Bevins argues that the Indonesian massacres of 1965 were connived in by the US, and became a template for bloody anti-communist repression in other locations including Chile and Brazil.

MBS: The Rise to Power of Mohammed bin Salman, by Ben Hubbard, William Collins, RRP£20, 384 pages

A lively and revealing account of the emergence of one of the most intriguing and alarming new leaders on the world stage. The author shows how MBS emerged from relative obscurity and ruthlessly consolidated power within Saudi Arabia, charming and then appalling his western backers.

The Man Who Ran Washington: The Life and Times of James A Baker III, by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser, Doubleday, RRP$35/Random House, RRP£26.47, 720 pages

The definitive biography of one of the most important Washington insiders of the late 20th century. James Baker served as Reagan’s chief-of-staff and as secretary of state during the tumultuous years of the end of the cold war. He also acted as a vital adviser to George W Bush, during the disputed 2000 presidential election. Baker was no saint — but his story still makes one marvel at how far the Republican party has fallen in a generation.

Conservatism: The Fight for a Tradition, by Edmund Fawcett, Princeton, RRP$35/£30, 514 pages

The author of a much acclaimed history of liberalism turns his attention to another crucial branch of political philosophy. The book shows how, over the centuries, conservatives have attempted to defend tradition, against the onslaughts of modernity and capitalism. He analyses the variety, internal contradictions and strengths of the conservative movement.

Gideon Rachman is the FT’s chief foreign affairs commentator

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OPINION | The politics behind Jason Kenney's 'tepid' response to COVID-19 –



This column is an opinion from political scientists Duane Bratt, of Mount Royal University, and Lisa Young, of the University of Calgary.

Jason Kenney is a shrewd and experienced politician.

He has years of experience as a cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s government, and was instrumental in helping Harper win a majority in 2011. Returning to Alberta politics, he successfully merged the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties and won a resounding victory in the 2019 provincial election.

And yet, in the face of the COVID-19 crisis, he and his government are floundering.

Alberta has the largest absolute number of COVID cases in Canada, despite having the fourth largest population. For 10 days in mid-November, Kenney did not appear in public despite rapidly increasing case counts, hospitalizations and deaths.

Eight months into the pandemic, his cabinet had to meet for eight hours to devise responses that many dismissed as inadequate. And most recently, a public servant has taken the unusual move of leaking information to journalists to highlight the growing divide between the Kenney government and its chief medical officer of health. 

Opinion polling shows that the Kenney government is paying a price for its handling of the pandemic.

Even in the early days of COVID-19, it was noticeable that the Kenney government missed out on the “COVID bump” that most other political leaders enjoyed. This was despite the fact that, in many ways, the Alberta government had responded effectively to the first wave.

But unlike other provincial governments, Kenney and his cabinet were engaged in a very public fight with doctors at a time when the public was banging pots and pans in appreciation of front-line workers.

Not taking a lesson from this, the government engaged in a broader dispute with health-care workers through the fall, and its poll numbers continued to drop.

A slide in public support

Last week, Leger reported that only 37 per cent of Albertans believed that their provincial government was handling COVID-19 well; the lowest, by far, of any province. Then, ThinkHQ reported that 81 per cent of Albertans would support a province-wide mask mandate.

It is unlikely that the measures announced on Nov. 24 will reverse, or even halt, this slide in public support.

How did a skilled politician like Kenney end up in this situation? We offer a few hypotheses. 

First, Kenney is almost certainly concerned about an electoral split on the right. Public opinion on appropriate responses to COVID is split along partisan lines, with those further to the right more resistant to mandatory measures.

Common Ground Politics survey research conducted in Alberta in August found that UCP voters were more likely than others to think that the reopening was too slow. A national survey conducted by Vox Pop found that Conservative voters were less likely to wear masks.

WATCH | Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announces new COVID-19 restrictions for Alberta

Premier Jason Kenney outlined the new mandatory restrictions coming into effect, including a ban on all indoor social gatherings. 2:35

In his comments on Tuesday, the premier focused a great deal of attention on acknowledging the concerns of those on the right, who argue that restrictions are unconstitutional, for example. 

The Alberta separatist (or “Wexit”) movement has gained momentum since the 2019 federal election and Justin Trudeau’s re-election.

With his experience merging conservative parties at both the federal and provincial level, the premier is presumably concerned about vote splitting on the right. By appeasing conservatives, especially in rural Alberta, Kenney is consolidating his base.

With 41 of the 87 seats in the Alberta legislature outside of Edmonton and Calgary, consolidating that base makes electoral sense.

The restrictions that were announced on Tuesday, and the exemptions that were offered, lend support to this hypothesis.

Certainly, the decision to extend mask mandates only in Calgary and Edmonton (where they were already required through municipal bylaws) speaks to a desire to please conservative rural voters.

Similarly, the decision to permit in-person religious services to continue while junior high and high schools had to close speaks to a desire to keep voters in conservative-leaning faith communities onside. 

Response informed by ideology

Second, Kenney and many of his close advisors are strong partisans prone to demonizing their political opponents.

Although Alberta has elected conservative governments for decades, we have to go back to the Social Credit governments of the 1950s and 1960s to find a more ideologically conservative government than the current UCP. Although Ralph Klein’s government was driven by fiscal conservatism in its early years, its policies moderated in later years. 

The Kenney government’s strong ideological conservatism has informed its pandemic response, particularly since the end of the spring lockdown.

