Archive for the ‘party politics’ Category

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ADMIN: Diaries and Memoirs Collection Page

11 June 2009

In an effort to keep myself organised, I’ve added a new page to this blog that contains information on my collection of British political diaries and memoirs. Most of them, clearly, are from elected politicians, but I also have an interest in writings by civil servants or diplomatic officials.

I’ve been building this collection for the past few years, trying to acquire good condition volumes and the occasional signed or first edition copy. Like most collections, it’s very much a work in progress. I do have limits on how much I am willing to spend on individual acquisitions — recently, I passed up an absolutely beautiful signed first edition of Jim Callaghan’s Time and Chance because the price was a little too dear. With a little luck and persistence, though, I hope to build a fine little library in which I can take pride.

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Commentary: SPADs

17 April 2009

Reading the various articles and blog posts (such as Lord Tyler’s post in Lords of the Blog) about the Damian McBride affair, my mind keeps coming back to the use of the term ‘Spad’ (or ‘SpAd’, or however one chooses to write it) as an abbreviation of ‘special adviser’. As both a political and trainspotting anorak, I have to say that I can’t read ‘Spad’ without thinking of the railway use of SPAD: Signal Passed At Danger.

In this case, as I commented in Lords of the Blog, the trainspotting term seems surprisingly apt to describe this situation. A whole series of extended metaphors could be employed about special advisers ‘misjudging the braking distance’ — or more wicked ones that might refer to ministers or civil servants as ‘dim or dark signals’. But again, as with automatic signals, signals can be passed at danger if drivers receive explicit clearance from a signal operator (a minister, perhaps?). I wonder, would it be worth looking to the new rules and technology established by the railways after the 1999 Ladbroke Grove crash for even a hint of guidance on how to proceed with a suitable code for the SPADs in Westminster and Whitehall?

Or perhaps I’ll just go back to my line diagrams and/or book reviews, and leave the political commentary to my fellow anoraks.

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Commentary: London Review of Books articles

6 October 2008

Not really a true commentary from me, but rather links to two particularly interesting articles in recent issues of the London Review of Books.

1) From the 11 September 2008 issue, Ross McKibbin on the currently skewed ideological alignments in British politics. It ends with a fascinating thought-experiment on what a reformed three-party House of Commons might look like, even if you don’t agree with how he chooses to parcel out certain MPs.

2) From the 25 September 2008 issue, Donald MacKenzie on the importance of Libor, one of the more crucial but least understood aspects of the world’s current economic woes. Even if you’re suffering from information overload on matters financial, it’s worth reading as a well-written introduction to an often confusing subject.

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Commentary: New Labour, Bad Writing

21 July 2008

John Lanchester’s London Review of Books assessment of the recently published memoirs of Cherie Blair, John Prescott, and Tim Levy ties in rather neatly to a post I made a few months ago about the unsettling similarities between John Prescott and George Brown.

I’ve been looking into the history of political memoirs, focusing at the moment on the National Archives files regarding the legal squabblings that surrounded the publication of Richard Crossman’s diaries in the mid-1970s. Crossman claimed, before he died, that the purpose of publishing his memoirs was to expose the secretive inner workings of government and give the reading public a more realistic view of the everyday life of a Cabinet Minister. (This he certainly did, in what Cabinet Secretary Sir John Hunt shudderingly called a ‘blow-by-blow account’ of everything from dissention during Cabinet meetings to rows within Crossman’s private office.) Crossman almost assuredly sought to one-up Harold Wilson, whose The Labour Government, 1964-1970: A Personal Record was rushed to press in 1971 in hopes of earning its author a bit more money to support the lifestyle (i.e., the political staff) to which he had become accustomed as Prime Minister. But when Crossman was diagnosed with cancer, the publication of his diaries became a good deal more pressing a concern to him — and after his death, his executors (including Michael Foot) took up the call to ‘respect his final wishes’ and see the diaries into print.

