03 July 2009

"A Useful Fiction" by Patrick Hannan


This is the first time I've put a book review online, but hopefully, it won't be the last: I've spent the last few days reading "A Useful Fiction: Adventures in British Democracy", by Patrick Hannan.

There are a few things that strike me: firstly, this is a book for moderates. Hardline Unionists may will feel vindicated by his calling into question what has been understood as "British-ness", but on closer inspection, might be unsettled by some of the twists and turns he takes. Conversely, fundamentalists might be equally vindicated by his questioning of British-ness, but will be disappointed that the book keeps returning to the theme, as though Hannan currently takes it as a given.

Another key point is that I suspect a second edition won't be far behind: Hannan's subject matter - essentially the outlook of the nations of the UK and their interaction with each other - is one that has been in flux for some time, and many recent events are referred to. Indeed, with the Calman Commission referred to, but with the book clearly having gone to press before the report, there'll already be scope for an update.

I suppose you could say that Hannan is reluctant to take a clear line himself: you'd expect that from a BBC journalist. You'd also expect to see (or at least, believe that you see) clear hints of what the author actually thinks. He's a closet Unionist, a closet Nationalist, a closet Socialist, a closet Thatcherite. Any or all of these could end up levelled at him.

One other thing that hit me was that he doesn't seem to like many people: he seems to have little time for Prince Charles, the Daily Mail, the Daily Telegraph or the Murdoch press. He seems a little more sympathetic to Peter Hain though, with almost a whole chapter becoming a reflection on the man's political history.

Anyway, there's a Bryson-esque quality to the work: firstly, there's the occasional tangential account of personal history or memories, which evokes Bill Bryson's style. Secondly, readers of "The Lost Continent" will recall Bryson's search for Amalgam, the archetypal all-American small town, that Bryson goes in search of, then realises that he will find in pieces, with elements of it scattered in towns across the country. His constant return to Amalgam came into my mind when looking at Hannan's attempts to return to the main theme of the book, the idea of British-ness.

Nevertheless, the more flag-waving end of the Unionist spectrum won't be happy. Firstly, he asserts the idea that overt patriotism is, in a way, un-British and so the Gordon Brown zeal for stronger displays of a UK identity falls flat. Certainly, his descriptions not of Northern Ireland, but of the mainland's reaction to NI, back that idea up: he suggests that people on the British mainland can't relate to their displays of political allegiance.

Meanwhile, there are a few suggestions that might raise eyebrows. Certainly his view and reaction to England, particularly in the current political landscape, has echoes of the imagery put out by Jim Sillars in "The Case for Optimism": both see England as a massively large component of the Union (let's face it, it is) and take the view that more often than not, the smaller nation have to react to England. Sillars had Titanic England; Hannan has a Whale in the Bathtub.

There's also a frustration that "Britain" gets conflated with "England", the "Home Counties" or "London", and his discussion of the media (a brave topic for a BBC journalist, and though Auntie gets a ticking off, some might suggest that it got off quite lightly) certainly displays a level of frustration at the London-centricity of the press, at the expense of local journalism elsewhere.

And, more damning for the Unionist cause, he takes a look at some of the traditional pillars of Britishness - things like the class system, religion and sport - and questions their impact on national identity. Or at least, their support for Britishness.

Further, what begins as a repeat of the regular refrain that the banking crisis has killed off independence for now takes a different path as Hannan understands that the misfortunes of RBS and HBOS are just one piece of the puzzle, and his comments on the Republic of Ireland and the Celtic Tiger are at once a dismissal and an endorsement of the Irish model of independence.

However, nationalists might be unsettled at his suggestion that calling British-ness into question isn't the same as calling the Union into question.

I was surprised by the almost Beadle-esque approach to where England and the metropolitan classes fit into things. You know the scene, in Beadle's About, where some poor, unsuspecting punter turns up at an office, and we hear the voice of the late Jeremy Beadle, letting us in on a secret: "What Sue doesn't know is that we've connected her desk to the National Grid..." You can almost see that style creeping in: "What John Birt doesn't know is that opposing a Scottish Six makes one of the nationalists' points for them..." I'm paraphrasing, of course, but there are times where it feels like Hannan is letting us all in on a few secrets involving the path to devolution.

In many ways, that's the mark of a good communicator: we're drawn into his world, as he shares his secrets with us. Comparing Hannan to the late Jeremy Beadle may seem unorthodox, but let's not forget that Beadle was a massive draw at one time and once got a hefty audience share, boosting ITV's viewing figures during the all-important Saturday prime-time slot. The pranks were cruel, but we got to share in the gag.

There are the occasional frustrations, however. Obviously, the subject is a fast-moving one, and so Hannan is always going to be difficult to pin down. As such, there are very few conclusions reached: he argues that the natures of Britain and Britishness have been changed for good, and that the change will continue. But he does not possess a crystal ball, so can't say where we're going. He constantly refers to where England and the English fit into things, but again, he offers no projection or direction for England's relationship with her neighbours.

For me, however, there is one key frustration: Hannan asserts that while devolution represented a massive change in the way the nations think of themselves and each other, it was part of a process that stretches back to 1973 and the entry into the Common Market. He keeps referencing that, and discussing Europe in passing (in particular reactions to Europe in the various UK nations), but it would have been interesting to see more on how that was the case. He could have expanded on that very easily and it would have given us even more food for thought. Instead, we have a whisper, an echo of an idea. I would have preferred it, had this been firmed up.

So all in all, it's worth a read: Unionists will feel comforted as he takes us on a journey through the British state and psyche; Nationalists will be fascinated as he scrutinises some of the key landmarks along the way. My warning is this: if you are going to read it, do it quickly, before half of this work ends up out-of-date.

1 comment:

Scottish Unionist said...

Interesting review. I've just ordered a copy. Thanks.