Playing the system

The New British Politics. Second edition - Introduction to British Politics. Third edition
November 29, 2002

These works are both substantially revised editions of standard first-year politics texts. Both are broad in scope, incisive and wide ranging, and accessible in their writing style. Both contain graphics, glossaries of key terms, boxed "Briefings", student questions, annotated guides to further reading and - not least - accompanying websites.

Both offer extensive coverage of a range of topical issues, such as constitutional change, welfare reform, globalisation and the arrival of new Labour. In each case, concepts are rigorously defined, evidence meticulously assembled and key points highlighted. Students will be excellently served by either.

If the task of textbooks is to impart to its readers as proficiently and dexterously as possible a solid body of knowledge, then The New British Politics is a model of its kind. Packed with cartoons, photographs and succinct summaries, it equips its readers with a thoroughly reliable map of modern political topography, grounded in the distilled wisdom of British political science and conveyed by some of its most fluent and lucid exponents.

But if a textbook has another purpose - to stir, prod and provoke the mind, to encourage a spirit of questioning, a willingness to challenge established verities, to disbelieve - then Introduction to British Politics scores more heavily. The former book, if you like, provides the answers, the latter the questions.

What questions? Those that matter most: who rules, who really runs Britain, how is political power organised, within and around the state, by whom is it exercised and to whose benefit? In Lasswell's celebrated dictum, "who gets what, when and how?"

John Dearlove and Peter Saunders portray politics in Britain as about not only institutions and rules but also struggle: about how competing groups strive for resources in short supply. They show how those with the sharpest elbows (in terms of financial and organisational muscle, status, authority, political access) usually get most, even within the contours of what is, as New British Politics instructs us in its opening paragraph, "a liberal-democratic state".

The study of politics is also about conflict, about conflicting interpretations of the political system and how it operates. As Dearlove and Saunders state: "Answers to questions about political power are sharply contested". Hence, their approach: to present rival propositions, subject them to the test of evidence and then reach some kind of, often provisional, conclusion.

Conflict in the world of New British Politics is not absent (how could it be?) but it is, somehow, less obtrusive. The book is, in a way, the victim of its own success: it is so well-patterned, so neatly organised, so coherent in its presentation that it conveys to the reader, doubtless unwittingly, the sense that the system it describes is equally characterised by order, balance and solid good sense.

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

The New British Politics. Second edition

Author - Ian Budge, Ivor Crewe, David McKay and Ken Newton
ISBN - 0 582 41838 0
Publisher - Longman
Price - £23.99
Pages - 739

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