Archive for the ‘lib dems’ Category


Commentary: Sir Humphrey on Newsnight

29 April 2010

As part of Newsnight‘s Election 2010 coverage, Yes, Minister co-creator Sir Anthony Jay has written a set of three new sketches featuring the quintessential civil servant Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Henry Goodman (who will be portraying Sir Humphrey in the new Yes, Prime Minister stage play opening in May at the Chichester Festival Theatre). According to the BBC’s description: ‘In three episodes we will see him flick through the main party manifestos and offer his unique advice for any incoming minister on handling, or getting around, aspects of potential future policy.

For now, the clips are available here: Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, and Labour [to be aired on 4 May].

Overall, I found the writing to be fairly clever, with some good turns of phrase in the best mandarin style. Though it is nigh-impossible to live up to the memory of Sir Nigel Hawthorne’s performance, I would say that Henry Goodman’s portrayal is well up to par — though I do wish he hadn’t said ‘Lib Dem’, which would be far too crude for the Sir Humphrey Appleby I recall. But my primary reservation about these sketches is that they would be a good deal more funny, and more in keeping with the spirit of the original series, if we weren’t told which party’s manifesto was actually being read.

One of the most prized aspects of the series was that it carefully avoided party-political issues in favour of highlighting the underlying conflict between government and administration, an approach that allows it to have continued relevance more than three decades later. It doesn’t seem entirely appropriate to have Sir Humphrey, always so scrupulous about drawing the line between the sordid world of party politics and the tidy machinery of the Civil Service, offering commentary in this muddled grey area between the policy and the policymakers. Sir Humphrey himself would be the first to say that to the Civil Service, it barely matters what party is in power…or rather, in government, because no party is ever truly in ‘power’ in that sense of the word.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time studying Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister, so perhaps I’m somewhat protective of the original series and resistant to the prospect of its ‘modernization’ in this fashion — even when modernised by the creators. But even setting that aside and attempting to judge the sketches purely on their own merits, they seem somewhat lacking in the classic Yes, Minister message that first attracted my interest.



23 February 2010

Along with my periodic book reviews, I’ve decided to start posting brief recommendations of various Web sites and blogs I consult on at least a semi-regular basis.

I first came across several years ago, when I was working on research into the delicate powerplay involved in the timing of renewing British oil sanctions on Rhodesia. After coming across information on how initial vote over Rhodesian oil sanctions in 1965 had caused a terrible three-way split in the Conservative Party, I became more interested in looking at backbench dissent and rebellion, and parliamentary voting behavior in general. It was wonderful to come across and explore other instances of backbench rebellion frequency, size, and structure — and all in a way that saved me the trouble of poring over Hansard myself.

The site was in hiatus for a time, owing to a loss of research funding, but I was pleased to read in a recent Lords of the Blog post that is back online and looking at voting patterns once again. So it’s now on my links list to remind myself to check it every so often and see what new developments have been posted. If the forthcoming General Election ends in a hung parliament, or very near to one, the site could prove very useful indeed.


British Electoral Facts: 1832–2006, edited by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher

3 November 2009

Another review that made it into Political Studies Review. I’m not a psephologist by nature or training, but over the years I’ve developed a certain fascination with election statistics and the study thereof. I know that I will greatly miss Peter Snow at the next General Election; the swingometer simply won’t be the same without him.

British Electoral Facts: 1832–2006, edited by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher

British Electoral Facts has run into seven editions now, and this most recent edition compiled and edited by Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher continues to uphold the tradition of the indispensable reference book first assembled by the late F.W.S. Craig. The editors have added a new table of contents and comprehensive index to aid readers in their search through the book’s numerous tables, enabling more efficient analysis of any number of useful and esoteric electoral statistics.

The first half of the book contains results and summary data on General Elections from 1832 to 2005, including information on the voting statistics for specific political parties, data on political parties and the electorate, information on the members and prospective candidates elected, This section also includes miscellaneous statistics for General Elections, such as a table showing which constituency was the first to declare an official result in any given election (Sunderland South has held this record since 1992) or brief accounts of the weather on polling day (on 8 October 1959, for instance, voters went to the polls on a ‘dry autumn day’). The remainder of the book is divided into smaller sections on other elections held within the United Kingdom. This part includes figures on parliamentary by-elections; elections and by-elections for the European Parliament; General Election results broken down by UK region; elections for the devolved Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly, and Northern Ireland Assembly; and basic results and turnout information from local government elections since around 1945. Information on referendums, electoral irregularities, and public opinion polling data from organisations such as Gallup and MORI complete the raw statistical information found in the book. A separate appendix at the back contains a half-dozen pages of election records and trivia from 1918 to 2005, such as the largest and smallest recorded majorities, record swings, and other extremes of turnout percentages and votes cast.

