Monday, 3 August 2009

True Brits?

Good news. MPs are sobering up.

Don't take my word for it; this is the analysis of Patrick Hannan in his new book A Useful Fiction: "The men seem to be a lot less drunk than they were in the days when I spent a lot of time at Westminster and, as far as it's possible to tell, less lecherous".

I suspect Patrick is right, if only because MPs no longer have to hang around until the small hours regularly waiting to vote. It's one of many enjoyable insights in a book whose subtitle is "Adventures in British Democracy".

Britishness means different things to different people, of course, whether for example you're an Islamic fundamentalist or a Scottish Prime Minister of a devolved United Kingdom. The book sets out to explore "the illusions and deceptions that lie behind the word itself" and what it means in "a nation in the grip of doubt and change" as the back cover blurb puts it.

Hannan argues that Britain is still recognisably what it was 40 years ago despite ever-present change, much of which has gone un-noticed, particularly by the people of England.

Change is not exclusively a recent, devolved phenomenon. "That in time of war, however inflated a war is to describe the Falklands campaign, a member of the public could go on television and rattle the Prime Minister over the sinking of the Belgrano, officially an enemy ship, showed you how much the world had changed", he argues. That televised rattling of Margaret Thatcher took place a year after the Falklands conflict but you get his point.

He is never afraid to point out when he feels an emperor is a bit short on clothing, in his usual entertaining way. The Prince of Wales won't enjoy the Hannan analysis of his views (perhaps Patrick should hide his MBE next time the Prince is in town).

He questions whether devolved administrations that lack the power to raise funds can call themselves "governments" even if they carry out tasks performed in England by the UK Government.

He writes of the Welsh Assembly debating chamber: "of an afternoon it's quite possible to find yourself alone in the press gallery, often an entirely appropriate reflection on the quality of debate on offer."

The book takes a timely dip in the Barnett formula waters, raising questions of accountability for institutions that can always blame others for perceived funding shortfalls. (Ed Balls, one of Gordon Brown's closest allies has made the case for giving the Welsh Assembly tax-raising powers to close that accountability gap).

Without some of the chippiness sometimes seen in the debate, he notes how sparsely news outlets other than the BBC cover Wales. One of the paradoxes of a growth of Welsh identity has been a stubborn reluctance to buy newspapers that feature Welsh news. The Western Mail now sells fewer than half the copies it sold a quarter of a century ago.

The book was completed just before the juiciest detail of the MPs' expenses scandal emerged, but Hannan presciently dwells on the issue and links it to the development of a burgeoning political class and the growing distance between the elected and the electors.

A distance reflected by the inability of many MPs who "couldn't see that not breaking the rules was not enough, that it didn't mean there was no sharp practice involved". (A fair point, even if it risks driving some of these sober, monastic legislators to drink.)

In theory, a discredited parliament opens up a gap in the people's affections for a new institution they can trust. Hannan quotes Peter Hain in pointing out that 80 per cent of registered under-35s didn't vote in the last Welsh Assembly elections. I still find that figure staggering; perhaps it will fall next time if people turn away from Westminster politics over expenses.

So where will the adventures in British democracy end? The book concludes with an analysis of Enoch Powell's views and career, including a very funny explanation of how Powell managed to appear to speak Welsh in TV studios.

He argues that despite Powell's apocalyptic predictions of violent racial tensions, the former Tory MP would still recognise today's Britain as the same country in which he made his notorious "rivers of blood" speech in 1968.

Northern Ireland, where Powell found a political home, is offered as an example of the riskiness of political predictions, but it's a fair bet that should the UK Government change hands next year Hannan will be able to pack his bags for fresh adventures in a Britain where, as he puts it, "the builders are still at work".

A Useful Fiction by Patrick Hannan (Seren, £9.99)

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