I’m still pondering various opinions about whether the publication of the Crossman diaries has done more good than harm, but there’s one thing that certainly sets Crossman apart from most of his literary successors. With the possible exception of Alan Clark (who published one volume of diaries during his life and provided enough material for two more volumes after his death), most of the flood of political diaries and memoirs that have come on the market since the 1970s are by authors who are still alive; some are even still in office, or not very long out of it. The incentives to rush out a self-justifying memoir are even greater now that so many of them are on the market, if only to get the jump on any other colleagues (or enemies) who might have a book of their own ready to go. But I’d imagine that there’s something oddly unsatisfying about attempting to respond to posthumous diary or memoir, like Crossman’s. It’s too final, somehow — like getting into an argument over the telephone and then having the person at the other end suddenly hang up on you when you’re in mid-sentence. To paraphrase a comment supposedly made by a disgruntled Harold Wilson during a Cabinet meeting in the middle of the Crossman affair, ‘If any of you are looking to publish a diary, too, for God’s sake don’t die first. We need a chance to reply.’

Lanchester suggests that the memoirs in his review are as much as exercise in self-definition as they are in self-justification:

Since [the electorate] so manifestly aren’t grateful, or understanding, they feel a strong need to tell their version of their own story, to restore the complexity and inwardness to the public version of selves which, very often, exist purely as caricature.

Considering the content and tone of many of the memoirs that have been published since Crossman opened the doors, I’m inclined to agree with him.

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Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts by Simon Jenkins

20 July 2008

Another book that I found a bit tricky to review in full. I think I’ve managed to summarise most of what I wanted to say, but I’d be happy to elaborate in comments if there’s something it seems I’ve left out.

Thatcher and Sons: A Revolution in Three Acts by Simon Jenkins

The coming year will mark the 30th anniversary of the 1979 General Election, called after Jim Callaghan’s Labour Government lost a vote of no-confidence — by one vote — on 28 March 1979. That election brought the Conservative Party back into power for the first time since 1974, and brought Margaret Thatcher into office as Britain’s first female prime minister. So much has changed since 1979 that it’s often difficult to pinpoint where and when those changes took place, which makes it equally difficult to fully study how those changes have shaped how we look at recent history. Political journalist Simon Jenkins (formerly of the Economist and the Times, now a Guardian columnist) has taken it upon himself to delve into this recent history and thoroughly examine Thatcherism, its theory and practice, and the permutations it has gone through in the years since the Lady was unceremoniously ousted from power in 1990.

In Thatcher and Sons, Jenkins identifies not just one, but two Thatcher ‘revolutions': the first involving an ideological shift from the ‘commanding heights’ of a mostly socialist economy to wholesale privatisation, and the second involving a massive push to centralise the government’s control over more and more aspects of British life. As he looks into these revolutions, Jenkins traces the line from Thatcher through John Major, Tony Blair, and Gordon Brown, showing how Thatcher’s ‘sons’ have embraced (in varying ways, and with varying degrees of eagerness) the murky ideological underpinnings of Thatcherism. He also shows how Thatcherism has permeated the structure of Whitehall, especially in terms of the power that has built up in the Treasury in the past three decades. But most of all, he attempts to describe how the seemingly contradictory aims of privatisation and centralisation came together to drive the revolutions forward, in a manner that eventually made it difficult for their proponents to control.

At its strongest, Jenkins’ prose is clear and sharp and almost damning in its thoroughness, particularly in his overview of Tony Blair’s rise to power in the various Labour Party upheavals of the 1980s and 1990s. (For those who were too young to remember the specifics as it happened, or paid very little attention to Labour’s persistent navel-gazing in Foot-Kinnock-Smith years, the book is worth reading for this section alone.) He does his best to examine and weigh the merits of many commonly held beliefs about Thatcher and her successors, but there are times when his analysis misses the mark. To take one example, he criticises Thatcher’s insistence that she owed very little loyalty to the Tory establishment because, in her words, ‘They had fought me unscrupulously all the way‘. Jenkins hints, quite openly, that this attitude smacks of ingratitude. After all, didn’t she owe many of her rapid advances in the party to her position as that rare and wonderous bird, the female Tory MP? There’s more than a touch of chauvinism in that approach, as Thatcher herself might be first to claim. She was all too aware of the fact that her sex was both her greatest weapon and her greatest weakness, and it is hardly surprising that she should have felt insulted that her advance in the party often had less to do with her political or intellectual merits and more to do with the need to have some sort of token woman on the front bench. And with so much attention paid to the similarities between Thatcher and her ‘sons’, especially Thatcher and Blair, it seems odd that Jenkins should have trouble explaining some of their differences in opinion over points like European integration.

