I am not accustomed to being sent books, free of charge, on the supposition that I might wish to review them. And yet, clearly, it is a practice which I would seek to encourage. So when Patrick Hannan’s ‘A Useful Fiction: Adventures in British Democracy’ found its way through my letter box on precisely that premise, I fully intended to find something positive to write about it. It was with growing disappointment that I realised, with a clear conscience, I couldn’t possibly claim that this was a good book. Indeed even the few points of half hearted commendation which I thought I might bestow upon it were dwindling rapidly. So, attempting to rescue something from my original store of goodwill - Patrick Hannan writes fluent, readable prose. That’s all.
Hannan’s book aspires to be (I think) something of a state of the nation piece, which takes as its basis the notion that devolution has altered irrevocably the landscape of British democracy. Which is a thesis that, whilst it is undoubtedly true, is hardly enough on its own to sustain a decent book. But beyond this rather amorphous idea Hannan does not get far. The difficulty is that there is no central premise which draws together the author’s ‘investigations’, nor does the half assed collection of anecdote, observation and interview, which forms the book’s core, offer any substantive insight into the issues at which it is gesturing. ‘A Useful Fiction’ reminds me most of the type pf writing which one finds in the magazine of a Sunday newspaper. It is full of sweeping generalisation, garnished by a little local colour but substantiated by almost no empirical evidence. Worst of all, it is composed mainly of hint and insinuation, rather than anything vaguely approaching a conclusion. Reading it is a profoundly unsatisfying experience.
The author is evidently sceptical about the United Kingdom and Britishness and enthusiastic about identities which he perceives as flourishing under devolution. He fights shy of describing himself as a nationalist, but disproportionately it is through nationalist voices that he chooses to investigate the effects of devolved government. There is a pervading sense in the book of unionism as an anti-progressive force, which is never qualified, justified or investigated. Conversely the notion that nationalism can represent anything other than a centre left ideology, committed to egalitarianism and free prescriptions, is not explored. Hannan makes allusions on a number of occasions to the European Union and a blurring of borders and sovereignty, but just when you think he might be about to touch upon something original or interesting, he leaves his thought dangling, half-formed.
What Hannan does do well is cartoon and stereotype. He would probably make a serviceable satirist, but instead he chooses to present his brand of wry cliché as a credible version of Britain as it is in actuality. Thus we have the national identity reduced to obstruction of progress and suspicion of foreigners, as epitomised by readers of the Daily Mail. It might provide a facetious swing to the author’s prose, but this is no serious examination of identity and nationhood. Britain has assimilated an extraordinary range of immigrants, for the most part with few difficulties. We have a society which is remarkably sensitised to causing any type of offence. Yes we are excessively preoccupied with celebrity, sensationalism and have developed a rivalry with our near neighbours. Those are traits which are common to the modern developed world, rather than the UK. Picking out iniquities associated with the mass media and elevating them to defining characteristics of Britishness is neither plausible nor insightful. Taking the piss out of Prince Charles might be fun, but it does not make the rest of his countrymen modernity hating, homeopathic remedy junkies, however much Hannan might attempt to suggest otherwise.
I do not wish to dwell on the most sweeping of Hannan’s stereotypes. He depicts Northern Irish people as a whole, and unionists in particular, as an exotic breed of puritans who lack the charm to interact successfully with their fellow citizens. I think most people here are immune to any offence caused by this type of cliché. I will merely point out that the comparative success which Terry Wogan has enjoyed in mainland broadcasting may partly be due to the mellifluousness of his accent, but Gerry Anderson’s parochial style bombed because it is crap, not because the rest of Britain loathes his accent!
Although I might not agree with its argument, if a book is persuasive, scholarly and well written it still makes a worthwhile read. If its argument is half-baked, if it is poorly researched and if it is composed mainly of hearsay, conjecture and stereotype, then it deserves to be criticised. ‘A Useful Fiction’ will leave its readers less enlightened about Britain and less enlightened about devolution than they were before they read it.