Most of the statistics in British Electoral Facts 1838–2006 are meant for psephologists and other researchers who take an interest in the raw numerical data produced by the polls. Yet Rallings and Thrasher have produced a neat, compact reference book which provides a wealth of information about the changing British electorate, and which is likely to remain the definitive guide to British electoral history until a forthcoming edition adds new data on elections yet to come.

First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 3 (September 2008): 385-86.
The definitive version is available at


Dictionary of Liberal Thought, edited by Duncan Brack and Ed Randall

13 October 2009

Continuing with posts of reviews originally written for Political Studies Review. I wrote several for the September 2008 issue, so I’ll probably spread them out over a few weeks in the interests of typing up reviews for a few other books.

Dictionary of Liberal Thought, edited by Duncan Brack and Ed Randall

The Liberal Democrat History Group, as its name suggests, is a study group dedicated to historical research and discussion on the Liberal Democrats (and both the predecessor parties, the Liberals and the SDP) and on liberalism as a political philosophy in general. The Group has compiled and published several reference books on liberalism, including the Dictionary of Liberal Biography and the Dictionary of Liberal Quotations. Now, in its most recent publication, the Group has looked at the broader history of liberalism in the Dictionary of Liberal Thought, a book which claims to cover the key theorists, ideas, and organisations that have shaped more than three centuries of liberal philosophy in Great Britain.

The Dictionary of Liberal Thought is organised alphabetically, but the ideas, organisations, and thinkers included in the text have their own separate indexes for quick reference. The book’s scope is slightly broader than might be expected — the entries on individuals, for instance, include not only classical liberals such as John Locke and John Stuart Mill but also individuals who have contributed to the overall development of British liberal thought, such as John Milton and Edmund Burke. More modern ‘liberals’ given a place in the dictionary include former Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau, Labour MP Anthony Crosland, and academic and Liberal Democrat peer Conrad Russell. Seemingly contrary ideologies and philosophies of liberalism are likewise included; barely three dozen pages separate Keynesianism and Libertarianism, for instance. A brief summary of the key ideas and a short list of suggested further readings on the individual, idea, or organisation in question serve as the introduction and conclusion to each of the entries in the dictionary.

Liberalism has had almost as many definitions as it has had people to define it, and the changing philosophies and ideologies that have accompanied these shifting perceptions of liberalism make it a challenge to compile a concise but comprehensive dictionary on the subject. As a reference book, the Dictionary of Liberal Thought provides a single-volume resource for those who are interested in studying these changing perceptions. And even though the dictionary’s primary focus is on British liberalism, the wide-reaching range of entries may prove useful to those curious about liberalism as it developed in Europe and America.

First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 3 (September 2008): 361.
The definitive version is available at


Commentary: Bagehot on the ‘history wars’

5 October 2009

A recent article from the Economist‘s Bagehot on the history wars among British politicians prompted me to ponder the use of history as a stick with which to beat one’s political opponents.

It’s hard to disagree that hearkening back to past failures is, as Bagehot puts it, ‘a comforting kind of displacement activity….less a way of understanding the future than avoiding it‘. Watching Prime Minister’s Question Time during the Blair years was rather like playing a drinking game, preparing a shot glass in anticipation of the first mention of ‘the shambles we inherited from 18 years of Conservative Government’ or some iteration on that phrase. At some point around 1999 (possibly even earlier), the phrase lost whatever meaning it might have had, and became an almost expected part of Question Time regardless of who was facing the Prime Minister on the Opposition benches. Good for at least one shot in the PMQs drinking game, if nothing else.

I suspect that much of the impetus for the ‘history wars’ comes from New Labour’s own attempts to reinvent itself and distance itself from the problems of the Wilson and Callaghan years, as Anthony Seldon and Kevin Hickson’s collection of articles and essays suggests. Unfortunately, this insistence on disavowing the past seems to have left Labour without much to stand on except its current record, and the Tories aren’t much better when it comes to facing down the demons of the Thatcher and Major years, especially on questions related to Europe. History does make a very good stick for beating one’s opponents, but more often than not it ends up being like the magic cudgel in the Brothers Grimm fairytale that will spring out of its sack and start hitting anyone in sight, indiscriminately, until the right command is found to stop it. At the moment, it seems, no one’s figured out how to make it stop.


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.


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.

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

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.


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.


Fourth Among Equals by Bill Rodgers

27 October 2007

I can’t use the ‘dead politicians’ tag on this post, since Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank is still very much with us. has a very nice profile of his most recent activity in the Lords, if you’re interested in such things.

Fourth Among Equals by Bill Rodgers

Bill Rodgers was one of the four founding members of the Social Democratic Party, the ‘Gang of Four’ as the press and the public soon dubbed them. Along with Roy Jenkins, David Owen, and Shirley Williams, Rodgers left the Labour Party in 1980 in response to the growing militancy of the Labour left and their trade union affiliates, particularly the creation of an electoral college that would have given the trade union block vote a definite and potentially deciding advantage on Party policy issues. They formed the Social Democratic Party, specifically distancing themselves by name from the word ‘labour’, which had lost its public appeal in the wake of the strikes and general social discontent of the late 1970s.

