My new home, the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge, is located at present in a politics and international relations department. It’s intriguing to experience the different kind of millieu and conversations that come with new disciplinary territory. Anyway, I’ve naturally read the books recently published by a couple of my colleagues.
Michael Kenny is the co-author with Nick Pearce of Shadows of Empire: The Anglosphere in British Politics. It looks at the history of the relationship between Britain and the English-speaking Commonwealth countries, mainly in the light of the Conservative Party’s lurch to Brexit. Interestingly, I started reading David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of the British Nation last night and he insists on the importance of Britiain’s links with Europe rather than Empire (or Dominions or Commonwealth) from early in the 20th century. Kenny and Pearce similarly find inconsistencies and flaws in the argument that the Anglosphere is a reality, and a realer reality than Europe; but they also describe the way that belief has persisted and, recently, managed to persuade just enough voters and subsequently parliamentarians to back their gamble. Shadows of Empire is mostly about the Tory party and the revival of the idea of the Anglosphere from the 1990s on. It doesn’t explore Labour’s Atlanticism and earlier, painful Labour rifts all that much. For a talk on the book, there’s this from the Festival of Ideas.
After that I read David Runciman’s How Democracy Ends, a superbly written and deeply gloomy book about the political pathologies we see all over the western world. Slow but inevitable decline, is his answer. He challenges the view that this is the 1930s all over again, arguing it’s unlikely that there will be anything directly comparable to those horrors – although accepting all bets are off should Trump/North Korea fire nuclear weapons, or a pandemic occur, or some other catastrophe. Instead, he forsees steady atrophy, because after such a long innings as a form of government, representative democracy has lost the capacity to resolve challenges like filter bubbles and rampant conspiracy theory-itis. The argument brought to mind Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, a polity fossilized by the long accretion of its own traditions – I often think of this dysfunctional realm when pondering something like the jungle of habit, interests, regulation and legal challenge in bits of policy I know anything about. There’s a talk based on the book on the Talking Politics podcast.