Simon Lee and Matt Beech’s book The Cameron-Clegg Government: Coalition Politics in an Age of Austerity has, at first glance, a lot going for it. A line-up of significant academic names, a well-known and reputable publisher (Palgrave Macmillan) a subject matter that is rarely out of the news, and (unlike books about the 2010 general election) a field relatively clear of rival publications.
A second glance suggests one of its problems: although nominally about both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, there are five contributors who are listed as having published books purely about the Conservative Party but none with one listed about the Liberal Democrats. In fact, of the eighteen contributors, only one lists publications about the Lib Dems (Emma Sanderson-Nash, who has written articles and biographical sketches on the party). Moreover, there are two Conservative Parliamentarians and no Liberal Democrats. For a book about coalition, it is very much coming at it from a Conservative (and also Labour) perspective.
As a result, if you read it closely there are many occasions where the limits of most of contributors’ knowledge about the Liberal Democrats shows through, whether it’s in the minor mistakes (no, Ming Campbell didn’t lead the Liberal Democrats into a general election), the lack of knowledge of the party’s policy heritage (attitudes towards public services are frequently mentioned yet the Huhne Commission is not, for example) and the preference for trying to view the Liberal Democrats through the prism of other parties (and hence the curious decision to compare Nick Clegg’s views on public services with those of Keith Joseph rather than, if you are going to pick a figure from the 1970s or 1980s, a previous party leader such as Jo Grimond).
The up-side of all this is that whilst the contributors overall come over as knowing very little about the Liberal Democrats, they know plenty about Labour and New Labour – meaning that the chapters analysing the coalition by policy area often contain good analysis of the degrees of continuity and change with the previous government. Depending on your primary interests, the quality of that analysis may raise the book into the “well worth a read” category.
However, the book also suffers from the speed with which events have already overtaken a book published so early in the events which it describes. Some of those occasions are bad luck for the authors – such as the degree to which the NHS policies are now changing from what looked likely to be the case last autumn or the way in which events in Libya are shaping the government’s attitude to foreign interventions. Others, such as the way export figures and the Green Investment Bank plans are turning out rather different from what the authors were predicting highlight the perils of punditry without caveats – something some, though by no means all, of the contributors do.
In other words, if it is a book to be read, there are many merits in reading it sooner rather than later before it feels too much like a period piece.
If you like this, you might also be interested in The Coalition Effect, 2010-15.
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