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An interesting read - as long as you don't expect it to deliver on the title
on 31 August 2014
Charles Clarke's edited collection is an interesting read - as long as you don't expect it to deliver on the book's subtitle. The book's twenty-seven chapters are by a series of senior figures from politics and the public sector, each addressing one major policy area. They are inevitably of variable quality, but the best are very good and the worst are not too long. Anatole Kaletsky's on banking is especially fine.
However, the chapter are by no means all areas that are too difficult for politicians to tackle. In several cases, the areas have been tackled - and it's just that the author doesn't like the answer politicians have come up with. Or even areas that have been tackled and the author likes the outcome, which makes a bit of a mockery of the 'too difficult' tag.
For example, one chapter is on the BBC's funding - an issue to which politicians have repeatedly provided an answer. The chapter's author, Adam Boulton, works for a rival broadcaster and doesn't like the answers. Fair enough, and he's not alone in that, but this is hardly the stuff of big long-term issues our political system can't cope with.
Likewise, another chapter is titled "Defending the UK". Have politicians really failed to defend the UK over the years? Perhaps I missed the years of Soviet occupation or the military victory of the IRA. Again the author, former army chief Richard Dannatt, is critical of what politicians have done but, again, this hasn't been a case of them failing to face up to long-term issues. It's been rather a case of them making decisions on how to deal with them that he disagrees with.
Moreover, other chapters are really about the successes of politicians in dealing with thorny issues - such as David Lipsey's on social care which culminates with the Dilnot recommendations being implemented, and Shirley Williams's chapter on nuclear weapons which (rightly) praises that to an "extraordinary extent we have managed to restrain nuclear proliferation [and] ... the fact that we have had neither nuclear war not even a major nuclear explosion [since 1945] is something few would have believed possible". That is a story of political success with the two major contemporary exceptions - North Korea and Iran - not for want of politicians willing to try something. The problem is finding the right thing, not those issues being locked away as `too difficult' with no action taken.
Those chapters are still interesting, but they do therefore rather get in the way of the analysis of why there are some issues that politicians do indeed keep on putting off dealing with, sometimes with disastrous results.
Think then of the book as an entertaining primer on a range of major issues rather than an effective analysis of the issues that are consigned to the 'too difficult' box.