Jenkins concludes his book by declaring that the only possible means of countering the worst excesses of the Thatcher revolutions is to encourage a third revolution to strike back at Thatcherite overcentralisation: ‘localism’, by which he means a devolution of power and responsibility from Whitehall to strengthen the local government institutions that were either weakened or abolished by the Thatcher revolutions. Jenkins heaps praise on the strength of local government as it appears in the United States, particularly the town-hall meetings held in the New England states, as well as on the strength of local civic life in France and the Scandinavian countries. Yet there is something about this third revolution that fails to sound convincing, perhaps because it veers too close to an outright political manifesto at times. As the lessons of Thatcher and Sons indicate all too well, one more all-encompassing solution that is guaranteed to fix Britain’s economic and social ills might not be what the public wants or the country needs. As this kind of manifesto, the book falls rather short — but as a work of very recent political history, it is a useful point of reference.

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Commentary: Politico’s Great Statesmen Series

1 July 2008

I’m sitting on a backlog of not-quite finished reviews at the moment, so in lieu of rushing through the first one in the queue (which is likely to be about Edmund Burke), I’m going to slip in a bit of commentary about Politico’s Great Statesmen book series.

The Great Statesmen series is a line of reissued political memoirs and biographies of various British politicians. I’ve acquired four Great Statesmen titles in the past year, two biography (Francis Beckett on Clement Attlee and D.R. Thorpe on Alec Douglas-Home) and two autobiography (Geoffrey Howe’s Conflict of Loyalty and Denis Healey’s Time of My Life), and I’ve been very satisfied with the series’ production quality and appearance. I do quibble somewhat with the inclusion of Francis Beckett’s biography, which may be one of the more recent Attlee biographies but is by no means the most well-written. (My arguments on this front are set out in a review I wrote for the May 2008 issue of Political Studies Review.) Yet on the whole, it is very good to see a publisher taking the time and effort to put together a quality series of this nature, almost made for collecting by those who are fond of modern political history.

At the time of this writing, the main Politico’s Publishing Web site is not working very well for me. It’s a pity that the Politico’s Web site maintainers haven’t set up a separate section to show off this line, because it’s well worth the Web space. I’ve been able to compile a partial list of the titles currently available in the Great Statesmen line — I may have left out one or two, but these are the ones I have seen offered for sale online and in some bookshops.

Biography
Clem Attlee – Francis Beckett
Anthony Crosland – Kevin Jefferys
Alec Douglas-Home – D.R. Thorpe
Hugh Gaitskell – Brian Brivati

Autobiography/Memoirs
Time and Chance – James Callaghan
Time of My Life – Denis Healey
The Course of My Life – Edward Heath
Conflict of Loyalty – Geoffrey Howe
A Life at the Centre – Roy Jenkins (which I have reviewed here)

Reviews of both the Thorpe and Beckett biographies are in the abovementioned review article, and I’ll be writing a review of Geoffrey Howe’s biography for Political Studies Review in the near future. I’ve yet to start Healey’s memoirs, but when I finish that, I’ll be sure to post a review of it here.

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Orwell’s England (edited by Peter Davison)

15 June 2008

Continuing from the previous post on Orwell in Spain and Orwell and the Dispossessed, this post looks at another book in the Penguin Press series that place George Orwell’s works in the context of his other letters and essays on a general subject.

Originally, I’d intended to combine this review with the one for Orwell and Politics, but the reviews were a little too long to cram them both into one post. That review will follow soon.

