Choosing a politics textbook

booksChoosing a textbook for your first year politics course can be a daunting prospect, as much for those delivering the course as for students embarking on a degree in politics. As I write this a pile of no less than eight different politics text books totters on the edge of my desk, many of them in multiple editions. Most are designed as broad introductions to British government and politics and cover broadly the same ground. Alongside them sits an, albeit smaller, pile of politics dictionaries, and a diverse assortment of general introductions to recent developments. Selecting a single volume from this ever growing pile is no easy task.

Keeping up with events

One simple and effective criteria is to select the most recently published textbook on the basis that if a week is a long time in politics then the years between editions of most standard textbooks amount to a political epoch. The pace of political change in the UK over the last few years means that most politics textbooks are out of date long before they hit the bookshops. Publishers generally attempt to keep up with the electoral cycle so that new editions of established titles appear after each general election. But with two general elections in a little over three years, interspersed with a referendum on EU membership, the demands of keeping pace with events is has posed a particular challenge to publishers and those responsible for writing textbooks.

politics ukThis year’s students have the benefit of a new edition of the of the popular Politics UK textbook by Bill Jones, Philip Norton and Oliver Daddow, the 9th edition of which was published in the spring of 2018. Although this is a long-established franchise the latest edition has been substantially revised to reflect recent developments. The strains imposed by Britain’s impending exit from the EU is woven through many of the chapters, notably Deacon’s chapter on devolution and Norton’s chapters on government and parliament. The book also benefits from an excellent new chapter, ‘From Euroscepticism to Brexit’, by Bill Jones. The impact of the Trump Presidency on British politics and policy is also examined, particularly in the chapter on British foreign policy, while the idea of ‘fake news’ is scrutinised in the chapter on the mass media.

Another valuable feature of recent editions of Politics UK is the inclusion of short think pieces at the end of each section under the tagline, ‘And another thing…’ These provide valuable commentary on key issues and events. The 9th edition includes interesting pieces by Simon Jenkins on the future of the UK, Bill Jones on fake news and Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett on equality. The only problem with these short commentaries is that one can no longer simply dispose of the earlier edition when a new one is published and students would be well advised to seek out earlier editions. While students embarking on a degree in 2018 will be well served  by the 9th edition of Politics UK, I would also recommend that they read the short end-pieces from earlier editions such as Mark Garnett on the 2011 riots, Peter Riddell on the decline of the mainstream media and Michael Moran on whether it is possible to buck the markets from the 8th edition, Andrew Gamble on the legacy of empire and Chris Mullin on the parliamentary expenses scandal from the 7th edition and Hugo Young’s excellent essay in the 6th edition.

One solution often adopted by publishers to accommodate rapidly changing events is to issue supplements or append additional chapters to popular texts covering recent events. The best recent example of this was Michael Moran’s Politics and Governance in the UK, Although the 3rd edition was published in August 2015, Palgrave rushed out an updated edition in 2017 reflecting recent changes to coincide with the start of the new academic year. This was not a new edition but largely comprised the addition of a new preface by Moran covering the EU referendum and the 2017 election. Nevertheless, Moran’s textbook which was published after the 2015 election also has much to say on other recent developments. The debate over Scottish independence, for example, is treated in considerable depth and reflects the book’s overall aim to expand our understanding of British politics and governance beyond the dynamics of Westminster and Whitehall.

It is also worth noting that even the most recent editions of textbooks rarely offer an entirely new perspective on events. One of the reasons that textbooks can go through many editions in a relatively short space of time is that recent developments are generally absorbed into an existing, usually successful, framework. It is the nature of textbooks that they rarely present cutting edge, original research but provide a distillation of current received wisdom on particular issues, and at best, an introduction to key debates in the wider literature. In the case of the latest edition of Politics UK, for example, the chapter headings and indeed the content is broadly the same as in previous editions.

Partly as a result of this, another criticism of many politics textbooks is that they often focus too much on explaining the relatively unchanging systems of government, but provide less effective commentary on the more dynamic politics which takes place within them. While most will provide an introduction to the principal actors and institutions of the British political system they can, at times, read like guidebooks or manuals, which explain how the system works but not why it operates in a particular way. Rather like a Haynes car manual they often adeptly explain how the machine operates but don’t consider the impact of whoever is driving it. This is a point well made in this review from The Times Higher in which Eric Shaw observes that some politics textbooks, including an earlier edition of Politics UK, can:

…leave one with the impression of analysts with a solid mastery of British politics intent on delivering learning in a cool, precise and scholarly manner. Equally [they] exhibit a somewhat Whiggish view of the British political system and never prod the reader in querying fundamentals.

In many of these books the answer to the question ‘who runs Britain?’ often begins something like ‘Britain is a parliamentary democracy….’ which perhaps somewhat misses the point. In response to this, in previous years I have recommended Dearlove and Saunders excellent Introduction to British Politics, which covers much the same ground as many of the other textbooks but in many areas offers a more thoughtful and critical edge. Sadly, the most recent edition was published in 2000 and is unlikely to meet the needs of students starting their degree in 2018. The previous edition was published in 1991, and was a set text on my own undergraduate degree, so the prospect of another edition any time soon are remote.

