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The best books on British Democracy

recommended by Peter Kellner

Political commentator and President of chooses older books from both sides of the Atlantic to show what really matters in politics.

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Your first recommendation is The Penguin Essays of George Orwell. Should we still be reading them to understand our politics when the context must be so different now?

George Orwell was not only an extraordinary writer but he also hated any form of cant. Some of his most widely read works such as 1984 and Animal Farm are an assault on the nastier, narrow-minded, dictatorial tendencies of the left, although Orwell was himself on the left.

In these essays, his essential message is that clear writing is a product of clear thinking, and, conversely, often muddled writing is a consequence of muddled thinking, so it’s a great plea for clarity of thought allied to clarity of expression. He writes about the decline of the English murder, watching a hanging out in Burma and, in my favourite, which is called ‘Politics and the English Language’, quite a short four- or five-thousand-word essay he wrote in the mid-1940s, he deplores the slovenliness of quite a lot of political writing and journalism. He goes through some real examples. Over the years when any youngster has asked me about becoming a journalist, I say, ‘Read “Politics and the English Language”. If you absorb that and take the advice you are halfway there.’

How much of his polemical theme still rings true today?

Fundamentally, it still rings true. For example, in the novel Coming Up for Air, which he wrote just before the Second World War, there is an account of a left-wing meeting. The issues were different – Hitler and Stalin – but the description of the meeting, the sloganising, the emptiness of it, and his passion for saying to those of us on the left, ‘Let’s do better than this’, that is as relevant as it was several generations ago.

We turn to The British General Election of. . ., a series of books detailing every British general election, a series which has been going for how long now?

People call it the Nuffield series because it originated in Nuffield College in Oxford after the general election of 1945, and then it has been produced after every general election since the Second World War – 16 so far. The remarkable thing is that over a 60-year span, David Butler has been involved in every single one since writing the statistical appendix as an undergraduate in the summer of 1945. I have them all on my shelves and I look at them a lot. They are not only the best accounts of individual elections – and there have been some enormously important elections: Attlee coming in in 1945 and then Churchill’s return in 1951, the three-day week election of 1974, Thatcher’s victory in 1979 and Blair’s election in 1997 – but, together, it is almost like a six-decade partwork on the history of British post-war politics, done with a combination of rigour and accessibility. These volumes are a model of academic writing.

Theirs is a successful formula but they are never formulaic. There is always a chapter on the broadcasting, a chapter on the opinion polls and so on, but the formula is never rigid, and it is very easy to find your way around.

How much does it help to study previous elections in order to understand the one unfolding in front of you?

I think it is vital. I have been a member of the Labour Party now for not far short of 40 years, which is something I have never sought to hide – indeed I am very proud of it. And when I first became politically active myself, the person who recruited me into the Labour Party, a nice, mild man, said to me: ‘Every general election is a potential revolution. It is when the voters take power back from politicians for a day and make their decision.’ I found that a very appealing idea. It is not just that polling day is a decisive moment, but that the election campaign is when the politicians and the public really engage with each other.

For me, both as a journalist for 30-odd years and now as a pollster, one of the things that has always fascinated me, and that I have always seen as very important, is to understand that dialogue. Of course, all that any individual voter does is to put a cross on a piece of paper. From the results, you can inferentially work out the impact of, say, tuition fees or Iraq or the economy or immigration. But if you want to get a more direct view from the population you need opinion polls. You can also do it through referendums, which I think are a thoroughly bad idea. But the combination of polls and elections keep democracies and politicians on the straight and narrow.

So you, the pollsters, are guardians of our democracy?

I am there as a transmission mechanism. When people say polls are influential, that’s not true. If polls convey strong public feeling and politicians react to that, then it is the public who are influential. All the pollsters are doing is articulating the voice of the public.

I ask because so many people seem to feel alienated from politics. And they may pay attention at election time every five years, but even then quite resentfully.

Yes, I find it quite sad. I remember as a young journalist going out to cover the first free Portuguese elections the year after the dictatorship collapsed in 1974. You felt very much as you did seeing the pictures of people queuing in the sun for hours for the first free elections in South Africa when Nelson Mandela came to power: there was both a celebration and solemnity. Everybody knew this was important, that it mattered, to use their right as human beings to decide who governed them. I find it really sad when so many people in countries like Britain or America don’t take part.