Orwell’s England (edited by Peter Davison)

For all that George Orwell wrote about broad, international issues such as fascism and totalitarianism, the bulk of his published work has a very domestic core. Several of his novels, such as Keep the Aspidistra Flying and A Clergyman’s Daughter, dwell on the particular conditions of the lower middle class and working class of England. He is often at his most eloquent when attempting to come to terms with the civilisation that he seems to love and loathe in equal measure. He summarises it in the essay ‘England Your England‘ as ‘a family, a rather stuffy Victorian family, with not many black sheep in it but with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons….It has its private language and its common memories, and at the approach of an enemy it closes its ranks‘. It is this family, with all of its foibles and flaws, that is the focus of the writings collected in Orwell’s England.

The main book in Orwell’s England is The Road to Wigan Pier, a sociological study commissioned by Victor Gollancz and the Left Book Club and published in 1937 as a report on the grim living and working conditions in England’s industrial north. ‘Wigan Pier’ was a standard music hall joke of the time — a reference to the small offloading pier that serviced the mill town of Wigan, near Manchester — which comedians used to play on the thought of as a dingy northern mill town that possessed its own ‘seaside resort’ to rival Brighton or Blackpool. Orwell, in his account, used the image of Wigan Pier as a symbol of the deprivation, and destitution of the working classes in the north of England. The first half of The Road to Wigan Pier covers the inadequate wages, substandard housing, dangerous workplaces, and chronic unemployment characteristic of England’s working classes, drawing upon Orwell’s experiences living amongst the subjects he was studying. The second half of the book is more theoretical than sociological, as Orwell considers why so many people are reluctant to entertain the possibility that socialism might ameliorate the appalling and intolerable conditions he had just described.

The second half of Wigan Pier is a sudden sharp shift, as Orwell unleashes the full force of his pen in criticising the complacency of his fellow middle-class socialists. Before the Left Book Club edition was published, Gollancz actually felt compelled to add a foreword that attempted to placate those who might be offended by Orwell’s statements. Orwell sketches out several bold arguments to explain why socialism remains unattractive to many who would benefit from it, such as residual class prejudice (the ‘genteel poor’, as poor as they are, would shrink from being lumped together with servants and millworkers) and the prevalence of ‘earnest ladies in sandals, shock-headed Marxists chewing polysyllables, escaped Quakers, birth-control fanatics, and Labour Party backstairs-crawlers‘ (in other words, cranks) who alienate the more conventional types. The disagreement between Gollancz and Orwell over the second half of the book played a part in the former’s refusal to publish Homage to Catalonia, and reinforced Orwell’s dim opinions about many of his comrades on the left.

As with the other books in this series, Orwell’s England strings together writings on a collected theme. The book includes journalistic pieces on the conditions of the working poor; ‘Such, Such Were the Joys’, an autobiographical essay describing his unpleasant schooldays at St. Cyprian’s prep school in Eastbourne; ‘The Decline of the English Murder’, which looks at the coverage of murder cases in the popular press; and selections from the diaries that Orwell kept in the months shortly before World War II and during the war itself. Orwell’s prose is as clear and lucid as ever, and Davison’s selections do a good job of supporting the overall theme. In the context of this book, it seems hardly surprising that George Orwell’s collected thoughts on the English character have done much to shape the national consciousness ever since.

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Commentary: John Prescott…and George Brown

18 May 2008

I’ve been meaning to write about a few non-book review subjects for a while now, but have had a difficult time trying to determine precisely what kind of commentary I want this blog to contain. It may seem a little odd to open with this particular topic, especially now that other pieces of news have supplanted this topic in the public mind, but of late my thoughts have been drifting back to John Prescott’s recent admission that he has been struggling with an eating disorder.

