Welsh art lovers are much addicted to landscapes, hence the late Kyffin William’s remarkable iconic status. A Useful Fiction, Adventures in British Democracy, too, is a work of landscape, although a very long way from Kyffin’s brooding palette. The canvass is wide, taking in the whole of Britain and Ireland, but Patrick Hannan was not one for the broad swish of a palette knife, but rather the steady accumulation of intimate detail, acute observation, sardonic wit and jaunty asides – a cross between Beryl Cook and Breughel.
There has been no shortage of writers to tell us that Britain is changing. They usually fall into two categories: those who lament the passing of a Britain they thought they knew, and would like it preserved in aspic, and those who would like to bring down the whole edifice. This book is different.
As befit the son of a emigrant Irish doctor, brought up in Aberdare, and the holder of both British and Irish passports, Hannan viewed Britain’s democracy from outside the English and British metropolis, both geographically and mentally. It is also a book that seems to delight in the fluidity of our current situation, and the sheer unpredictability of things. But it is definitely not a book to be lodged in the local interest sections of our large bookstores, rather a wide-ranging and mature reflection that draws on a lifetime’s reading and observation, and a depth of quirky knowledge that made him one of the stars of the BBC’s Round Britain quiz.
It is also prescient. In a chapter entitled Where have all the voters gone? he was ahead of the game on MPs expenses: “The system of allowances (a word with neat overtones of legitimacy) was in many ways a sham devised to keep the public in the dark about the money MPs received and why they received it.” He did not, however, join the lynch mob on this issue.
The expenses row rather illustrates one of his main theses that in the British constitution nothing is quite what it seems. Things happen “in fact, if not in theory”, like MPs allowances – or were they expenses? – or the transfer of sovereignty in different directions from our supposedly still omni-competent Parliament.
The book is prescient in other ways too. Hannan rightly surmised that Peter Hain’s rehabilitation was only a reshuffle away. It happened only a week after the book was launched at the Hay Festival. Then again, his excoriation of the Prince of Wales for wishing “to put Britain back the way it once was, or the way he thinks it once was, which is not the same thing”, was swiftly followed by yet another architectural row between the prince and Richard Rogers. Neatly, he described Charles as “a one-man Britain walking (or, more often, being driven) among us.”
Unlike most works on constitutional matters A Useful Fiction is entirely jargon free and immensely readable, as anyone who knows Hannan’s work might expect.
Countless committees are presently beavering away at the intricacies of the Barnett formula, and at its possible substitution by a needs-based formula, something Hannan describes as a “poverty contest”. His account of the current block grant for Scottish and Welsh governments is both funny and sobering – “leaving [the devolved governments] little more than pensioners drawing their allowances at the Westminster Post Office. They have to allocate a large part of their income to the fundamentals of everyday life – food, power, accommodation – and with what’s left over they can choose between cat food or a couple of pints of beer.” Why do I see Rhodri Morgan in that picture?
Hannan’s journey took him through all three nations of Great Britain and both parts the Irish island, tracing the elusiveness of Britishness, and concluding that Britain “is not actually country, but a state of mind”, and that English people are the group least alert to the governmental revolution that is taking place. He observed Scotland as it toys with the notion of independence and the prospect of becoming to England “what Canada has long been to the US”. He also noted the rise and fall of the Irish ‘tiger economy’ and its relevance or irrelevance for Welsh circumstances.
Hannan was not an evangelist for any cause – either conservative or radical. He was always resolutely sceptical of the certainties of the faithful. But as Britain faces yet more constitutional change – if we are to believe the politicians – this book is an incisive and accessible guide to, as he put it, “the rebuilding work that’s taking place behind the scaffolding and tarpaulins of Britishness”.