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Customer Review

on 14 December 2013
This is an interesting read with plenty of memorable anecdotes drawn from centuries of history and politics. It takes a broadly chronological approach to the history of Westminster and ranges across the iconic buildings, institutions and personalities that have shaped the area and thereby the UK as a whole. Although it's full of quirky and revealing nuggets of information, it doesn't hang together particularly well. Whilst the 'parts' are great to dip in and out of, the 'whole' does not leave the reader with a particularly strong analytical overview of its subject. The evolving relationship between the legislative and executive branches is not especially well described and evaluated, and Westminster's position within the wider UK political system is not considered.

It reads like the author has taken a theme and shoved whatever historical trivia he fancies into the chapter. Some of the information doesn't really follow what has preceded it, such as the chapter 'Assassination', which is about PM Spencer Perceval's assassination in 1812, but which ends with a rather random paragraph about the emergence of Hansard as the official record of parliamentary debates. The book has many moments when it feels like the author is selecting material on a somewhat ad hoc basis. It means that there is plenty here to find interesting and informative (on the re-building of Parliament after the fire of 1834, for instance)but one is left feeling that a fuller account is to be found elsewhere. Given that it is called a 'biography' it doesn't spend much time exploring the inner life of Westminster. It's a tale of the surface changes and developments over the centuries (how road layouts have changed; how Downing Street developed; how the Palace of Westminster was re-built in the 1830s and 40s). It's the equivalent of writing an individual's biography by running through the events of the person's life without much reflection or analysis: a kind of 'this happened', 'then this happened' approach to biography. Given that the author attempts to consider the history, politics, geographical development and cultural significance of Westminster across 1200 years maybe he has taken on more than a 350 book can handle. It one wants to understand how policy is initiated and developed look elsewhere, and if one wants to explore the features of the great reforming governments that have shaped the UK this is not the book for you. It is a book of (partial) narrative history, rather than a book which looks to combine history with political analysis.

Having been quite harsh, I would recommend this book, but I would feel comfortable advising readers to dip in and out of it without feeling any guilt and I don't think one can expect to come away with a comprehensive knowledge of the subject.
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4.1 out of 5 stars