Is Blair a president? and other questions

Politics UK - New Labour in Power - Debates in British Politics Today - Developments in British Politics - The Modern British Party System
November 24, 2000

The fourth edition of Politics UK is a substantially revised and updated version of what has become a standard textbook introduction to British politics. The comfortable place in the market it has cornered for itself is merited by the scale and depth of its coverage, the range of the expertise it commands and the clarity and accessibility of its presentation. It is packed with cartoons, charts and boxes, all of which facilitate the assimilation of knowledge and understanding. It has, among its rivals, one or two that stand comparison, but I cannot think of one that surpasses it. A really interesting innovation is the companion website, which, for students, contains learning objectives, revision notes and a list of further websites. It includes a highly serviceable range of resources for lecturers. All this is extremely impressive and (unless others have followed suit) gives this volume a distinct competitive edge.

An additional volume in the Politics Today series, Debates in British Politics , maintains the series' high standards. Directed at an A-Level and first-year undergraduate readership, it presents itself as a "contribution towards making good the problem routinely reported by examiners": that most students rarely progress much beyond the ability to describe. The book breaks away from established approaches by organising each chapter around a debate, with the author outlining the "principal contested arguments" in a range of topics. The approach is modelled on the Socratic: that is the belief that understanding is acquired "through the careful, forensic questioning of statements". In a democracy, the editors hold that, "mature political debate is conducted not through assertions alone but on the basis of facts and evidence, as well as the relative strengths of the argument". Some issues, such as "should citizenship education be compulsory" and "has Prime Minister Major been replaced by President Blair?" lend themselves to this approach, but others less so, for instance those concerning the European Union and welfare policy. There is no doubt that we tend, in this country, to presume that there are two sides to each question, symbolised in our political system with government and opposition confronting each other across the floor of the House. But a moment's thought tells us that there are often several angles to an argument and one wonders whether in countries with multi-party systems, the assumption that there are just two sides is as much part of the mental baggage as here.

Developments in British Politics covers a not-dissimilar range of issues but its purpose is different. The books in the Developments series (of which this is the sixth) comprise, in effect, a "yearbook" of British politics, in which experts provide informed and up-to-date commentary on a range of topical issues, often reflecting the fruits of extended research. Most categories are institutional (executive, legislature etc) but some are thematic (for example, citizenship and culture). One level up from Debates and the Politics of the UK , it enables students to keep abreast with (as its title promises) recent developments. The final chapter, a typically thoughtful piece from Andrew Gamble, seeks to identify some common threads in the analysis. The "old narratives", he suggests, are being replaced by the "idea of a multi-level polity" that focuses on the multiplicity of institutions involved in the governing process - hence the now fashionable use of the concept of "governance", instead of government. Structural explanations putting less weight on the role of actors (individual and collective) and more on institutional constraints determining elite choice of policy, tend to be favoured. Perhaps the risk here is over-compensation: individuals do matter - an inch to the left and the bullet would not have spared Lenin in 1918 and who can doubt that history would have been altered?

One further point. Gamble reflects, as have many others, on the paradox between the devolutionist and centralist strands in Blairite thinking. In my view, this is exaggerated. The prime minister himself has acknowledged that the creation of a Scottish parliament (which he once memorably compared to a parish council) was a step that he had no option, politically, but to take. Where the government has had discretion - over freedom of information, the electoral system, the functioning of the security state - little tendency to devolve power is visible.

The Modern British Party System is a meticulously argued and comprehensive study containing lucid and thorough summaries of much of the relevant literature on the subject. The study revolves around two topics, party competition - around half the book is devoted to this - and (with three substantial chapters) the internal politics of parties. Perhaps as a result of this, questions of policy and ideology are rather neglected, except as aspects of the electoral battle. However, the investigation of the two major themes is scholarly and never exhibits less than a thorough command of the arguments. The book's strengths lie in its clarity and coherence rather than its originality, and to this extent the book is very much a distillation of established wisdom - and, usually, quite rightly so, for the accumulation of knowledge is in large part incremental. But established wisdom sometimes rests on shaky foundations. We can take two examples to illustrate the point.

First, the trajectory of programmatic change: the discussion of this relies heavily on works based on (quantitative) content analysis of party manifestos. Now the use of statistical techniques in electoral studies is sensible, indeed essential, because votes are numbers that can be counted and statistically significant correlations inferred. But one does not have to be an enthusiast for discourse analysis to recognise that words are not numbers; their meaning is neither always unequivocal nor obvious. Manifestos, as we well know, perform a range of functions: reconciling conflicting points of view, pacifying internal party dissidents, making electorally appealing policy pledges, avoiding hostages to fortune and so forth. The means available are words: formulations, sometimes hammered out after prolonged discussion, used not only to convey intentions but to mask differences or duck difficult issues. In matters of high contention, the slightest nuances may be significant and sometimes what is expressed clearly matters less than what is expressed ambiguously and, indeed, what is not expressed at all. All of this will elude the quantifier.

Second, Paul Webb's discussion of the relevance of class politics. Class is assumed to be dichotomous, with class alignments defined in terms of a straightforward working class/Labour and middle class/Conservative division: the lower the correlation, the smaller the significance of class. But why only two classes? So far as I am aware, no analysis of the class determination of political allegiance on the continent uses the dichotomous model. It is not unusual for parties to the left of the social democrats to be as middle class as the parties to the right of them - witness the Left Party in Sweden, the Greens in Germany - but plainly these are different segments of the middle class. Even where a multiple-class model is used, the distinction between public and private-sector employment is ignored. On what grounds is it assumed that the interests and values of the middle classes, sectorally divided, coincide?

New Labour in Power consists of 20 chapters covering virtually all aspects of Labour's performance, written by a range of specialists based at Manchester University. It describes itself as "accessible to undergraduates and sixth-form students" but, in seeking (usually successfully) to offer a thorough commentary on the Blair government's record, for all but the more advanced. It is a taxing read. Its natural readership, at least in the universities, is final-year students, postgraduates and academics. Tightly packed with information and analysis, the volume repays careful study: the judgments of its contributors are dispassionate, balanced and usually incisive and they avoid the broadbrush and overly generalised conclusions that the debate over the nature (or existence) of the "third way" sometimes provokes.

New Labour in Power defines its object as enabling readers to evaluate whether the government has delivered on its promises. As a summation of what we know of the Blair government's policies so far, it is valuable; but whether even the most accomplished of commentators can reach conclusions about a government on the basis of little more than two years in office is questionable. Who could have accurately anticipated "Thatcherism" after only two years of the Thatcher government? By the time a government has enacted and implemented the bulk of its programme, and by the time that legislation has begun to take effect, the best part of a full term in office will have elapsed. None of the Blair government's spending programmes has as yet come on stream and we are still, in many areas, living with the consequences of 18 years of Tory rule. We may be able to compare Labour's legislative initiatives with its professed objectives, but to speak of performance - whether it has delivered on its pledges - is surely premature.

None of the books under review breaks any really new ground - nor, one surmises, were they meant to. Their intention is to instruct and enlighten and, for the most part, this is what they achieve.


Eric Shaw is senior lecturer in politics, University of Stirling.

Politics UK: Fourth edition

Editor - Bill Jones, Dennis Kavanagh, Michael Moran and Philip Norton
ISBN - 0 582 42333 3
Publisher - Longman
Price - £19.99
Pages - 722

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