Further information appears here from the Guardian and the Independent (along with marginally sympathetic commentary by Armando Iannucci.) Although these articles only hint at it, much of the general political blogosphere seemed to think that this ‘confession’ is part of a publicity stunt designed to sell copies of Prescott’s forthcoming memoirs. More generally, the responses tended to degenerate into snide, crude, or openly hostile comments about Prescott’s weight, appearance, intelligence, political leanings, sexual appetites, and so forth. Yet the more I read about Prescott, more my thoughts kept coming back to another Labour politician who engaged in similarly self-destructive behaviours.

John Prescott entered the House as the Member for Hull East in 1970, a General Election in which more than a few Labour MPs lost their seats. One of those lost seats was Belper, where a 5 percent swing to the Tories turfed out the MP who’d represented the constituency since 1945: George Brown.

George Brown’s been all but forgotten by the history books, except for perhaps a dozen winceworthy anecdotes of slurred speeches and drunken rages. In truth, he seemed to vanish from the public consciousness almost from the moment Harold Wilson finally got fed up with him and accepted the last of his many resignations in March 1968. Yet there are a number of repeated patterns — unsettling echoes, if you like — in both men’s behaviours, in the way they were treated by the political press, and in the way that they were regarded inside and outside their party. (One Telegraph writer even made the comparison rather more explicit by describing Prescott as ‘a kind of George Brown without the charm.’) And although some commentators may remark that at least George Brown had the excuse of his horrible addiction to alcohol to explain his temperament, a comparative look at the two men reveals some points to ponder.

Both George Brown and John Prescott occupied the unenviable symbolic sinecure of First Secretary of State (Brown as Minister for the short-lived conglomerate Department of Economic Affairs, Prescott as deputy PM and as the head of another cobbled-together superdepartment now known as Defra). Both garnered the reputation of aggressive, deal-brokering, pull-no-punches politicians, repelling many of their colleagues and often embarrassing or exasperating their few patient supporters in the process. Going back further in their political careers, the similarities keep cropping up. Education was a sore point with both of them — Brown went to a junior grammar school, but left school at 15 to start working, while Prescott’s poor showing in the eleven-plus sent him to a secondary modern — and both ended up supplementing their schooling with further education (Brown at night schools and Workers’ Education Association classes, Prescott at Ruskin College in Oxford). Both came from trade union backgrounds, and made much of their links to the trade union movement as a badge of Labour Party authenticity. Both had turbulent marriages: George Brown ended up leaving his wife for his secretary, and although Prescott may have stayed with his wife he nonetheless owned up to his own infidelity. And on the whole, both do not seem to have been truly capable of dealing with the pressures of political life, particularly towards the end of their careers in the House.

I think a full and properly considered comparative study of Brown and Prescott would require in-depth research into press coverage of both men, with appropriate weight given to the general changes in the timbre and focus of political reporting since the 1960s. Private Eye immortalised the phrase ‘tired and emotional’ in connection with George Brown, and Simon Hoggart’s political sketches seldom failed to take advantage of Prescott’s struggles with public speaking — not to mention Jeremy Paxman’s The Political Animal, with its apocryphal quip that in recent years, prospective Hansard editors had to ‘translate’ a John Prescott speech into intelligible text as part of the application and vetting process. Apart from the official press coverage, George Brown’s antics often cropped up in the diaries of Richard Crossman and Tony Benn, and perhaps a forthcoming crop of diaries and memoirs from politicians of the Blair years (in addition to the ones that are available now) will reveal more stories about Prescott. It’s a study worth conducting, I think, if only because I would hate to see another Labour politician conveniently forgotten by those who prefer to distance themselves from history.

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Orwell in Spain and Orwell and the Dispossessed (edited by Peter Davison)

6 May 2008

A few years ago, Penguin Press released a series of four books that each take one of George Orwell’s works and place it in the context of selected letters, articles, essays written by Orwell which relate to the subject of the book. I’ve split this review of the four books into two parts, with this one focusing on Orwell in Spain and Orwell and the Dispossessed.

