Measures of quality in proseon power

British Politics. Fifth Edition - Politics and Governance in the UK. First Edition - Political Institutions in the United Kingdom. First Edition - British Politics - British Government and Politics - Developments in British Politics 8. First Edition
November 24, 2006

The market in textbooks on British politics is reaching saturation point. The authors of these new texts must justify themselves.

Writing textbooks is no easy task. The authors have to marshal, synthesise and present an ever-swelling mountain of material in a way that is accessible while avoiding oversimplification. Many research monographs in political science, as Bill Jones and Robin Lynton waspishly observed in 2000 in an article in Politics , are written in "the medium of pompous dry prose or jargon-laden arguments", presumably on the assumption that profundities can be transmitted only in correspondingly opaque language. But reaching a fragmented student audience, they add, "requires fairly refined skills of exposition, organisation and dissemination". Intelligibility - easing the process by which knowledge and understanding can be conveyed - is, therefore, the first virtue of the textbook.

But it is not the only one. In 1999, in an article in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations , Martin Smith complained that textbooks on British politics were too institutional in focus, too descriptive, paid too little attention to the outside world and concentrated too much on teaching students about politics rather than how to think politically. In short, textbooks should be more analytical, more contextually aware and more rigorous in training the mind. This, the second virtue, we can label "Smith's strictures".

Some students opt for politics out of a fascination for the subject. Others, perhaps the majority, have at best a vague interest. For them, reading a textbook is a chore undertaken to progress their academic careers. This brings us to the third virtue of the textbook: to stimulate interest in politics - to enliven curiosity, to encourage the student to want to know more. Textbooks are frequently the first systematic acquaintance students will have with politics as a discipline - we don't want them to be the last.

There is a fourth virtue. To some, the role of a textbook is to convey to the student the distillation of current scholarship about the subject. There is much to be said for this, but it is essentially a limited view. The natural cast of mind of many people is conventional, its inclination to accept, absorb and revere rather than to query and defy. There is a natural affinity between such a mind and that view that sees the mission of the textbook as being to transfer to the student the assembled wisdom of the profession. But should it also not be the function of the textbook to stir and badger the mind of the readers, to encourage them to ask awkward and challenging questions? Such is the final virtue. Applying these criteria, how does the current crop of books fare?

The fifth edition of British Politics is based on but greatly expands earlier editions solely authored by Dennis Kavanagh by adding three writers. It is inspired by the authors' "frustration" that many texts fail "to capture the vibrancy and rapid change of British politics". It claims to embody a social scientific approach (without specifying precisely what this is) to understanding how the British polity works. Its remit is a broad one, with chapters on ideologies, the character of the British state and society, the key institutions of government, major policy developments and the European and international context of British politics. It addresses contemporary issues surrounding the public service; participation and representation; and democracy and accountability. All topics are elucidated in a clear, succinct and informative manner. But the sheer range of the book, perhaps inevitably, is purchased at the expense of depth and a certain critical edge. For example we are taken on a breathless canter through new Labour's health, education and welfare policies, their rationale, objectives and major elements, perhaps leaving readers somewhat baffled about how to evaluate them.

Michael Moran's aim in Politics and Governance in the UK is to provide a new emphasis on the "multi-level character of governance", to which three chapters are explicitly devoted. There are also chapters on the key institutions and processes with some reference to policy themes and issues. The style is cool, dispassionate, almost clinical with the assurance of touch one would expect from the author. If you are looking for an utterly reliable guide to British politics, this is your book. The combination of range, fluency of style, theoretically informed insights render it an impressive compendium of British politics. But it is for the "interested" reader, that is, one whose imagination is already caught by the political world. Whether it will ignite the minds of those whose interest is, say, more dormant is less certain.

More so than in any other of the books under review, David Judge's Political Institutions in the United Kingdom , adopts an explicit methodological approach -as the title indicates - that of institutionalism. The first chapter provides a valuable introduction to the various competing institutionalist schools, and the analysis developed in the remaining chapters is firmly lodged within the institutionalist tradition. This imparts to the book - which repays close study by its readers - a more pronounced coherence and rigour than that found in most of the others under review. To this it adds the qualities of clarity and succinct exposition.

