The newly published seventh edition of Chris Cook’s A Short History of the Liberal Party, this time covering events up to 2010, is much like the previous editions. That is, unfortunately, a case of damning with faint praise.
The book deserves some praise. Above all, it exists – and Chris Cook has been one of the few to regularly take to print to record the party’s history. There are very few other books which cover the history of the party and its predecessors all in one volume. It provides a detailed electoral record of the Liberals, Alliance and then Liberal Democrats and has a good, short, introduction to the nineteenth century roots of the Liberal Party. The most recent section, explaining the formation of a coalition this spring, is also well written.
As that section shows, the book has been regularly updated – hence now being in its seventh edition – but though the updates have kept up with events they have not really tackled the book’s weaknesses.
Those are the narrowness of the book’s outlook – yes, it is good on psephology, but the personalities, philosophies and political strategies of the party over the years are mostly missing.
The books suffers from an apparent lack of clarity as to its purpose, throwing in detail that breaks up the flow of the narrative but yet paradoxically is not detailed enough to make it a comprehensive reference work. Knowing who became Lib Dem social security spokesperson in 1997 (Archy Kirkwood since you ask) would make sense in a book that itemised all the frontbench roles in full or in a book that placed such appointments within a larger picture of policy or other development. Cook’s volume, however, does neither.
It is also littered with errors, as if the book has not had the care of an editor or well-informed proof reader, which is curious as it is published by a mainstream traditional publication house – Palgrave Macmillan – and Chris Cook has been an editor himself. Some of the judgements also are rather questionable, such as the reference to Blair promising to help the Liberal Democrats win in the Winchester re-run of 1997 – a promise presented as if it were significant in determining the result.
A good example of the curious weakness of the text is the introduction, which starts off saying how the book is about the party’s history since 1900 – even though the reference to 1900 has been dropped from the title and the book itself does not start in 1900.
Hopefully an eighth edition will be along shortly which can concentrate on improving the existing text rather than having to add new sections at the end to cover new events.