Book review: The British General Election of 1997

31 March 2009

I wrote this review of The British General Election of 1997, by David Butler & Dennis Kavanagh, in c.1998.

This latest edition in the Nuffield series of general election studies continues the fine record of relatively quickly producing a standard reference work which, if it will not answer all your questions about the election, will still give you an excellent starting point.

Four chapters give an account of politics in 1992-97. Although quite workmanlike, the account adds very little to what journalists have already, at some length, said. Whilst in previous volumes the equivalent accounts often added interesting new information, the growth in political coverage and analysis in the media means that much of what they say now has already been said too often by others. The book also often seems to lapse into Private Eye style – pointing out coincidences and thereby implying misdeeds without producing any hard evidence for a connection. For example, after mentioning the Sun’s switch to support Labour the book merely adds “It was noted that Labour had dropped its plans to block cross-media ownership.” With the authors’ long contacts with many senior politicians, the reader could reasonably have hoped for a bit more analysis than this.

The book concentrates heavily on Westminster politics, and the section on the Liberal Democrats is fairly brief. However, once the book moves onto account of the general election there is plenty of coverage – much of it favourable – of the LibDems. Other parties also get a look in, with all the significant minor parties (and several others) getting a mention. You might, for example, not find out much about what the continuing Liberal party believed in, but at least you can find out how their candidates fared

Although the section on constituency campaigning is down to just 14 pages, (it was 16 pages in 1992 and 99 in 1951), Butler and Kavanagh have shed much of their hostility to the idea that campaigning in individual constituencies can make any difference to the result. Indeed, they conclude (if you ignore p.211 and read p.311-12 instead – which it is easy to do in my edition as these latter pages appear twice) that targeting by the Liberal Democrats was largely successful, though targeting efforts by Conservatives and Labour did not appear to make any difference to the results in individual constituencies.

As is only to be expected, there are a few minor errors (such as p.74 which overlooks the fact that in 1989 the LibDems managed to beat the Greens in the Cornwall Euro seat). But there are also many thought provoking details, including the information that during the general election Amnesty placed four times as many national newspaper adverts as the LibDems.

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