Friday, 7 January 2011

A political Christmas

It's a bit late, but I've finally got around to finishing this article about my political-related Christmas gifts. I'll try not to make you too upset by reminding you that Christmas is now long gone and this is the most depressing part of the year. I've listed all the items and then summarised/reviewed them all, as well as provided links to where I found them cheapest in case you want to get your own copy.

The Thick Of It - Complete Boxed Set

This, along with the West Wing, served as my evening entertainment over the Christmas holiday. Set in the fictional Whitehall Department of Social Affairs (later Social Affairs and Citizenship), the political comedy dishes out laughs with a bitter, cynical tone. Ironically for a TV show centred around politics, it's the least politically correct show in existence due to the unique character of Malcolm Tucker. Imagine Alastair Campbell, but on steroids and with no nuance whatsoever. Whilst being highly amusing, the series is in many ways a successful critique and parody of the New Labour years, with reference to such things as the conflict between the PM and the Treasury, the plethora of backroom advisers, and the constant obsession with image and message. The first and second series (usually marketed as one series together) are the best of the show. I originally saw the third series when it was aired on TV, so I'm looking forward to re-watching it, as well as enjoying the first two series and the longer specials. It seems that the first series was the glory days, with Chris Langham's portrayal of Hugh Abbott, a hapless, out-of-touch minister, being lost from the third series due his sudden departure as a result of his trial.

Having watched the first extended special, I felt that Malcolm's character was push too far to the extreme; he was no longer likeable at all, and simply rude, obnoxious, and generally vile with no redeeming features or even positive motivations whatsoever. Whilst Malcolm has always been an obnoxious character, he just became so vile that I didn't enjoy the episode as much. If you're new to the programme, I'd suggest just getting Series One first; it's an acquired taste, and if you don't like it when it's at its best in Series One, you won't like the specials or Series 3.

Having said that, I'd love to see this series return, ideally with the Labour-style Government replaced with the Opposition which is occasionally seen in the series. Especially the leader of the Opposition who merges aspects of David Cameron well despite looking like Al Gore. The spin doctor for the opposition - who takes a very different and potentially more amusing approach than Tucker - could be a greater character to have return.

Buy: currently cheapest on The Hut (No, I don't get commission for the links - I'm just trying to be helpful.)

The West Wing - Season One

I was a bit sceptical of this as I had heard about it being overly-sentimental and optimistic about politics. At times, it certainly is. Unlike the Thick of It, the President plays a role in centre-stage, but his staff are still the focus of the series. So far, the President is portrayed as so likeable, normal, and nice that it borders on the absurd. He seems to spend more time playing cards, eating, and trying to find his glasses than making decisions.

Having said that, it strikes a good balance at most times between political drama, humour, and the personal lives of the characters. It's also good to see that it deals with some interesting and important issues, particularly in one of the earliest episodes in which the President must make a choice about the right military action to take after a US plane is shot down in Syria. In its portrayal of this event, the drama deals well with the concept of the balancing of human emotional reaction and a more considered, thought-out response. Similarly, but less dramatically, the effectiveness of Government is also brought into question most clearly in the episode where the White House battles with rebel members of Congress over gun control legislation. Not only does it highlight the far greater independence of the US Congress to our own Parliament, but deals well with the complicated web of interest groups and public opinion which the President has to manoeuvre around on contentious issues like gun control.

It's a good and enjoyable show, though perhaps sometimes a little too sugary. I can't imagine the President in real life walking into a room at the exact right time, finishing someone else's sentence; telling a short personal anecdote; and then telling representatives from a pressure group to "get your asses out of my White House." President Bartlet is styled on Bill Clinton though, so it's a possibility. Oh, and one of the characters - Charlie Young, personal aide to the President  - is so far uninteresting, irritating, and predictable. I could tell from the first moment he was in same room as the President's daughter that there would be a storyline about a relationship between the two. Yawn.

Buy: currently cheapest on Amazon UK

The Andrew Marr Collection

This DVD set includes both The Making of Modern Britain and The History of Modern Britain. The Making of Modern Britain starts in the early 1900s - the time of David Lloyd George's Liberal reforms, in which things like pensions and unemployment benefit were created. Speaking of which, the series may therefore be useful to GCSE students if they're doing the liberal reforms topic, since - from memory of watching it when it was first broadcast - it makes what can be a dry topic a little more interesting. It then charts major political and historical events up to the end of the Second World War in 1945. Of more interest to me is the History of Modern Britain, which covers post-WWII history. This series essentially charts the main events and political intentions of our PMs, as well as covering the decline of the Empire and foreign relations. One of the episodes I was lucky enough to catch on the telly was about Thatcher's premiership, in which Marr presented a well-balanced and interesting summary of Mrs T's time as PM, which made a nice change from the usual love/hate Marmite discussion which goes on about her.

