At one time it was possible to study politics using a single textbook which could be trusted to cover all the necessary topics in a more or less balanced way. This is no longer the case. Today's students are expected to understand a variety of interpretations and to study some aspects in depth. This has meant a significant change in publishing. A general book now usually covers the core syllabus common to all exam boards and more specialised books deal with topics such as elections or pressure groups or entire optional papers.
These three books are the first in a series intended to cover the main optional papers for the various A-level boards. They are well-produced hardbacks at a remarkable price for these days.
International Politics is extremely good, clear in material and approach without watering down the essentials of the subject. After setting the context, the book deals principally with key concepts and case studies. The 18 concepts include power, state and sovereignty, and - the longest subject - war. The case studies, including Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Gulf conflict, are carefully chosen to illustrate the concepts. There is crisp analysis of alternative approaches, and concepts are clearly explained, with summaries at the end of each chapter. Peter Jones is not afraid to challenge conventional wisdom, for instance, describing Woodrow Wilson's commitment to "open covenants openly arrived at" as "a recipe for disaster", and there are nice touches of irony. For example, he says deterrence operates as long as the parties to a dispute are not influenced by "such irrational considerations as ideology or morality". This would be a valuable book for students and teachers of history as well as politics, and would open the eyes of trainee diplomats.
Duncan Watts has already written several useful books on the European Union, and his latest is no exception. He is particularly good on parties, transnational and nationalist. The section on policies, including the environment, the Common Agricultural Policy and immigration, is supported by clear, relevant case-studies, many British-based.
He is also very good on the Maastricht Treaty and its implications, although he has less to say about institutional reform, such as the increasing role of the European Parliament in influencing the powers of the commissioners, and the calls from some members for changes in the Commission and other institutions before widening of the Union takes place.
Comparative Government is more variable. Some parts are very good, especially the thought-provoking chapters on pressure groups and open government and the media, where there is genuine comparison of a variety of political systems. Many chapters, though, simply describe one system after another, mainly the UK and the US - juxtaposition rather than comparison. Analysis is sometimes cursory - for example, it is not really enough to say: "The insider-outsider typology is less applicable to the USA because of the separation of powers" and leave it at that.
Students may be put off by the constant references to unexplained authorities - by the fifth page, Bodin, Hobbes, Locke, Hegel, Gentile, Weber and Arendt have all been mentioned, leading to the unworthy suspicion that the author is merely showing what he has read.
Students need books that help them find what they need, and this is my general regret about the series. The books by Jones and Davies have no index. And the index in Duncan Watt's book is sketchy and organised by chapters, making it hard to use, although the use of boxes and tables makes this the most student-friendly of the three.
It is a pity there was no editorial decision on consistent layout and indexing. Students cannot be expected to imitate reviewers and read straight through. Teachers are trying to instil research skills as well as knowledge, and it would be useful to have help from textbook writers.
All in all, though, this is a valuable series, dealing specifically with examination syllabuses. I look forward to a book aimed at ULEAC Paper Two: "Introducing Post-War Britain".
Frank Conley is head of politics at Harvey Grammar School, Folkestone, and a member of the Hansard Education Panel.