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.
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.