The myth of Mr Butskell: the politics of British economic policy, 1950–1955. By Scott Kelly. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002. Pp. viii+248. ISBN 0-7546-0604-X. £42.50.
The Labour party and taxation: party identity and political purpose in twentieth-century Britain. By Richard Whiting. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Pp. xii+294. ISBN 0-521-57160-X. £45.00.
British social policy since 1945. Second edition. By Howard Glennerster. Oxford: Blackwell, 1995, 2000. Pp. xii+260. ISBN 0-631-22022-4. £15.99.
Governance, industry and labour markets in Britain and France: the modernising state in the mid-twentieth century. Edited by Noel Whiteside and Robert Salais. London and New York: Routledge, 1998. Pp. xi+295. ISBN 0-415-15733-1. £45.00.
The final result of political action often, no, even regularly, stands in completely inadequate and often even paradoxical relation to its original meaning. Max Weber, Politics as a Vocation (1918–19)
Hugh Gaitskell (Labour chancellor of the exchequer, 1950–1) remarked in 1957 that ‘professional politicians, when they have been in the job for any length of time, are not well fitted for really deep thinking, partly because they have no time for it and partly because the very practice of their art involves them in continual simplification’. This candid observation has important implications for the study of how past politicians formulated policy. The books under review all deal with differing aspects of British (and also, in one case, French) economic and social policy in the twentieth century. They all show, to varying degrees, that parties, governments, and other political actors have proffered apparently simplistic and muddled solutions to important problems. But was this because of intellectual deficiency on their part, or was it an inevitable consequence of the exercise of what Rab Butler, Gaitskell's Conservative successor, famously called ‘the art of the possible’?