One of the more inconsequential, but nonetheless fascinating, political phenomenons of the lockdown has been the opportunity to sneak a peek at the bookshelves of our elected representatives.
Many of us have passed the time by zooming into blurry screenshots of politicians being interviewed at home to get a behind-the-scenes look at their intellectual inspirations or guilty pleasures.
One suspects there has been careful pruning of collections as politicians seek to convey the Ron Burgundy effect – as the Anchorman central character famously said: “I’m very important. I have many leather-bound books and my apartment smells of rich mahogany.”
Such is the growing significance placed on the personal libraries of our lawmakers, the aptly named ‘Bookshelf Credibility’ Twitter account now has the same number of followers as the First Minister.
And the trend sparked its first real scandal last week when Sarah Vine posted a photo of one of her 20 bookshelves, which included a book by white supremacist and Holocaust denier David Irving. Vine is married to defacto deputy Prime Minister, Michael Gove.
Against this background, one brave MS, Hefin David, volunteered some close-ups of his bookshelves for public inspection. A couple of Bond novels and a Roald Dahl popping out from between the memoirs and essays the only signs of distraction from politics.
Fortunately, the Senedd’s expenses database gives details of dozens of titles bought by members since 2013, as books can be bought by MSs under their office costs allowance.
Many are dictionaries and handbooks but Nation.Cymru dived into the database to find some of the more interesting and sometimes surprisingly selections.
Dafydd Elis Thomas has used his allowance to buy such titles as Rainforests of Great Britain and Ireland, Around Wales by B-roads and Slate Quarry Railways of Gwynedd.
Throw in the two walking maps he bought for £19.94 and you would think he was planning a holiday if it weren’t for the fact he has been Culture, Sport and Tourism Minister since quitting Plaid Cymru to join the Government in 2017.
The list also gives insights into research done by politicians on controversial issues. In February 2017, UKIP’s Neil Hamilton supported parents in Carmarthenshire trying to stop a school moving to Welsh-medium teaching.
That month he bought a 1985 book on Aspects of Bilingualism in Wales which, contrary to his position, “points to the crucial nature of immersion” in saving the language. More recently Hamilton purchased The Welsh Language – A History.
His former UKIP colleague, Gareth Bennett, also brushed up on his Welsh history when he first entered the Senedd, purchasing Martin Shipton’s book on the first decade of the Senedd, Poor Man’s Parliament.
At the same time, he bought a book called For Wales, see England: Language, Nationhood and Identity. If the title seems like a surprising choice for a former UKIP group leader, the fact that the author is a former UKIP parliamentary candidate is important context.
When it comes to the economy, the now deputy economy minister Lee Waters purchased The Entrepreneurial State by Mariana Mazzucato shortly after being elected. The book, which “debunks the myth of a lumbering, bureaucratic state versus a dynamic, innovative private sector”, was required reading for those on the left at the time after its author was made a member of Jeremy Corbyn’s economic advisory committee.
After being appointed as Plaid’s shadow economy minister in October 2018, Ynys Mon MS Rhun ap Iorwerth got on top of his brief by buying six books the following month ranging from the rather dry sounding Microeconomics to popular economy reads such as The Great Economists: How Their Idea Can Help us Today and the unfortunately relevant: The Truth About Markets: Why Some Nations are Rich but Most Remain Poor.
Most recently, it’s no surprise that Brexit has been dominating the reading lists of MSs. Labour’s Alun Davies bought Rule Britannia: Brexit and the End of the Empire and Beyond Brexit: Towards a British Constitution, while former first minister Carwyn Jones, ever the lawyer, has been studying the scholarly Constitutional and Administrative Law.
It will come as no surprise to Bay watchers that David Melding has been reading up about all things constitutional since 2013 when he ordered the now naïve sounding The Passage to Europe: How a Continent Became a Union, along with books on the Scottish independence referendum.
Overall, MSs have spent £1,287.06 of allowances on books in this term, with Dafydd Elis-Thomas emerging as the Senedd bookworm. No excuse then for any of them to appear on our screens in front of empty shelves.