Joint or single-authored?

Another worthwhile consideration is whether textbooks are single-authored or include chapters by a range of different authors. It is the nature of academic research that most scholars tend to develop depth of knowledge over breadth. The advantage of books with multiple authors is that individual chapters are usually contributed by experts on each subject. Single-authored books in contrast reflect the expertise, but also the limitations, of a single author’s knowledge. Writing a textbook which encompasses in some depth every aspect of British government and politics is a tall order, even for the most accomplished scholar, as this article in The Time Higher observed.  Nevertheless, some, including Michael Moran, have done so with some success.

Moreover, books by a single author can sometimes display a coherence and consistency of purpose which can be lacking in those written by multiple authors. There is also often an appealing quirkiness which can make single-authored textbooks somewhat more readable. While nobody sits down and reads a textbook in one sitting, if forced to do so I would choose something like Moran’s Politics and Governance in the UK or John Kingdom’s Government and Politics in Britain over Politics UK.  A new edition of Kingdom’s book, now jointly authored, with Paul Fairclough, author of several A level politics textbooks, was published in 2014, and is well worth a look. The chapters on ‘Social Context’ and ‘Mind Politics’ are particularly valuable and I have long admired Kingdom’s, at times amusing, recommendations for further reading, and particularly viewing, at the end of each chapter.

A slightly different kind of politics textbook is represented by the multi-authored or edited collections which don’t seek to explain how the political system works but instead provide informed commentary on the most recent developments. These books won’t help one to understand, for example, how parliament works or the relative merits of different electoral systems but they will help to explain what impact recent governments have had on political institutions and processes. By seeking to be current, these books have a built in obsolescence but they are vital and thought-provoking and should be read alongside the standard textbooks. The most prominent example of this genre is the Developments in British Politics series which is currently in its 10th edition, imaginatively entitled Developments in British Politics 10. Anthony Seldon and Mike Finn’s edited collection, The Coalition Effect, 2010-2015 is another valuable example, from a series which has charted the ‘effect’ of every Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher. Sadly there is not as yet a single volume on the Cameron ‘effect’, although Cameron’s brief period as Prime Minister of a majority government may well preclude this.

Study guides

Recent years have seen a growth in the publication of study guides. Some of these such as the Palgrave Study Skills series are designed for students across disciplines. Of these, Stella Cottrell’s  Study Skills Handbook is still the best, but there are now a bewildering array of other guides in the series covering subjects such as essay writing, undergraduate research and critical thinking.

polircompDiscipline specific study guides are less common. The 2nd edition of Robert Leach and Simon Lightfoot’s excellent Politics and IR Companion, was published in 2018, and is probably the most useful volume to sit alongside Politics UK on the politics student’s bookshelf. This invaluable reference work combines short dictionary-type summaries of key concepts and key thinkers with more subtantive chapters outlining the evolution of the study of politics and a truly excellent section on study skills which will support undergraduate students from their first lecture to their final exam. The inclusion of a chapter on employability encompassing advice on applying for jobs and internships is a significant addition to this edition.

Another recent example of a student focused guide is Doing Politics by Professor Jacqui Briggs, the sadly departed head of the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Lincoln. This short guide not only provides an introduction to the subject but also invaluable commentary on what one is likely to encounter when studying for a degree in the politics, with details of the likely content of a politics degrees, teaching methods and employment prospects.

In defence of a dictionary

dictFinally, a word about dictionaries. It may seem somewhat obstinate in the days of the internet and Wikipedia to recommend that students buy something as antiquated as a dictionary but a good dictionary of politics will be an invaluable addition to the politics student’s bookshelf. It is important to remember that studying politics at degree level is a specialist pursuit in the same way as engineering or medicine. One would not expect a medical student to Google a patient’s symptoms, and similarly a politics student confused about the single transferable vote or the nature of multiculturalism would do well to reach for a good dictionary of politics rather than their iPad. The latest of edition of the Oxford Concise Dictionary of Politics was published in 2018 and, in a welcome development, has been expanded to encompass international relations. There are other dictionaries on the market. Bill Jones’s, Dictionary of British Politics  is dated but still useful and distinguished by the fact that it focuses solely on British politics, which may or may not suit, while the Routledge Dictionary of Politics contains fewer but often more substantive definitions and is particularly strong on concepts and ideologies. While politics dictionaries are periodically updated, having the most recent edition is less important than with textbooks which deal with events, and older or previous editions can often be relatively inexpensive.

Nobody needs eight politics textbooks, not least me, a single edition of the most recent will generally suffice, as long as one understands that each has its limitations and there is much to be gained from dipping into the others from time to time. Having a copy sitting on the edge of one’s desk will be a considerable source of information, a useful prompt to do some reading and an occasional cure for insomnia. For much else the library beckons.

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