I had the opportunity to buy this book at Hay-on-Wye but decided not too, put off by the fact that it had a union jack on the cover and the idea that a discussion on what it was to be British would be dry and formulaic. I was wrong.
Patrick Hannan starts with a quest to find out how constitutional and societal change has impinged upon our concept of Britishness and concludes that despite decades of immigration, devolution and membership of the European Union, Britain remains recognisably what it was 40 years ago.
Hannan conducts his search through a tour of the great British institutions. Starting with the British Council he looks at changes in attitudes to and by the British Royal family, the BBC, the fourth estate, the Church of England, Parliament itself and the new devolved administrations.
What is fascinating is the way that reform and change has come about without any coherent understanding of their consequences for the British state. In many cases the news networks that we rely on to help us come to terms with such changes have been left floundering in their wake.
The problem Hannan identifies is that whilst power and influence is being devolved to regional and national centres the great institutions have become more and more London-centric. He quotes an interview he did with BBC presenter, Andrew Marr about a previous book When Arthur met Maggie in which the observation is made that it is a ‘political history written as it were from a standpoint in Wales’. His reply is that ‘what I should have said, but didn’t because I was too slow to do so, was that one of the reasons for that was that there were not many coal mines in central London.’
This imagined conversation puts its finger on a fundamental point, that the Miners’ strike of the 1980s was an essentially regional dispute reported and perceived from the viewpoint of a metropolitan elite. That ‘seen from White City or Canary Wharf, the rest of Britain can easily become of little day-to-day account.’
Hannan touches on the decline of regional newspapers, the fact that the majority of national newspaper journalists are confined to the screens and telephones in their London offices and that as a consequence their understanding of what is happening in the country at large is much diminished.
He looks at the Anthony King report on the failure of the BBC to adjust to devolution and the lack of diversity in current affairs and news on the media and laments that it is ‘particularly ominous in what’s sometimes known as the ‘information age’, at a time when Britain is becoming more politically diverse, people have fewer reliable sources of information available to them.’
But the central tenet of the book is how change has been introduced for entirely arbitrary and opportunistic reasons without any understanding on the part of those who introduce it as to its wider ramifications. ‘The nature and style of politics in the United Kingdom are changing rapidly and the eventual consequences are unguessable. If you take a few bricks out of a wall you still have a wall. The question is how many you have to remove before you are left with a pile of rubble and you have to start rebuilding another, rather different structure.’
Scottish and Welsh devolution was first mooted by Harold Wilson as a response to the growth of the SNP and Plaid Cymru and to protect North Sea oil revenues, whilst the Good Friday agreement compromised British sovereignty by giving another sovereign state (Ireland) a role in the governance of part of the United Kingdom.
Change has happened piecemeal producing an unwritten constitution that resembles a patchwork quilt and yet attempts to bring coherence and logic to the United Kingdom and in doing so define what it is to be British in the twenty first century has met with indifference and obfuscation. As Patrick Hannan points out ‘if history is anything to go by nothing much will happen because doing something makes people’s heads ache.’
‘A useful fiction’ by Patrick Hannan is published by Seren and is available from most booksellers, cover price £9.99.