Good for the constitution

12th July 1996 at 01:00
Success in Politics, By Neil McNaughton, John Murray Pounds 12.95, US Government and Politics, By Andy Williams, Heinemann Pounds 12.99

Frank Conley recommends A-level guides to British and American politics. By any criterion Neil McNaughton's Success in Politics represents remarkable value: more than 500 pages if the glossary is included, and weighing more than a kilo. It covers many of the core topics of the new A-level syllabuses, and over 100 pages are devoted to American politics, pointing the comparisons with Britain.

McNaughton is at his best when dealing with political theory and the machinery of government. The first chapter, on concepts, eases skilfully into "real" politics, though the coverage is necessarily discursive: Hobbes, Burke, Mill, Machiavelli, the feudal system and the Indian caste system occur in that order on a single page.

His knowledge is extremely thorough, and he knows the exact authority or historical precedent to quote in support of each argument. He is especially good on socialism and social democracy among ideologies, and on pressure groups when dealing with practical politics. The comparisons with the United States are valuable for those students not studying American politics, especially where US federalism is compared with the European variety.

With such abundance it may seem churlish to complain of omissions. It is a little surprising to find no mention of the Jopling reforms to the working of the House of Commons, and in the context of local government reform there should be some consideration of the collapse of the Banham Commission and the sacking of its chairman. Though there are references to Northern Ireland dotted about as examples, there is no connected discussion of this topic, though devolution in Scotland and Wales is considered. Most serious is the very cursory treatment of civil rights and the judiciary, which are core topics in A-level syllabuses. It is a pity that some of the space devoted to such alternative ideologies as communism (12 pages) or anarchism (8 pages) was not used to expand the coverage of the relationship between judges and civil liberties, which rates barely a page.

US Government and Politics by Andy Williams is not much longer than the section which McNaughton devotes to US politics, and apparently covers similar ground.

This does not mean that it should be disregarded, since it has definite qualities of its own. Most important, it is specifically aimed at A-level students, whereas McNaughton seems to be writing as much for teachers. There is a light touch to the style which makes the narrative very readable, and the layout is clear, with explanatory sections in shaded boxes and comparative points outlined. The approach is firmly historical, with an emphasis on the development of the American system and comparison between the intentions of the Founding Fathers and the way the system works over two centuries later. At times this means a certain amount of repetition, but better that than ambiguity. Williams is not afraid to put forward opinions, such as that Jimmy Carter's relationship with Congress was "perhaps a little self-righteous".

What I miss in this book is any awareness that there may be serious structural weaknesses in the whole American system: that if President or Congress want to achieve anything, they have to break the letter or the spirit of the Constitution. "Irangate" is brushed aside as an aspect of an "imperial" presidency, and nothing is said about the question of the possession of guns as permitted by Amendment II. This is often, and rightly, cited as an example of the way in which a written constitution embodies the values and attitudes of its time, which may no longer be valid. Williams seems content to accept that the American political system is fundamentally sound.

It is the function of a reviewer to carp and niggle in the interests of possible buyers. Both these books have weaknesses, but overall both can safely be recommended, McNaughton for its thoroughness, Williams for readability. Future books on these topics will have to be very good to supplant them.

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