My grandmother was a suffragette, and, in fact, I know the date of the first general election in which women first voted en masse, because it was the day my mother was born, 14 December 1918. Writing my book on democracy, I was looking again at the struggles, the physical struggles, the intellectual struggles, the ideological struggles, and the emotional struggles of people down the centuries trying to wrest power from kings, then from clerics and rich barons and spread it to ordinary people. So I find it desperately sad when people just shrug their shoulders and don’t vote.

So the 20th-century effort to extend the franchise was the latest stage of those first battles to resist tyrants. But don’t people feel now that politics has become a sport, which only a dedicated fan base like us cares about? And then we ram it down everyone else’s throat?

I think the politicians have to take some blame for that. It is not just the expenses row [revelations of widespread exploitation of a lax regime of parliamentary expenses], although the reaction to that has articulated those resentments. The more professional the world of politics has become, with spin-doctors and so on, the less appealing it has become to the public.

Politics used to be much more driven by distinct ideologies. In government it may be that there was less difference in performance but the parties did stand for very different things. Now, once the professionals get involved and they commission private polls from people like me, then Labour and the Conservatives discover roughly the same things about the swing voters. Then you get that business-style imitation and convergence because both sides are trying to use the same techniques to reach the same people. That may be wholly rational but the consequence is: where is the passion, where is the drama, where is the excitement? Where is the inspiration that gets kids in their teens and 20s involved if it is a homogenised, professionalised business?

Moving on to your next choice, Essays in Persuasion, why is Keynes so important to understanding our politics?

I studied economics at King’s College Cambridge, where Keynes was such a towering figure. I might have chosen to recommend his General Theory, which is his most famous single book – intellectually it was absolutely decisive in demonstrating how we should get out of the 1930s slump. The lessons that have been applied to the last 18 months since the collapse of Lehman Brothers were very much the Keynesian lessons: which is why it has been an uncomfortable 18 months but not a 1930s-style disaster. But in the end I chose Essays in Persuasion because this gives a much greater span of his thought over time, from the aftermath of the First World War and his assault on the Versailles Treaty and the damage it was going to cause – as it did, because in humiliating Germany it led, arguably, to Germany choosing Adolf Hitler – right through to the 1920s and 30s and the arguments over the gold standard, through some of the essays he wrote in preparation for his General Theory, right to his writing on how to pay for the Second World War. That was a very influential essay, which helped shape the financial management of a broke Britain. And every essay is readable and compelling.

Is it particularly British in its application?

He was writing about Britain and that was his experience. But I think he should be read, and could be read profitably, by people in Beijing, in Washington, in Paris or Rio de Janeiro. The underlying concepts and his assault on the narrow view of classical economics, these are important for us to learn and relearn every time the world economy wobbles.

Because of the latest world financial crisis, isn’t that classical economics at bay?

It is for a while. I studied economics in the 1960s and Keynesianism as it was taught regarded inflation as a non-problem. So when inflation took off in the 1970s, Keynesians were left with, frankly, nothing to say. That was one of the reasons why monetarism became so powerful. It was like that section in Watership Down where the rabbits become so complacent that they can’t see the danger coming. The Keynesians in the mid 1970s were like the rabbits – they didn’t see the danger coming and the monetarists swept through them. It is only really in the last few years that Keynesianism has regained some initiative. I would like to think that out of the economic dramas of the last couple of years, a more robust, 21st-century version of Keynesianism could be evolved. Because there will be future attacks from those classical economists and the monetarists. And perhaps the Keynesians could be just a tad less arrogant than they were in the mid 1970s.

What on earth is the Microcosmographia Academica?

F M Cornford was a Cambridge academic and he wrote this very short satire, not much more than a pamphlet, on university politics. In fact it is a wonderful satire on all politics. And some of our most familiar phrases, such as ‘the thin end of the wedge’ and ‘the principle of the unripe time’ or ‘setting a dangerous precedent’ all appeared in the Microcosmographia Academica.

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But he also makes some really serious points. For example, he says there is only one reason for doing the right thing, and that is because it is the right thing. There are lots of reasons for doing the wrong thing – such as it is ‘the thin end of the wedge’ or ‘a dangerous precedent’. These are all excuses for people who daren’t actually attack the proposal on principle and say it is the wrong thing. So this wonderfully elegant Edwardian satire is really a passionate demand for honest politics. And Cornford was a wonderful stylist. In the introduction to the second edition he devised that well-known statement: that propaganda is ‘that branch of art of lying which consists of nearly deceiving your friends without quite deceiving your enemies’. What a glorious definition.