Rodgers was never as public a figure as his colleages. Roy Jenkins had name recognition as a former Home Secretary, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and European Commissioner, and had the carefully cultivated air of an elder statesman; David Owen had been the youngest Foreign Secretary ever, with a fiery style and a flare for the dramatic that served him well in debates in the Commons; and Shirley Williams was a committed European-ist and, well, a woman. (Which is not to underestimate her political abilities in the slightest — it is merely a reflection of politics at the time, for when Harold Wilson placed her in his Cabinet in the mid-1970s, his Cabinet was the first to have contained the grand total of two women.) Even the book’s title shows Rodgers’ wry acceptance of his position in the SDP’s collective leadership, since the title is a play on the idea of the Prime Minister as being primus inter pares (‘first among equals’). If his choice of words is a ploy to lend credibility to his idea of himself as being a sort of detached observer of the meteoric rise and rapid decline of the SDP…well, for the most part, it seems to work in his autobiography.

The book starts off as many political memoirs do — the sense of community of the town where he was born, the family relationships and early connections to political life, the experiences that shaped his concept of politics, anecdotes of his time in National Service and at Oxford. (And like many memoirs, the section dealing with Rodgers’ time at Oxford University rather devolves into a list of ‘Eminent People I Might Have Once Seen Whilst Walking Through The Streets’.) Rodgers was a member and would later become a General Secretary of the Fabian Society, that wild-and-crazy pamphlet-producing hotbed of intellectual socialism. What Rodgers does succeed in creating from this long life story is a sense that breaking ties with the Labour Party was not at all an easy choice for him to make. The rise and decline of the SDP would take another book to explain fully, but Rodgers tells his side of the story with rather more regard for balanced opinion than what I’ve read from David Owen and Roy Jenkins. I actually found the parts where Rodgers talks about his work as a Liberal Democrat life peer in the House of Lords to be more interesting than the tales of SDP in-fighting and drawn-out political bargaining with David Steel’s Liberals.

So where do I stand on this book? It’s made me want to go back and reread David Owen’s memoirs (which I haven’t yet posted my review of here) to see where the two men disagree on what happened to the SDP. As a political memoir, it’s very readable and far less tiresome than some other memoirs I’ve read. But I can’t quite decide if the sense of disquiet I was left with when I closed the book was due to the sad story of the demise of the Gang of Four, or the strangely fatalistic calm with which Rodgers recounted it.


The Progressive Dilemma: From Lloyd George to Blair by David Marquand

8 October 2007

Slipping in yet another history of the political (centre) left in twentieth-century Britain.

The Progressive Dilemma: From Lloyd George to Blair by David Marquand

Political writer and former Labour (and then SDP, and then Lib Dem, and then New Labour, and then anti-New Labour) politician David Marquand’s book isn’t as much of a polemic as, for instance, Edmund Dell’s strange and eventful history. Nonetheless, the author does have quite a bit of criticism to direct at the politicians he mentions in this book. The Progressive Dilemma is a collection of interconnected essays, beginning with the ‘ghost’ of Liberal Prime Minister H.H. Asquith and continuing through to Tony Blair and New Labour, that presents a historical assessment of why the centre-left was an electoral failure for so much of the twentieth century. It should be noted that this book is a revised edition of Marquand’s earlier book of similar name, which was published in 1991 and therefore only went as far as Neil Kinnock.

Marquand’s main message, it seems, is that the Labour Party’s long-standing insistence on defining itself as the party of the working-class (or rather, the trade unions) severely hampered its ability to re-orient its policies in lines with demographic and societal shifts. The image of Labour as the party of trade unions worked to exclude many Liberals and liberals (note the capitalisation differences) from joining to the party and contributing to its intellectual and political development…which eventually led to stagnation and electoral defeated. The radical redefinition of Labour’s political programme may have made it electable once more, but the lack of a defineable ideology left it crippled, overly prone to drifting with public opinion and, as Marquand worries, less able to govern effectively.

It’s a complicated-sounding summary, and Marquand’s book is fairly complex. I might argue that it’s not very accessible to anyone who doesn’t have a general understanding of twentieth-century British history, particularly in the context of the forces that shape electoral politics. I also would have liked a few more references and citations in the text (more footnotes generally can’t hurt a history book), but that’s my personal preference in such matters. In the end, though, Marquand’s underlying message is a welcome plea for historical context and balance. He points out the flaws with both neoliberal Thatcherite economics and the socialist belief that economies can be micromanaged and engineered precisely to a government’s standards. Yet he also denounces how both sides exaggerate and inflate each other’s faults, creating a falsely persuasive argument against either the ‘bloated bureaucratic socialists’ or the ‘greedy heartless Tories’. That sort of arguing leads nowhere, he claims — and it certainly doesn’t provide an answer to the ‘progressive dilemma’ that continues to pose problems for British politicians in the early years of the twenty-first century.