Order and border

Politics and Society in Scotland - The British System of Government - Issues in British Politics - Local Government in the United Kingdom - The Ulster Question Since 1945 - Irish Politics Today - Urban Policy in Britain
February 19, 1999

A general election, especially when it results in a change of government, affords an excellent opportunity for updating and revising textbooks, a fact that partly accounts for several of these books on British politics.

The tenth edition of Anthony Birch's classic text The British System of Government certainly entails extensive updating to take into account recent changes and developments, not least the 1997 general election, and the ensuing programme of constitutional reform, both of which, in turn, involve examination of the modernisation of the Labour Party. Yet, while much of the book retains Birch's customary intelligent insights and lucid exposition, the reader is sometimes left wanting just a little more depth and analysis. For example, the section on the 1997 election results places considerable emphasis on the Conservative Party's problems concerning sleaze and sexual indiscretions, when greater attention might have been given to more important factors such as public perceptions of fitness to govern, party unity, ideological disjuncture and the fact that many of the key themes the Conservatives sought to focus on were not deemed particularly salient by the electorate.

Readers whose interest in British politics is issue-oriented rather than institutional will warmly welcome Colin Pilkington's Issues in British Politics , which begins by conceptualising issues and considering how they get placed on the political agenda. Pilkington then examines a wide range of topics that have been politically important from 1945 to the present day, such as constitutional reform, education, environment, Europe, health, Northern Ireland, taxation and trade unions. Pilkington concludes by briefly noting the impact of issues on voting behaviour in contemporary British politics.

Moving into the sphere of sub-national government, Rob Atkinson and Graham Moon's Urban Policy in Britain skilfully combines conceptual and empirical analyses of "city politics" in postwar Britain. In particular, Atkinson and Moon identify the types of problems experienced by urban areas since 1945, such as housing, poverty and racism, and the various responses emanating from central and local government to tackle them. Considerable attention is necessarily given to the impact of Thatcherism on Britain's urban areas and inner cities, with the increasing role of the private sector and the market being particularly notable.

The extent to which privatisation and "marketisation" have impacted on local government is also evident in David Wilson and Chris Game's updated Local Government in the United Kingdom . The first part of the book delineates the form, functions and financing of local government, while the second outlines the actors involved - councillors, local government employees, political parties and organised interests. But it is in part three that the changes of the past 20 years are discussed in their own right, illustrating the full extent to which local government has been reformed and its role redefined.

The 1997 general election outcome, with the Conservatives wiped out north of the border, and the subsequent endorsement via a referendum of a Scottish Parliament, has provided Alice Brown, David McCrone and Lindsay Paterson with an extremely timely opportunity to write a second edition of Politics and Society in Scotland . Many of the original chapters have been significantly revised or rewritten to take into account the impact and implication of May 1 1997 for politics and policy-making in Scotland. As the title intimates, Politics and Society in Scotland enshrines political science and sociological perspectives, with these, in turn, located in a historical context. This skilful blend yields a highly intelligent and informative book on Scottish politics.

Issues pertaining to national identity, sovereignty and links with Westminster are clearly fundamental to the tragic history and politics of Northern Ireland, as James Loughlin's The Ulster Question Since 1945 succinctly explains. Having provided a crisp overview of the origins of the "Ulster question", and the apparent rationale for partition in 1920-21, the bulk of Loughlin's analysis focuses on events and initiatives since the late 1960s, when the contemporary "troubles" emerged and resulted in British troops being sent to Northern Ireland, followed three years later by the imposition of direct rule from Westminster. Thereafter, different governments have pursued a variety of initiatives to answer the Ulster question, but only during the past five years have any of these looked like providing the basis for any lasting settlement. Even so, Loughlin is sceptical about their chances of success, owing to entrenched attitudes, mutual suspicion and different (incompatible) objectives within and between both communities in Northern Ireland, to the extent that for the foreseeable future, conflict management, rather than conflict resolution, is likely to prove the most realistic scenario. A depressing, but probably prescient conclusion.

While the Northern Ireland question is also briefly considered by Neil Collins and Terry Cradden, the focus of their Irish Politics Today is on the politics of the Irish Republic. Among the topics explored are the Irish Constitution, the political parties, political elites and pressure groups, the policy-making process, local government and foreign policy. For those unfamiliar with Irish politics, Collins and Cradden have provided a crisp and clear overview, but at just 165 pages, it may be just a little too succinct.

Peter Dorey is lecturer in British politics, University of Cardiff.

Politics and Society in Scotland

Author - Alice Brown, David McCrone and Lindsay Paterson
ISBN - 0 333 74708 9
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £13.99
Pages - 260

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