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3.8 out of 5 stars
3.8 out of 5 stars
The 'Too Difficult' Box: The Big Issues Politicians Can't Crack
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 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.
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on 17 July 2014
This book has a certain valedictory air, edited by Charles Clarke. It's very good bed-time reading for policy wonks as you can knock off one or two chapters a night. Most of the 27 essays, based on invited lectures at the UEA, are written, with some exceptions, by ex-Labour grandees or left-leaning members of the great and good. In that sense, these are the problems that they themselves rather than others found too difficult to solve. This is the homework they set themselves but most readers would regard them as a fair spread of 'too difficult' issues. No 12 by Anatole Kaletsky presents an interesting view of banking regulation (no bank is too small to be allowed to fail) and suggests that Gordon Brown really did 'save the world' in the 2008 crisis. Two essays on pension reform, by Patricia Hollis and John Hutton respectively, however, manage to avoid completely any reference to Mr Brown's raid on the private sector pension funds which practically destroyed private sector final salary pensions and did not do the stock market a lot of good either. There is an essay on Scottish independence by Jack McConnell, which is not really 'too difficult'. The Scots have quite clearly said that what they want at this stage is 'devo-max'. Westminster refused the SNP's request to have that on the referendum ballot. Rather, devolution is a solution with unintended consequences. Designed to 'dish the nationalists' it gave them a platform and now they govern Scotland. There is no essay on the really difficult issue, namely the 'English Question' or the 'West Lothian Question', which Tony Blair declared 'too difficult' when Scottish & Welsh devolution was introduced and which British governments have been avoiding since the time of Gladstone (see Linda Colley's book on Acts of Disunion and David Marquand's article in the June issue of Prospect magazine). This is one that the Labour worthies do not even wish to tackle, let alone crack, preferring to adopt Lord Irvine's advice that the answer to the WLQ is not to ask it. It will eventually solve itself.
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on 23 August 2014
A challenging and interesting read but as is all too often the case in an edited book the contributions vary a good deal in relevance and quality - the best are excellent but in some are not. In the latter case this is usually because their connection with the key thesis of the text as a whole is at best limited and at worst slight and/or obscure.
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on 3 February 2017
Was disappointed that it is a series of undetailed lectures but does pinpoint areas of great concern. It is also outdated by brexit.
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on 8 September 2014
Interesting articles by several well known writers. Very readable
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on 11 October 2016
Enjoyed by my 17 year old son.
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on 21 August 2014
I have once met the author and was part of a group that 'kicked around' the issues of that day. He was more open than I had expected, listened as much as spoke and was thoughtful in his engagement with those around him.

I didn't vote for him, but I warmed to his determination to make a difference and to work at key issues.

This book shows something more of that commitment and real effort to work the problems through. It is insightful of the man behind the necessary political hype and is written by someone who was there in a position to make things happen. I would like more politicians to speak/write of the challenges they address, as this book describes. It could do nothing but improve debate and respect for some of our elected leaders.
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on 29 August 2014
I haven't actually read the book, but I have a lot of time for Charles Clarke and have just watched him talking about the book on a book review prog on TV so came here with the intention of buying it.

However, I've been permanently put off by other descriptions of the book and the revelation that the authors were essentially on the left (rather than the cross-party approach that Clarke espoused in the TV interview). I have been PARTICULARLY disturbed by the revelation that some of the essays contain major omissions or re-writings of history that reflect their own authors' reluctance to criticise former colleagues or previous party failings.

This is precisely why a lot of stuff ends up in "The Too Difficult Box" - and it isn't a promising start that the book appears to be more a reflection of the problem than a pointer to the solution!
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