Can you feel the power? I can't

British Politics Today. Seventh edition - Governing the UK. Fourth edition - Politics UK. Fifth edition

November 26, 2004

We live in an age of political apathy and cynicism. Electoral turnouts are shrinking and mistrust of politicians is rampant. “Politics” - many would concur with Dr Johnson - “are nothing more than a means of rising in the world”. How then to awaken or sustain an interest among new generations of students?

The first task of the textbook is to transmit knowledge and understanding about politics in a lucid, innovative and stimulating way. British Politics Today is aimed primarily at A-level students. It is written with “an emphasis on analysis rather than description and facts”. Though its note form has drawbacks, it is a succinct, well organised and methodical text well suited to its target audience.

Governing the UK , a single-authored study, is very solidly structured, well thought-out and comprehensive in scope. It surveys the key political institutions in a systematic and well-established fashion. Politics UK weighs in heaviest at more than 800 pages. It is multi-authored and is able therefore to cover a wider range of topics - social, economic and European policy.

Both Politics UK and Governing the UK make generous use of diagrams, tables, charts and boxed inserts. These enliven the text, facilitate the assimilation of information and, by pithy and provocative comment, help badger the sleepy mind. Equally welcome, both have accompanying websites with useful lists of web-based resources. For a computer-savvy generation this is becoming an indispensable aid.

“Politics,” Bill Jones et al tell us, “is an exciting subject.” To what extent do the volumes under review communicate this? British Politics Today least of all, largely because of its note form: useful for picking up information but not for conveying (what Richard Crossman called) “the charm of politics”. The strength of Governing the UK lies in clarity of exposition rather than the liveliness of its style: it is dispassionate and authoritative but somewhat dry. It is unclear that it would infect anyone with an enthusiasm for politics that they did not already possess. Politics UK is written with more verve; equally, its authors appreciate that politics is about the clash of ideas as well as the operation of institutions. It is more likely to whet the appetite for more.

There is, however, one notable gap in all three texts. The central issue in politics is power: who has it? By what right, at whose cost, and for whose benefit is it exercised? None of the texts really gets to grips with this. To take one example, the impact of (economic) globalisation on state power and effectiveness is a much disputed matter. But few doubt that globalisation has reconfigured the balance of power in favour of capital and thereby significantly eroded the state’s capacity to determine (in Harold Lasswell’s famous phrase) “who gets what, when and how”. We might have anticipated a full exposition of the topic in, at least, the texts aimed at university students, but it is not to be found.

University education has two functions: to impart a specific body of information and to sharpen the critical faculties. All three texts accomplish the first. But for a non-vocational subject such as politics, the second function is perhaps of more enduring value for students. Books on politics should encourage readers to interrogate established authority, question received wisdom and challenge the taken-for-granted.

How do the three texts rate? British Politics Today has modest aspirations and concentrates on the distillation of essential information. The other two leave one with the impression of analysts with a solid mastery of British politics intent on delivering learning in a cool, precise and scholarly manner. Equally, both exhibit a somewhat Whiggish view of the British political system and never prod the reader in querying fundamentals.

Now, the British system might not measure up too badly by the demands of democracy nor, indeed, suffer any really disabling faults. But the presumption that it falls short on both might be a more valuable pedagogical device.

Eric Shaw is senior lecturer in politics, Stirling University.

British Politics Today. Seventh edition

Author - Bill Jones and Dennis Kavanagh
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Pages - 8
Price - £35.00 and £8.99
ISBN - 0 7190 6508 9 and 6509 7

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