'When it comes to being British, everyone is an outsider.'
So begins the introduction of Patrick Hannan's A Useful Fiction, and he is not far wrong. In my four years as a non-British person living in Britain, the only times I've encountered a 'Britishness' that seems convincing is when the term is applied in contradistinction to someone who is, like me, demonstrably not British. It is not an easily defined identity; Hannan spends three chapters trying to determine just what constitutes Britishness and delivers, at the end of them, a half-hearted shrug. To be British is to be exclusive, it appears: although there are no hard and fast rules, as the British are a nation of many nations, religions, cultures, and even races, yet non-Britishness is readily apparent and obvious; thus in a curious sort of syllogism, Britishness is all that which is not non-British.
Or so A Useful Fiction makes it seem.
Ostensibly, the book's thesis is that, since devolution reared its head in the early decades of the twentieth century, the national and political culture in the United Kingdom has become something that would be unrecognisable to people only a few generations ago, especially since formal devolution took place in the late 1990s. Much of the book is devoted to an exploration of this process, taking in turn Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, and describing the way in which devolution has affected, and been affected by, the prevailing political character in those nations. Hannan also discusses what this has meant for England (the only nation in the United Kingdom without any semblance of home rule) and for the United Kingdom as a whole.
His conclusion appears to be that the ceding of sovereignty to devolved governments in the 'Celtic fringe' has created a bizarre mishmash of governance wherein some authority is shared, some is not, nobody is quite sure where that distinction begins and ends, and further independence (or, indeed, the opposite) depends entirely upon economic circumstance, constitutional reform, and contemporary political expedience. He touches upon many disparate subjects—Welsh language television, the North Sea oil, the Rev. Dr. Ian Paisley, Peter Hain, and that without which no discussion of devolution would be complete, the Barnett Formula—without achieving much in the way of cohesion or organisation. Devolution, he claims, has not been as much of a disaster as its opponents predicted, nor has it been as much of a success as its adherents hoped. National governments have little real power, particularly because the desire for central control at Westminster means that the UK government still holds the purse string; abandonment in Wales and Scotland of traditional party allegiances has created doubt, amongst Labour more than anyone else, that devolution will shore up party power in Westminster.
And whilst devolution has exposed many political and cultural differences that were previously overshadowed by the umbrella of a single British government in Westminster, it has also created an unsteady and perhaps temporary but no less real peace in Northern Ireland, which even thirty years ago few people would have believed possible. Where, then, will it lead the United Kingdom in the coming years? Much of that depends, Hannan claims, upon the outcome of the next general election. Will the Conservatives stand by while voters in Scotland and Wales return another overall Labour majority, even if the Conservatives have carried England, as they did in 1974? Will the call for independence in Scotland, and perhaps Wales, increase in volume if a Conservative government is returned? Either of these outcomes could raise important, and possibly divisive, constitutional questions.
One of the themes that comes across rather blatantly in Hannan's book, amongst a great deal of what I perceive as topic-hopping, is that constitutional reform is the refuge of desperate governments. Whether at the height of their popularity and in need of delivering what it promised its voters—as with Blair in 1998—or at the absolute nadir of its public support and in need of distracting the electorate from other woes—as with Callaghan in 1979—mucking about with the constitutional character of the country is usually done hastily, sloppily, and for ill-considered political advantage. I'm not sure whether Hannan intended this theme to come across as strongly as it did, but it paints a rather depressing picture of what this final year of Brown's government might be like. Already within the past nine months his ministers have considered changes to the Act of Settlement, a written constitution, a bill of rights and responsibilities, further reform of the Lords, electoral reform, and they have created—hastily, sloppily, and unnecessarily, according to many commentators—an independent regulator of Parliament and its members' conduct. Is it right that constitutional change should be undertaken in these ways, and for these reasons? Hannan's book, intentionally or not, answers with a resounding NO. It results, almost always, in the creation of an illogical, anti-democratic mess.
The problem with A Useful Fiction is that these themes and conclusions are extraordinarily difficult to extract. Although it is well written—witty, compelling, and in places downright amusing—it is poorly structured. Its thesis is never explicitly stated, and although the exploration follows a rough plan, with each chapter devoted to the broad subject of Britishness or a discussion of a particular region, within the chapters there is little in the way of topical or visual organisation (no section breaks or subheadings, for instance). The conclusion is also hard to find because, in typical journalistic fashion, Hannan (a journalist, in case you were wondering) finishes the work with a personal anecdote, followed by the rather broad and indeterminate statement:
New frameworks have been created in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and they're not going to be dismantled. In these circumstances England, or the regions of England, may join in. What is clear is that Britishness, being British, is something that in only a dozen years or so has been radically reconstructed. It isn't going to stop there. The builders are still at work.
This statement, as far as I see it, makes the rest of the book obsolete; whilst everything he writes does back it up, he never suggests that there are any arguments against it. Writing a book, however interesting, in support of a broad and rather uninspiring premise nobody disputes seems slightly like a waste of time.
And when I say it 'finishes the work,' I'm actually being slightly inaccurate. The last chapter, which reads like an epilogue, is devoted to the peculiar brand of Britishness exhibited by Enoch Powell. After an encomium on Powell's political astuteness a description of his career (complete with disquisition about his views on immigration), Hannan says:
Yet a quarter of a century on [from 1985] and Britain remains recognisably what it was then and what it was fifteen years before that, when Powell was making the most famous speech of his life at the Midland Hotel, Birmingham. The Tiber has not yet foamed with much blood.
Enoch was about as British as you can get and Enoch was wrong.
This final chapter is the only place in the entire book where immigration is dealt with in relation to what it means to be British. Why is it there? Throughout, there has been an examination of what is Britishness, and what is devolution, and where they commingle; Enoch Powell fits into that scheme not at all. The most generous interpretation I can give of its inclusion is that Enoch Powell was supremely British, and Enoch Powell made a mistake; therefore, of all the things that might constitute Britishness, an exclusive claim to infallibility is not one of them.