We should bear it in mind over the next couple of months. Is there enough contemporary satire?

No, and what there is is too propagandist. The best satire comes at you almost unexpectedly, not from somebody obviously right-wing making an obviously right-wing point or an obviously left-wing person making an obviously left-wing point. I think some of the best satire of the moment comes from the other side of the Atlantic: I’m thinking of Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show. In American terms it’s obvious that he is pretty left-wing, but some of his assaults on Obama have been very sharp and there is real wit about what they do.

Rory Bremner is by some way the best satirist we have: ITV had a computer graphic satire, Headcases, but it didn’t succeed. The BBC has lost the bottle for it. At its best Private Eye is glorious, although sometimes it is a bit formulaic. If you are in the world of politics or journalism you have to know what Private Eye is saying.

Your last choice is completely left-field – what is this?

I came across Our Nation’s Archive on holiday in America a few years ago. I wandered into a bookshop and found this huge, 800-page A4-format book and brought it home in my hand luggage. The reason I fell in love with it is because it contains the story of the United States in documents. That sounds very dry but it isn’t. Because, as well as the obvious things – the Gettysburg address, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, John F Kennedy’s speeches and those of Martin Luther King – it has a load of other elements, such as the words to ‘Brother can you spare a dime’ and ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’. It has Atticus’s speech to the jury from To Kill a Mockingbird. It is done chronologically with a little introduction to each item so that you can see it in context. Rather like a good encyclopaedia, you open it to look at something and then your eye wanders to the next item and you can be very taken with that.

I thought there must be a British equivalent but there was none so I decided to write it myself – but to narrow it down to avoid giving people a hernia. Democracy is substantial but it’s not going to break your back. And I’ve tried to follow the same idea, so, as well as the Magna Carta, Gladstone and Churchill, there is Shakespeare, Milton, Shelley and George Orwell in there, along with Yes Minister and That Was The Week That Was. We included speeches from some of the opponents of reform, such as those arguing against giving women and working-class men the vote.

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One of the speeches I wanted is so often misquoted – when people say that ‘Westminster is the mother of parliaments’. The Victorian radical Liberal MP John Bright actually said that ‘England is the mother of parliaments’. Far from being complacent, he was making an angry point that England, which had so often led the way, was falling behind other countries in extending the franchise. I found the speech on microfiche in The Times and the real bonus was seeing the newspaper’s introduction, which said it was the text of Mr Bright’s speech ‘on his annual visit to his constituency in Birmingham’. So you suddenly see – his annual visit! – it was a different world.

So what is the virtue of going back and immersing yourself in these documents from previous stages of our political evolution? Do we tend to forget the struggles you talk about?

We do forget and they were real battles. The debates themselves often have a very modern feel or modern resonance. For example, George Canning, who was briefly prime minister in the 1820s, gave a speech defending rotten boroughs. One of his points was that rotten boroughs like Old Sarum, which had two MPs and no residents, produced some of the finest parliamentarians of the late 18th and early 19th century: people like William Wilberforce and William Pitt. Canning argued that if you did away with the rotten boroughs you would lower the quality of the House of Commons. Of course, this is an exact parallel to the arguments about the reform of the House of Lords today. And in a way he had a real point: so it demonstrates why, if one is a democrat, it is important to stick to the principle of democracy. Because if you get into the functionality, if you say the principle is to get the best people or the best government, you might well end up arguing against democracy, which has to be defended as a good in itself.

March 22, 2010

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Peter Kellner

Peter Kellner

Peter Kellner has been a political analyst, commentator and columnist for the past 30 years, and is now president of the internet panel polling company YouGov, which floated for £18 million in 2005 and has profit margins far higher than most of the market research industry. He is a long-term member of the Labour Party, but YouGov polls, which electronically survey invited participants, have been criticised by Labour politicians – possibly because the findings are thought to have broken a pattern in which traditional polls in the UK tend to overstate Labour support.

Peter Kellner

Peter Kellner

Peter Kellner has been a political analyst, commentator and columnist for the past 30 years, and is now president of the internet panel polling company YouGov, which floated for £18 million in 2005 and has profit margins far higher than most of the market research industry. He is a long-term member of the Labour Party, but YouGov polls, which electronically survey invited participants, have been criticised by Labour politicians – possibly because the findings are thought to have broken a pattern in which traditional polls in the UK tend to overstate Labour support.