The government’s approach has been to emphasize personal responsibility rather than implementing restrictions.

Citing the economic cost of the lockdown, Kenney has repeatedly minimized the toll of the pandemic while emphasizing the negative consequences of restrictions on the economy broadly, and small business in particular.

This helps to explain why restaurants, bars, casinos, movie theatres and gyms are permitted to remain open, although with some further restrictions.

While other conservative provincial governments — notably Ontario and Manitoba — are placing greater restrictions on retail, Alberta is not. 

WATCH | University of Alberta’s Tim Caulfield says the province needs a transparent approach to pandemic policy

Tim Caulfield, an expert in health law at the University of Alberta, says the province needs  a co-ordinated and transparent approach when making policy around the coronavirus. 5:40

Third, having been elected on a mandate of “jobs, economy, pipelines,” the Kenney government remains focused on economic performance.

Its promise of balanced budgets are, of course, no longer feasible, but the government remains deeply concerned about the province’s balance sheet. This helps to explain the decision to push forward on cost savings in the public sector — including health-care — during the pandemic, as well as decisions that prioritize the economy. 

These three explanations — electoral considerations, ideology, and a focus on the economy — have resulted in a pandemic response that looks weak when compared to other provinces.

This is a moment that tests political leaders, requiring them to set aside political considerations in favour of the public good. Lives are at stake.

As the death toll continues to rise, the government’s tepid response will come under greater public scrutiny, and the political calculations that have informed it will appear increasingly out of touch.

If the Kenney government is unable to adjust to these new realities, it may pay a steep political price in 2023, as the electorate holds it accountable for both the economic and human cost of the pandemic.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read our FAQ.

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'The Great Reset', politics and conspiracy –



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Last week, after a video of one of his speeches went viral, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had to address a growing controversy over “The Great Reset”.

The term means different things to different people. To the World Economic Forum it’s a vague goal to make the world more equal and address climate change in the wake of the pandemic. To Conservative finance critic Pierre Poilievre it’s evidence of a “power grab” by “global financial elites”.

And to others, it’s part of a baseless and wide-ranging conspiracy theory. CBC senior writer Aaron Wherry has been covering this story in Ottawa. Today he helps us sort the real economics and politics at play… from the conspiracy gaining traction.

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Leo Glavine, close political ally and friend of Premier McNeil, leaving politics –



Leo Glavine and Stephen McNeil share a political border that spans almost 45 kilometres, but it’s not proximity that has cemented their political and personal friendship during the past 17 years — it’s mutual loyalty and respect.

So it was no surprise that both men talked in glowing terms about the other when addressing reporters Thursday after Glavine formally announced his decision to retire before the next election.

“I’ve had the good fortune to come into political life with Premier McNeil,” said Glavine, noting both men first took their seats at Province House in 2003. Each has been re-elected four times since.

McNeil, who announced his plans in August to retire, called Glavine a friend and described their political careers as “a great journey.”

“I admire you a great deal and I wish you nothing but great health and happiness and you head into the next part, the next chapter of your life,” McNeil said following a cabinet meeting.

Opposition to government

They sat near each other, first on the opposition side of the House, then on the government front benches starting in 2013 when McNeil became premier. Glavine was one of the first in the Liberal caucus to support McNeil’s leadership bid against three opponents. 

McNeil picked Glavine to be his first minister of health, a post Glavine held during the Liberal government’s entire first mandate. During that time, Glavine spearheaded the government’s tumultuous but ultimately successful drive to merge the province’s nine district health authorities into a single entity.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil waves after addressing supporters at his election night celebration in May 2017 in Bridgetown, N.S. (Andrew Vaughan/The Canadian Press)

At the same time, the McNeil government squared off against the province’s public sector unions, taking away the right to strike from health workers, then forcing a reduction in the number of bargaining units in the sector. Those actions led to many large and noisy demonstrations outside Province House. The governing Liberals also imposed around-the-clock sittings at the legislature to fast-track necessary bills to enact those changes.

Glavine remained steadfast in his support for McNeil and his reorganization plans. In return, McNeil kept Glavine in the job despite the minister’s inability, at times, to properly or succinctly articulate those plans.

‘Everything old is new again’

McNeil’s seemingly unending confidence in Glavine was demonstrated again last month when the premier reappointed him to replace Randy Delorey as health minister after Delorey resigned to run in the Liberal leadership race.

“Everything old is new again,” quipped Glavine as he approached reporters after a brief ceremony Oct. 13 at Government House.

Leo Glavine was named Nova Scotia’s minister of health, again, in October. (Jean Laroche/CBC)

Asking Glavine to take over the portfolio in the midst of a pandemic may have been the ultimate display of confidence in his friend.

Glavine repaid the compliment in his farewell message Thursday.

“We’ve had an exceptional team in Public Health, the premier to guide our province through what may be one of the most challenging and difficult periods in the 21st century,” said Glavine, who characterized himself as “a very ordinary Nova Scotian” who came to Province House to “do the best work possible.”

What the future holds

The one-time public school teacher called his time in politics “a joy,” offering himself a rare bit of self-congratulation.

“While there were lots of challenges and stressful moments, I have not missed a day of work in my 17½ years in political office,” he said.

Glavine will stay on as the MLA for Kings West until the next election is called. He said he plans to go back to private life to “enjoy what the Valley has to offer” and spend more time with his grandchildren.


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