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The British Polity by Philip Norton

New York and London: Longman 5th edition 2011, pp.478, €35.00 pb. ISBN 0-321-21666-0.

Reviewer: Clodagh Harris*

The fifth edition of this seminal textbook on the British polity from Professor Philip Norton (Lord Norton of Louth) was long overdue. It provides a comprehensive, detailed and insightful update on the fourth edition published a decade previously, and addresses developments in contemporary British politics.

Maintaining the central theme of continuity and change in the British polity, this latest edition considers the constitutional, political, economic and social changes which have taken place in the United Kingdom in the first decade of the twenty-first century. It includes new material and analyses on the peace process in Northern Ireland, the introduction of a Supreme Court, the 2009 expenses scandal in the House of Commons, the devolution of powers, the increase in support for third parties, and the changing nature and fragmentation of the mass media to name but a few.

Its arguments are presented in a clear, coherent and accessible manner. This is aided by the book’s format which includes six parts - Introduction, The Political Environment, Governmental Decision Making, Scrutiny and Legitimation, Enforcement and Feedback, and Conclusion. It starts with a comprehensive overview of the contemporary landscape in Britain including its political culture and ends with an examination of the challenges faced by the British polity at present as a consequence of the diverse approaches to constitutional change.

Each chapter is a self-contained unit offering information and critique while the accompanying tables and figures not only support the arguments made but offer a useful source of data for students, teachers and researchers alike. In particular, the author’s use of the ‘current debate’ format engages the reader in issues of contemporary debate which are not only of British interest. For example, Chapter 15 on ‘Communication and Feedback: The Mass Media’ addresses matters such as privacy, political bias, creating news and the publication of offensive material. That said this reviewer would have welcomed some detail on and analysis of the role played by the new social media such as blogging, facebook and twitter in political communication.

Although written primarily for a USA audience the book provides some European examples too. It also includes excellent synopses of key concepts in the discipline. For example Chapter five on the ‘Electoral System: Campaigns, Voting and Voters’ presents readers with a concise summary of the various electoral systems. Similarly, Chapter seven on ‘Interest Groups…’ provides a sharp critical overview of the development of pressure groups in Britain, using international comparisons while highlighting the challenges which they present to the contemporary political system.

Considering the author’s background as a leading political scientist and as a life peer, his analyses of the constitutional changes which have occurred as a consequence of recent EU treaties, the programme of devolution under New Labour and the incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) into British law are of particular interest. Presenting a thorough and decisive overview of the different approaches to constitutional change (from High Tory to Marxist) he concentrates on those approaches which have dominated the debate in recent decades (traditional and liberal) and the problems which they pose for the political parties in defining their stance on constitutional reform. Having assessed the changes which have occurred since the arrival of the new Labour Government into office in 1997, he concludes that ‘the constitution of the UK is being changed, but not according to any particular principle or goal. Hence, as we have seen, the country has not a new constitution but a modified – critics claim a vandalized - Westminster model’ (p.447).

Those of us with an interest in British politics are already looking forward to the sixth edition for the author’s examination of the constitutional changes which will emerge from the traditional and liberal approaches of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government which came into office in May 2010.