Orwell in Spain

The central text in Orwell in Spain is Homage to Catalonia, Orwell’s account of his time as a volunteer soldier in Barcelona and the Catalan area of Spain during the Spanish Civil War. Orwell joined the Independent Labour Party’s contingent, a group of two dozen or so British volunteers who were allied with the Workers’ Part of Marxism Unification (given as POUM, the Spanish-language abbreviation, in the text). Orwell sent several months in the front line and was finally invalided away from the front when he was shot in the neck — the bullet just barely missed his carotid artery, and the only lasting effect of the wound was a paralysis of one of his vocal cords. (People often told him how lucky he was to have survived, but Orwell usually responded by saying something to the effect of how it would have been even luckier not to have been shot in the first place.) Even after being invalided away from the front, Orwell’s troubles were merely beginning. He was very nearly arrested for being part of a militia that had been declared ‘illegal’ by the anti-Franco forces — the Spanish Communist Party was in the sway of the Soviet Union and was attempting to eradicate rival communist and anarchist groups — and he and his wife Eileen (who had accompanied him) had to flee Spain only a few steps ahead of the Spanish police.

The Spanish Civil War is a very confusing period of 20th-century history, and Orwell was writing for an audience which often had only the most general knowledge of what was going on in Spain at the time. But as the letters and articles emphasise, Orwell’s intent in writing Homage to Catalonia was not merely to denounce Franco and the Fascists, but to criticise the Communist forces in Spain for what he saw as their betrayal of the working classes AND to castigate the press (particularly the English leftist press) for its refusal to entertain any possibility that the Spanish Communists and their Soviet allies could be just as guilty of betrayal and deceit as the monarchists and the Fascists. Orwell’s experiences in Spain also had a direct influence on the writing of 1984. On a personal level he was very concerned with the case of Georges Kopp, a fellow soldier and friend who had been imprisoned by the Spanish police, tortured in an attempt to get him to sign a false confession, and subjected to a special type of punishment which involved being locked in a confined space with a horde of large rats. On a literary level, Orwell’s writings on the Spanish Civil War reveal some of the ideas that would later end up in books like 1984 — one example being the famous ‘two and two are five’ equation that would become so crucial to Winston Smith’s fate in that particular book.

Orwell and the Dispossessed

The central story in this collection is Down and Out in Paris and London, a predominantly autobiographical account of Orwell’s time ‘slumming it’ as a restaurant dishwasher (plongeur) in Paris and a tramp in London in the mid-1930s. The book is a grim account of a grim life, as Orwell describes in great detail the backbreaking labour and low wages of the staff at a fashionable hotel and his struggles in a small cafe — and includes stomach-turning accounts of the utter filthiness of the kitchens in which he worked. The writings that deal with his time in as a tramp in London and the Home Counties are equally grim, presenting a grinding, depressing life of poverty and homelessness in the capital city that still bears a strong resemblance to conditions that exist today. His criticisms of charitable organisations and city-run lodging houses for the poor and indigent are particularly trenchant, and remain so 70 years later.

Down and Out in Paris and London is a fascinating read in its own right, but this volume also contains some of Orwell’s articles, essays, and reviews on popular subjects of the time. He analysed boys’ school stories (such as the Greyfriairs stories that feature Billy Bunter), compared British detective fiction to American ‘pulp mags’, and examined the political leanings of the serial novels published in women’s magazines. There are also a few essays about Orwell’s other ‘slumming journeys’, including one where he joined a group of East End residents who travelled out of London to pick hops for a fortnight and another where he attempted to get himself sentenced to prison for drunk and disorderly conduct. In general, the material collected in Orwell and the Dispossessed focuses on the author’s observations of those who for one reason or another are deprived of choices in their own lives and societies — with subjects as diverse as the poor of India and Morocco, British schoolchildren, and the unfairly persecuted P.G. Wodehouse. And although the theme of this volume is not quite as solid and unified as that of Orwell and Spain, the compilation is a good collection of some of Orwell’s nonfiction writing.

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Coalition: The Politics and Personalities of Coalition Governments Since 1850 by Mark Oaten

27 March 2008

I suppose I ought to make the obligatory joke about a well-hung parliament, but considering that I’m about to take out the knives for this review, perhaps naughty humour isn’t entirely suitable for the situation.