Buy: currently cheapest on Zavvi

  The Presidents

This is a box set which covers all the Presidents of the United States, even the ones who no-one remembers and who aren't regarded as standing out for being successful or an utter failure. Within each slot, facts as well as the views and interpretations of historians and political commentators is given, which provides different interpretations about the premierships of these chaps. I am hoping these DVDs will be helpful for the Presidency section of my Politics A-Level, and before my exam in January I'll try watch from Kennedy onwards to see if I pick up anything useful. It's made by the same people who did the Cold War box set, which has been good in what I've watched of it so far, so I expect it will be as useful and interesting as that.

Having watched a bit of it, a criticism is that the section for each President is just too short. Only about 5 minutes is allotted to each, which whilst good for brevity and summary, attempts to squeeze down the content into slots which are too small. This also means that he commentators who give their opinions on the Presidents are wasted; they clearly said much more and had a lot more to say, but their contributions were cut right down to meet the demands of length.

Buy: currently cheapest on Amazon UK

Decision Points - George W. Bush

I can imagine that he had a brainstorming session to choose the most dramatic title for his book. I've only read a bit of it, and until I do get around to reading the whole book (probably a summer holiday project), I'll read specific sections or look up certain topics which may prove useful for my A-Level. I suspect it will be particularly interesting to see his view and opinions on the more controversial parts of his administration, specifically the Iraq War, and his explanation of the reasoning behind it.

Rather than being chronological, each chapter focuses upon a particular event, the issues involved, the decision-making process and eventual outcome. The first chapter, which I read the first few pages of, didn't pique my interest much because Bush is writing about his alcoholism and giving up drinking, which I'm not really very interested in.

Buy: currently cheapest at Asda

Memoirs of a Tory Radical - Nigel Lawson

An interesting chap, especially as economic policy played such an important role in time of Margaret Thatcher's tenure.Lawson has written a couple of books before, including one which challenges the view the climate change is caused by human activity, and another entitled 'The Nigel Lawson Diet'. It does seem a little odd for a former Chancellor to write a diet book, but each to their own. This book - despite being mahoosive at about 650 pages - is a 50% smaller version of his original memoirs, 'The View From Number 11' released shortly after he resigned as Chancellor over the failure of the European Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM). I asked for this book because I'm very interested in the Government of Thatcher, especially her uncompromising fiscal policies. I hope it will be interesting to see the motivations behind economic policies, and whether he disagreed with the Iron Lady on certain policies. It doesn't seem to be a very popular book, though; there are no reviews of it on Amazon. Certainly it'll be something I will try to finish reading before University, as it might help give me a bit of ammunition to defend Thatcher and her economic policies if the need should arise.

Buy: currently cheapest at Amazon UK

The New Machiavelli - Jonathan Powell

With all the focus upon Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson, Jonathan Powell is often overlooked. He served as Blair's Chief of Staff from 1997 up until Blair slung his hook in 2007. Along with Campbell, he was given powers to issue orders to Civil Servants, and played an important role in Blair's entourage of backroom Kitchen Cabinet advisers who provided suggestions for policies.

Firstly, Powell puts forward the view that Machiavelli's name has been misused and besmirched, with his view being that he was a far more decent statesman than he is remembered. He then goes on to tell anecdotes about his time in the Blair Government, analysing these specific examples to determine whether Machiavelli's methods still work in modern British politics. Other than that, I have not yet read enough of this to comment more extensively, but his experiences inside Number 10 should be interesting to read.

Buy: currently cheapest at The Book Depository

Nothing to Envy: Real Lives in North Korea - Barbara Demick

This is currently the main book I read for pleasure. I suppose the fact that I class a book about an oppressive dictatorial regime as "pleasure" suggests I'm a bit messed up. Demick tells us the true stories of Korean defectors, sometimes exploring how their lives intertwined together. I get a bit confused about who's who when she does this, because I'm bad with names, so am hopeless with Korean names. That aside, the book is interesting and enjoyable, and whilst Demick understandably seems to take a slight pro-American and pro-Capitalist view, she does not shy away from pointing out the successes which North Korea enjoyed in the post-WWII years with the support of the USSR and China. Whilst the oppressive and controlling Government was always a big issue, people in North Korea enjoyed a reasonable standard of living - higher than that of those in South Korea for a while. The collapse of the Soviet Union brought the state-run economy to a grinding halt, and with Kim Il-sung and his son Kim Jong-Il refusing to adapt to the modern capitalist world, North Korea sunk deeper and deeper into poverty. North Korea has many similarities to the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Nazi Germany. People are encouraged to inform on each other, and there are severe punishments for criticism of the Government in any way; anything up to execution or a life in labour camps. Unlike these countries, it never adapted and still clings onto its dictatorial regime today. Whilst the capital Pyongyang appears in some ways normal - after all, it is the show-capital of the regime which is accessible to the few tourists who want to enter - through the accounts of the citizens who managed to escape the state, the difficulty and tragedy of life in North Korea is revealed, especially in the forgotten towns and rural villages.

Buy: currently cheapest at The Book Depository

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