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The lack of a properly constituted British Constitution is one of the main themes of this book. What emerges from the dizzying to-ing and fro-ing of various governments is the extent to which each postwar Prime Minister has altered the terms of the job, according to what they wanted to achieve, or in the case of the less fortunate ones, what they were unable to achieve. Hennessy confesses to being an old-school Tory by upbringing, but an Old Labour man by temperament; his most genuine sympathies are displayed in the chapters on Clement Attlee (the immediately post-WW2 prime minister who introduced the National Health Service, amongst other things). But he is also dazzled by sheer verve in leadership, hence his grudging admiration for Margaret Thatcher. Yes, she (to use a Hennessy phrase) "made the weather" in British politics, not least in that she brutally dismantled democratic structures in the name of "defeating socialism" (her abolition of the Greater London Council is a particularly flagrant example of her contempt for what people actually wanted). On the other hand, she wrecked countless lives and ruined the fabric of British society in the name of "economic growth", which turned out to mean short-term gains for a few very rich people. Thatcher's unrepentant belief in the virtue of a "free market" (which was never really free anyway, not without vicious tariffs against nations unwilling to accept the terms that Thatcher and Reagan demanded) did uncountable damage to British society. The wounds that her policies created are deep and festering, and if there's any justice in history (which there isn't), she will be remembered as somebody who sold an extraordinary birthright for a mess of dubious investments. It takes an outsider to notice these things, but even as a teenager I could see how the Thatcher administration had depressed and demoralised a generation, whilst pumping another generation full of stupid greed and mindless acquisitiveness. One of the many fallouts of her reign is the sad decline of the BBC from a great national institution to a craven, market-driven supplier of trash.
The chapter on Tony Blair is one of the most interesting things in the book, even if Hennessy withholds final judgment on the guy. He points out that Blair has brought about some of the most spectacular constitutional changes of anyone since...well, since the war, probably; devolution to Scotland and Wales, some sort of ventures (finally) towards legislation in favour of human rights and freedom of information. (He doesn't mention the Northern Ireland Assembly, perhaps because it happened to late for the book.) Personally I reckon that these essays towards democracy have yet to be properly tried. But his criticisms of Blair's presidential, non-consultative style are accurate and justified. It remains to be seen if Blair gives a damn.
Hennessy's fundamental belief in the traditions (for they are no more than traditions) of British government is the real problem with this book. He gives great gossip; he is remarkably fair about such neglected periods as James Callaghan's administration (the one in which punk happened, pop culture fans) and the pretty-much stillborn administrations of Alec Douglas-Home, Winston Churchill (in his postwar government) and Harold Wilson's third crack of the whip. But really, this is an essay about how British government might be better carried on. He is too neutral, too much of a technocrat, to count the real cost of all these decisions. Shame, cause otherwise it's a cracking read.
The unwritten British Constitution is an "oral" Constitution. As Tom Nairn has shown (in The Enchanted Glass) there is, for this reason, a dreamlike quality about procedures, and even a childlike autism shown in the interface of Number 10 and the Queen, wherein a great store is laid upon special boxes of magic papers.
It used to be endearing. However, as Tom Nairn and Norman Davies (The Isles) show, the unwritten British Constitution did not in actuality evolve time out of mind but instead in 1688 where it appears that the ruling elites of the Isles discovered a way of getting along with each other that involved carefully following norms, and strongly agreeng upon negative propositions, especially what sort of fellows did NOT constitute a proper player of the political game.
As a result, the boundaries of the British political system seem firm and unyielding to its participants and to American tourists; indeed the attraction to a certain sort of American mind is the attraction of what seems to be a closed system, "little England", free of French influenza or the clamor of competing interests here in the States.
But precisely as a result of the supposed unwritten nature of the British basic law, the boundaries do have a tendency to shift in an unseen (because undiscussed) way, much like North Carolina's Outer Banks, or the Fen Country.
Seismic changes occur in the British system in fits of absent-mindedness and are neither discussed nor properly recorded. For example, contrast the fact that in the period starting with the First World War and ending about 1990 with the Charles/Diana divorce.
In this period, Republicanism was unmentionable and Britons acted as if the constitutional Monarch was undiscussable and not replaceable, which (as Nairn shows) silenced a healthy 19th century British Republican tradition, in recent years under discussion again because of the savage treatment of Diana Spencer by the media.
Far more seriously and as Hennessy documents, the rules of the game have a tendency to change drastically as a result of the personal style of PMs. The signal case is that of Margaret Thatcher.
Systematically over-estimating her actual intellectual capabilities in the manner of the mid-level scientific worker Lady Thatcher showed that by giving deliberate offense, one could secure short-term advantage among the clubbable. That is, she entered a system dominated by upper-class males like Ted Heath whose combination of male chauvinism and chivalry had no way of dealing with simple lack of courtesy, amplified by media thugs.
In the 1980s, the worst sort of bounderism flowed unchecked through a channel dug by the 1979 winter of discontent. As an American observer I am forced to use British words coined in the pre-war years to describe strivers who take unfair advantage, and it seems that Thatcher opened a sort of bounder sluiceway through which previously checked energies (some benign and some malign) flowed into British life. This bounderism thought rather highly of itself as opposed to lazy sods in trade unions and Cambridge Apostles in MI5. But it seems to have been best at destruction, and Thatcher's own exclusion from public life in 1990 was, as Hennessy shows, payback by an Establishment that she "saved"...from any sort of nonsense including democracy, economic and political.
Hennessy's introductory chapters show that under George III the Prime Minister was truly only first among equals, not even able in some cases to sack other ministers. Perhaps this is the origin of the attractive tendency of the greatest to try to work as team members; their authority was never confirmed. This was by 1980 a power vacuum which Thatcher merely exploited. In light of her silly aphorisms (such as "there is no such thing as society") Margaret Thatcher was intellectually underqualified but introduced an era in which underqualified men and women (including John Major, Reagan, Blair, and both the elder and younger Bush) have been given a special pass if their ideology is conservative, whereas the truly qualified (Blair, Clinton, and Sen. McCain) achieve genuine results in the teeth of a drumbeat of opposition.
Characteristic of this opposition is the way it marshals false promises and true miseries among outsiders without, of course, letting them into the corridors of power. For example, it is absolutely astonishing here in the States that both Bushes have been able to steal formerly Democratic voters, because the policies of both create such misery among the rural white underclass. Thatcher coupled an unjustified pride in her own degree in sciences with a paradoxical contempt for university trained specialists who did not toe her party line, and appealed over their heads to a populace excluded from higher education by the class system. Thatcher replaced genuine bottom-up institutions such as the Greater London Council with a government of statistics and numerical objectives easily fudged by insiders, and unexplained to outsiders, which Blair has preserved.
The Most Tony has achieved his success only by transforming the PM into a sort of Presidential office, and he did so because he's aware that the New Tories will act like Thatcher to forestall a more gentlemanly regime, using media leaks, gossip and whatever else comes to mind including perhaps the Mace, to thwack the opposition upside the head. Number 10 has become the Beltway.
Unmentioned in this is the serious devolution of any ability for a British subject or American citizen to participate meaningfully in political affairs WITHOUT being coded as some sort of nut. Writers like Hennessy and observers of the Beltway are fond of describing, in a sort of insider's way, Inner Rings of power. These Inner Rings are naturalized. But the fact of their existence only means one thing to the ordinary slob; an increasing lack of access to the formulation of policy.
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