British Politics: A Critical Introduction aims to provide a "conceptually and theoretically driven" account that seeks to offer a critical perspective on British politics. Its ambitious goal is to "illuminate the key dynamics" - the "ideas, practices and relationships" - that underpin the political system. In particular, it seeks to repair what it sees as the neglect of ideas embodied in the "governing discourses" of British government. What the book in practice offers is an outline of a range of interpretations of British politics coupled with - rather descriptive - accounts of key topics (for example, new Labour in power). This is valuable in its own way but does not really fulfil the book's professed aims.

British Government and Politics by Duncan Watts is intended for both A-level students and first-year undergraduates and is a straightforward, well-written and conventional review of the institutional landscape - most suitable, perhaps, for those who do not intend to pursue the subject.

Developments in British Politics 8 is the eighth of an impressive series. Martin Smith has argued persuasively that the research assessment exercise has inhibited the craft of textbook composition by failing to acknowledge their role as the principal conduits of research findings to a wider audience. We have much rhetoric about the mutually supportive relationship between teaching and research - but also a system of evaluating politics departments that promotes the sealing of the one from the other.

The publishers claim that successive editions of Developments established "an unrivalled reputation for accessible state-of-the-art coverage reflecting the latest research" - and there is real truth to the boast. But Developments might be hard-going for readers who lack a solid grounding in British politics - of the type that other books reviewed here are well suited to furnish.

So how do these books measure against our four virtues?

First, intelligibility. Here, one cannot but be impressed by the progress in textbook presentation. Most of the books under review are packed with charts, diagrams, tables, box inserts, cartoons, teacher guides and websites (the two blockbusters - Kavanagh et al. and Moran - are worth a special mention here). The old days of solid slabs of print have long gone.

Second, Smith's strictures. Overall, one can conclude that they apply much less than was once the case. Most of the books reviewed here are analytical in orientation, recognise the significance of contextual factors and are aware of the need to prompt students to "think politically".

Third, stimulating interest in the minds of the less committed. Here, one is less convinced that the texts do much to dispel the spirit of the age - that politics is boring and irrelevant. The reason for this perhaps takes us to the fourth virtue - which is nourishing the challenging mind.

Politics is ultimately about power. Who has it? Why do they have it? Should they have it? Who benefits from its exercise? Who suffers? One suspects that many students are drawn to politics by the perception that - as Orwell put it -Britain is like a family with the wrong members in charge.

Most of the texts under review rightly seek to be as objective and impartial as possible. But one wonders whether the efforts to establish politics as a "science" have - unintentionally - created their own bias. In crude terms, natural science seeks to uncover the variables that determine why things are. Explanation, in this sense, implies inevitability.

Successful political action, from this perspective, can be seen as a function of an informed awareness of the limits of the possible. For example, new Labour triumphed because it understood the way in which the world was changing (globalisation, the end of social class and so on) and "modernised" the party's programme to accommodate the new realities. Many political writers exhibit a remarkable confidence in their ability to discern "realities".

But if the measure of (real) science is its capacity to predict, the most notable aspect of political science is its inability to do so. The vast majority of scholars were caught off balance by the collapse of the Soviet Union. The (first) "end of ideology" was pronounced shortly before the resurgence of the free-market Right. Political scientists have proved themselves more proficient in explaining why an event or process (for example, the collapse of the Keynesian welfare consensus) was inevitable than in anticipating it. As Hegel noted: "The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the coming of dusk."

For too many political scientists, trends appear to have to persist but for a few years before being converted into quasi-laws. The "great man theory" of history has, rightly, been discredited. But has the pendulum swung too far - to abjure the impact on politics of willed action and collective organisation? We used to assume that the victory of the Bolsheviks over the Mensheviks and liberals was in some way "inevitable". But did we assume this simply because they won? And would they have won without the iron discipline of the party, the ruthless acumen of Lenin, the mistakes of its opponents - and a good dose of luck? Hazlitt wrote that "the world is a book in which the Chapter of Accidents is none of the least considerable".

Do textbooks impart the sense of the fluidities and unpredictabilities of politics, the importance of ideas and human volition; that things are what they are because they have been made so, that the unchallengeable is so mainly because it is not challenged.

As Max Weber wrote in Politics as a Vocation : "All historical experience confirms the truth - that man would not have attained the possible unless time and again he had reached out for the impossible." Does this truth figure in the world of the textbook writer?

Eric Shaw is senior lecturer in politics, Stirling University.

British Politics. Fifth Edition

Author - Dennis Kavanagh, David Richards, Martin Smith and Andrew Geddes
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 732
Price - £24.99
ISBN - 0 19 926979 3

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