The book is written for a general audience. Its breezy informality makes a nice change from the academic jargon found in the works of many young scholars, but this does not always result in concision or elegance. Sentences groan under the weight of redundant adjectives. The word ‘prioritised’ is used fourteen times – once we are told that something was not ‘as closely prioritised as it might have been’. ‘Traction’ – as in ‘Forbes’s big idea gained no little traction’ – is another favourite. Reid-Henry is often witty, but I suspect that the funniest passages of this book are unintentionally so. I particularly enjoyed the brisk ‘marks out of ten’ awarded to historical figures ranging from Solzhenitsyn, whose ‘moralism ultimately prevented him from making the proper diagnosis’, to Johnny Rotten: ‘punk … was an effort at social rebellion that in some ways peaked too early.’ There are also some gnomically brief character sketches. We learn that Herbert Gruhl, a German Christian Democrat, was ‘in some ways a forerunner of America’s Al Gore; in many ways not’, and that Bill Clinton’s wife ‘was every bit his equal, if not more so’.
This last sentence, a sweeping, overconfident generalisation, is typical of his style. It takes courage to cram the past half-century of western political history into a single book, and to his credit he has clearly read widely and thought deeply about everything from the intricacies of Nixon’s monetary policies and the relationship between Helmut Kohl and François Mitterrand to the growth of the human-rights industry and the consequences of the Iraq War.