Although relying on secondary sources and occasionally offering inaccurate statements, Buruma has produced a good popular history and one that does not pull its punches. He describes Trump’s presidency as ‘a temporary phase of insanity in America’s proud democratic history’. And he cites the instruction of Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, to Christopher Meyer when he was appointed ambassador in Washington: ‘We want you to get up the arse of the White House and stay there.’ No doubt similar guidance was given to Kim Darroch when he took the post in 2016, but he is much too discreet to say so. In fact this wide-ranging record of his ambassadorship, which culminated in his resignation last year after a leak of his cables disparaging Trump’s regime, is anally retentive to a degree.
There is the largely familiar excursion into prime ministerial/presidential couplings from Attlee and Truman to Johnson and Trump. It is less a tale of rise and fall than of peaks and troughs depending on the issues and relationships of the hour. There are some good stories and keen insights. I particularly appreciated his Blair, where he suggests that the Third Way was just another iteration of a venerable Anglo-American urge to set universal standards for the world. On the other hand he is far too eager (like the New York Times) to see Johnson and Trump as two peas from the same pod, when as politicians and human beings they could not be more different.
This is merely the latest in a long line of books written for the kind of American who is keen to hear what a dementedly arrogant and self-deluding lot the British are, but is uninterested in ordinary British people’s lives. It is like being stuck in a lift with nothing to read but The New York Times. I do not mean that as a compliment.