Coalition: The Politics and Personalities of Coalition Governments Since 1850 by Mark Oaten

Ever since the British political system began to settle into the particular alignment of factions and interests that we now recognise as the forerunners of modern political parties, voters have come to expect that a specific political party will be able to win a majority of seats and form a government. On the rare occasions when no one party has an outright majority — most often known as a ‘hung parliament’ — politicians and political parties have to scramble to find a solution and settle on an agreement that will be acceptable to the denizens of the Westminster village and (to a lesser exent) to the country as a whole. In other countries, this agreement takes the form of coalition governments, often given catchy names based on the identifying colours of the political parties involved — ‘traffic light coalition’ (from the German Ampelkoalition) or ‘purple coalition’ (the social-democrat-and-liberal coalition that governed the Netherlands throughout most of the 1990s). Yet coalitions are a rarity in British political history, found only in times of extreme stress on the existing political system. As Benjamin Disraeli observed, back in the mid-nineteenth century, ‘This too I know, that England does not love coalitions‘. With that statement in mind, Liberal Democrat MP Mark Oaten has taken it upon himself to examine the history of flawed and failed coalitions in British politics, attempting to determine whether Britain can embrace coalition government as an alternative to the ‘Punch and Judy’ tactics of combative government that have steadily lost favour in the polls.

Here, this review must pause for a moment, and attempt to separate the opinions of the copyeditor from the opinions of the political historian. All questions of content and analysis aside, I have never seen a professionally published book contain so many glaring punctuation, stylistic, and contextual errors. If I had left so many mistakes in a text that had passed through my hands, I would go to my supervisor and ask to be fired on the spot. There are simply no good or even mediocre excuses for some of the errors in this text. On the first page, readers are informed that the Corn Laws were repealed in 1946 (a full century off), and later on in the book a reference is made to the July 2004 London bombings (a year too early). There are sentences that simply do not make sense with the words given, as if someone was working from a taped transcription without bothering to actually check the text for context and word use. My copy of the book is the standard Harriman House hardback edition — not even a first printing or a proof copy, in which these mistakes might be understandable if not forgivable. But even without trying to look deeper into the text, readers first have to fight to actually read it from start to finish without becoming mired down in the words on the page.

That said, the analysis in itself is seems superficial at times. True, the history is there, but it wavers between being too simplistic for those who know the politics of various coalition governments and being too obscure for those who have never studied the subject before. More than a few conclusions are drawn without much of a solid argument to support them. Case in point, and symptomatic of a broader trend: Oaten believes that the established convention of hung parliaments that allows the ruling Prime Minister to attempt to form a government should be scrapped in favour of automatically giving the leader of the largest political party in the House the first crack at government-forming — he claims that existing conventions are not ‘fair’ to the party that wins the most seats. Setting aside the question of fairness in politics, the arithmetic of seats and votes do not always add up to make that the most advantageous choice for maintaining a stable government after an election, and he seldom brings in other opinions to back up his own.

Among the good aspects of Coalition are the brief chapter on the semi-successful coalition in the Scottish Parliament and the number of personal interviews which Oaten conducted and from which he was able to quote to illustrate the thinking of those who participated in two of the most recent attempts at coalition government in Britain: the Lib-Lab pact of the mid-1970s and the Joint Cabinet Committee between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the late 1990s. The quotes included provide some interesting insight into recent political history. Yet even this recently published book has been overtaken by events — the structure of the last chapter hangs very heavily on how Sir Menzies Campbell might react as Liberal Democrat leader in a hung parliament, yet that task will fall to Nick Clegg now (or to whoever is Lib Dem leader at the time of the next election). In general, Oaten seems to conclude that a coalition government would be ever-so lovely but probably not that feasible, and that the Liberal Democrats will decide the balance of power at the next General Election. Disraeli could have told him the first, and the second is not nearly as cut-and-dried as the honourable member for Winchester might like to think.

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