Archive for the ‘westminster’ Category

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Ministers, Mandarins, and Metafashion

25 September 2013

The suits of Yes Minister is a delightful assessment of sartorial choices (and precisely what coded messages they convey, through the characters who wear them) in my beloved series. Who would have thought that a four-in-hand vs. Windsor knot contrast would reveal so much?

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Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson

2 March 2010

My working knowledge of Britain’s African colonial history comes mostly from my research on Rhodesia before and after the UDI — a case with its own set of peculiar circumstances that do not exactly reflect the British colonial experience its other African possessions. So I’m always interested in books such as the following that may help to fill in the gaps in my education, particularly regarding non-European history.

The London Review of Books, as always, has another good review of this book in conjunction with Caroline Elkins’ more confrontationally named Britain’s Gulag: The Brutal End of Empire in Kenya.

Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire by David Anderson

Histories of imperialism and colonialism frequently run into the difficulty of finding and intepreting source materials in a way that balances the stories told by very local, personalised accounts (such as oral histories) and the much broader and more anonymous archival collections. Both aspects are equally crucial to the writing of history, but blending them into a single coherent narrative is no easy task — especially when the narrative involves a history of startling violence, brutality, and contradictory justifications from all parties concerned. So when a work of colonial history comes along that manages to combine excellent research with fluid storytelling, it more than deserves attention from both historians and general readers.

David Anderson’s Histories of the Hanged: The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire is one such a book, a tightly-written, hard-hitting account of a particularly grim chapter in Britain’s retreat from empire: the Mau Mau conflict that wracked Kenya in the 1950s and left a trail of killings and brutal judicial and extrajudicial punishments in its wake. Anderson carefully marshals court records, archival materials, contemporary journalism, and other public and private documents such as published memoirs and private letters to shape his history of the conflict. This is no small task, because the Mau Mau conflict’s origins were complicated and multilayered, involving land disputes between and among Kenya’s white and nonwhite populations, an institutionalised regime of racism and tribalism, bitter religious disagreements that dated back many decades, and a general air of semi-benign neglect from the Colonial Office back in London. Anderson manages to pull all of these aspects together in order to depict how long-standing feuds within African communities fueled grudge-killings and guerilla warfare on a massive scale, and how the reactions of the white settlers and British officials only deepened and perpetuated the conflict. This focus on the origins and underpinnings of the conflict ensures that Histories of the Hanged is a highly readable book even for those who are not generally familiar with colonial history.

The Mau Mau conflict — or ‘uprising’, or ’emergency’, or ‘insurrection’, or ‘civil war’, or ‘rebellion’, depending on who you talk to — eventually caused enough concern back in Britain that politicians as disparate in views as Labour MP Barbara Castle and Conservative MP Enoch Powell were united in their condemnation of the colonial authority’s handling of the situation. By the end of the hostilities, about two dozen white Kenyans and several thousand more black Kenyans had been killed in various random attacks and planned massacres, some of which encompassed the inhabitants of entire villages and towns. The justice system added to this number, sending more than a thousand black Kenyans to the gallows — about twice the number executed by the French during their own colonial crisis in Algeria — and rounding up and imprisoning hundreds of thousands of others in squalid detention camps that more than a few historians have called ‘Britain’s gulag’. And yet even though David Anderson adds his voice to those who condemn the atrocities committed by both sides, Histories of the Hanged is not a book that spends all its time pointing fingers and searching for the guilty parties. Rather, it is more interested in examining the conflict of loyalties that created the political vacuum which allowed the Mau Mau to attract its followers, and the reasons why colonial authorities in Kenya were so quickly overtaken by events. It is a bloody and racially charged history, certainly, and it makes for difficult reading at times. All the same, it is a part of British imperial history that has been overlooked (in some cases, deliberately so) until very recently, and a book like Anderson’s is a welcome insight into the often-confusing background and battles of a bitter civil and colonial war.

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Links: Revolts.co.uk

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 Revolts.co.uk 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 Revolts.co.uk 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 Revolts.co.uk 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.

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The Constitution of the United Kingdom: A Contextual Analysis by Peter Leyland

15 December 2009

I’ve just returned from the thoroughly enjoyable Fiction and British Politics conference, and hope to post a little more about it once I manage to marshall my thoughts into a suitable post. For now, though, here is another review originally written for Political Studies Review.

The Constitution of the United Kingdom: A Contextual Analysis by Peter Leyland

The Constitution of the United Kingdom is the first book in Hart Publishing’s new ‘Constitutional Systems of the World’ series, and the editors have presented an interesting challenge for the series from the outset. Unlike many other constitutional systems, such as that of the United States, the constitution of the United Kingdom is uncodified, far less rigidly defined than other existing constitutions. Commentators have occasionally spoken of the UK’s ‘back-of-an-envelope’ constitution which depends as much (or even more so) on convention and precedent as it does on formal documents. To include both the written and unwritten aspects of the constitution of the United Kingdom, the book first looks into the historical context of the system, examining the various sources of constitutional authority and the constitution’s underlying principles as they have developed over the course of the country’s history. From the historical background, the analysis moves on to explore institutional structures and divisions of power — including power divisions within the government; among national, regional, and local government; and (in the past half-century) between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Leyland’s work covers the intricate structural framework of the British constitution, setting out sections on the changing role of the Crown, the relationship between Parliament and the executive, the judiciary, and devolved and local government. There are short summaries of notable legal cases and of current constitutional debates, such as the place of the House of Lords as a second chamber, the case for abolishing the monarchy, the recent reformation of the office of the Lord Chancellor, and the ‘West Lothian question’ on devolved government for England. At the end of each section is a guide to further reading, featuring useful texts and appropriate Web sites for those interested in exploring the subject in greater depth.

On the whole, the book provides a compact yet comprehensive analysis of the complexities of the British constitution, and presents the analysis in a straightforward, well-written manner. As the first book in the series, The Constitution of the United Kingdom has set a fine example for the other books to follow, and one can only hope that forthcoming titles will be equally valuable for those who have an interest in constitutional systems of the world.


First published in Political Studies Review Vol. 6 No. 3 (September 2008): 384.
The definitive version is available at www.blackwellsynergy.com.

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Conferences: Fiction and British Politics

4 November 2009

Though I’m heading off to the Berlin Wall conference this weekend, I already have one eye on another conference I’m slated to present at in mid-December. The University of Nottingham’s Centre for British Politics is hosting a one-day conference on fiction and British politics, and rather predictably I’m giving a paper on Yes, Minister. (For the curious, here’s the official conference flyer.)

Since my article on the impact and influence of Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister went to press before I found out about this conference, I decided to look through the rest of my research on the series to see if there was another aspect of fiction and British politics that captured my interest. And then I recalled that my earliest interest in researching the series had been sparked when I read that on 9 January 1986, when Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine walked out of Cabinet over the furore known as the Westland Affair, Margaret Thatcher spent that evening watching the first episode of Yes, Prime Minister. That juxtaposition of political fiction and political reality ended up becoming the basis for my planned paper: ‘Yes, Prime Minister and the Westland Affair: A Tale of Two Resignations’.

As it’s a one-day conference, I’m sure the whole thing will be a bit of a whirlwind. (I do wish it was longer; there’s certainly enough material on fiction and British politics to fill up several days’ worth of panels and papers and plenary lectures.) All the same, I’m greatly looking forward to it — the scheduled conference papers sound fascinating, as do the invited guest speakers. Two conferences in two months is daunting, but I wouldn’t miss either of them for the world.

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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 www.blackwellsynergy.com.

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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 www.blackwellsynergy.com.