Britain Since 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy, By David Marquand

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The Independent Culture

In this rich, articulate book, the rickety trajectory of UK politics over the last century - with a succession of weird individuals at the helm - is deftly related by a historian with insider knowledge.

Though it takes a little while to get underway, Marquand's insightful narrative describes the tenacious recurrence of political traits down the decades. Harold Macmillan was a "Whig imperialist to his fingertips" and this tradition is continued (in modified form) by David Cameron, who has "developed an emollient rhetoric of inclusion, harmony and evolutionary gradualism". In the case of Margaret Thatcher ("a revolutionary, albeit of a highly unusual kind"), we learn that "her Tory nationalism ran alongside a... largely unrecognised streak of democratic republicanism." Marquand regards Blair as the Scarlet Pimpernel of British politics: "His protean indeterminacy baffled the Conservatives as much as it baffled colleagues."

But once "he had become Bush's prisoner... his best qualities – his stubborn self-belief and indomitable will – conspired with his worst ones to bring him down." In a new conclusion for this paperback, Marquand sums up the story of British democracy as "one of courage, perseverance, wisdom, selfishness, folly and self-deception". It is the very fallible nature of the participants who flail through this strange stew that makes politics so compelling.