Friday, August 07, 2009

Book Review: A Useful Fiction by Patrick Hannan

I recently ran a quiz with a couple of copies of Patrick Hannan's A Useful Fiction: Adventures in British Democracy as prizes. Today I review the book in Liberal Democrat News.

A Useful Fiction: Adventures in British Democracy
Patrick Hannan
Seren, 2009, £9.99

Some books lead you on a brisk climb to a summit from which you can admire the facts and arguments marshalled below. This is not one of those books. Instead, Patrick Hannan takes you for an enjoyable stroll in the country. In his company you do not so much ascend peaks of knowledge as wander amongst them, here and there having an interesting feature of the landscape pointed out to you.

The theme of his ramble is the future of Britain, taking into account the changes wrought by the half-hearted constitutional revolution of the early Blair years. In his eleven chapters Hannan looks at the concept of ‘Britishness’, Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement, the new parliaments in Edinburgh and Cardiff, the impact of the European Union and much else.

He is never less than interesting and sometimes brilliant, but these qualities are rarely deployed to make a sustained case. So Hannan is right to say that the furore over ‘cash for peerages’ was ultimately beside the point: the real scandal was that the prime minister is allowed to appoint people to the second chamber. He is surely wrong to say that Twenty20 will oust test cricket as the premier form of the game – and what is such a digression doing in the book anyway?

Even his entertaining character assassination of Prince Charles – “He often seems very like the persona created by the great comedian Tony Hancock, someone whose abilities always left him short of his aspirations in, for instance, intellectual matters, and who subsided into a state of truculent pique at each failure” – is ultimately beside the point. It would be a dull monarchist who based his case on the personal qualities of the current heir.

So, inspired by Hannan, let me lie back... sorry, let me go on a ramble and think of England.

What to do about England in the new devolved United Kingdom is a question that will not go away. A Useful Fiction quotes Anthony King’s description of the country under the current settlement as “a huge whale in a small bathtub”, and without the counterbalance that the new parliaments offer in Scotland and Wales, it is England that has suffered most from the demise of local democracy.

The traditional Liberal answer is to call for assemblies to be set up in the English regions, but I do not find this attractive. There are problems on agreeing where the boundaries should be drawn and the inconvenient fact that on the only occasion when plans for an assembly were put to the public (in the North East in 2004), they were voted down decisively.

More than that, the regional system Labour has set up acts like a shadow, unelected variety of local government that makes it easier for Whitehall to force new infrastructure projects through in the force of popular opposition.

Perhaps the real problem is that English regional government appeals to those who do not feel comfortable with Englishness at all. Many on the liberal-left who are indulgent to Celtic nationalism still fear that England is too big and too irredeemably Tory to be allowed a modern constitutional form. They would rather see English identity hobbled by a collection of smaller assemblies.

Yes, Patrick Hannan makes you think, and these days I prefer rambles to route marches. He is an engaging walking companion, which means anyone with an interest in the British constitution will find something to enlighten, to entertain or to argue with in A Useful Fiction.

Jonathan Calder

1 comment:

Phil said...

I'm not an east midlander by birth but have lived here for half of my life. So I have to agree that there is no cultural mass to the region. Derby is geographically east midlands, but sits in a county that sprawls the Pennines, joining east and west. Nottingham used to share culture with north Notts, but that connection ended with deep pit mining. Leicester perpetually seems disconnected from Leicestershire, or maybe that's just the Mercury.

But there are distinct regions elsewhere in England. The old county of Lancashire, which includes Liverpool and Manchester, culturally remains in spite of local government reform. If you change home from Blackpool to Bury, you haven't "moved away" much. The local dialect changes a bit, and a bread bun may become a barm cake or a cob. But you're still in "Lancashire". No doubt, Yorkshire people feel the same about their county.

The assembly plan for the north east of England was rejected because it had no obvious purpose. It was presented as an extra layer of government and I remain unclear whether it would have replaced unelected regional government bodies. If the question had been "Do you wish to replace development, planning, agriculture and health quangos by an elected regional assembly?", perhaps the result may have differed. And why was the first/only referendum conducted in the north east, rather than in Lancashire or Yorkshire where there is popular, cross-party interest?

The existence of a Lancashire or a Yorkshire assembly does not mean that they have to exist elsewhere. If a region can't make up its mind, it can still be run by colonial commissioners and local government appointees, as now.

"Perhaps the real problem is that English regional government appeals to those who do not feel comfortable with Englishness at all." Obviously, I disagree. I think that when you acknowledge different cultures, you are more likely to understand connections. I like a nice piece of Lancashire black pudding and it works best with a dollop of Norfolk mustard.