It's Britain, but not as we know it

The Death of Britain? The UK's Constitutional Crisis
June 4, 1999

Last year India and Pakistan tested nuclear devices, Helmut Kohl was thrown out of office, an agreement was signed on Good Friday, Eritrea and Ethiopia were at war, the Japanese prime minister quit, Pol Pot died and Bill Clinton was impeached. None of this, it seems, impinged much on John Redwood. He was much more moved by an altogether different news story. In his new book, The Death of Britain? , he writes dejectedly: "One of the most poignant photographs of 1998 was the photograph of the royal yacht Britannia , stripped of the royal colours, being towed by a tug to her last place of mooring."

There follows, in a book of fewer than 200 pages, two full pages on the sadness of Britannia 's demise. For whom, one cannot avoid asking, was the photograph of the denuded Britannia "one of the most poignant" of the year? Redwood takes the answer for granted: true Brits. Well, was it one of last year's most poignant photographs for you? It certainly wasn't for me.

This titbit pinpoints Redwood's principal problem, both as a politician and as a social analyst. He thinks he speaks for everyone. But he lives in a world of his own, or at best in a world inhabited by a tiny chauvinistic band of his fellow countrymen.

"People do not usually like changes forced on them by governments," he writes. But which people, which changes, which governments? Many of the changes that people would like, would not, admittedly, be welcomed by Redwood's heartland supporters. But his supporters do not reflect the majority. His Britain is affluent and rather rural - his paradigm is the Countryside Movement - and it resists change because everything in its well-tended garden is sufficiently rosy already.

As an ardent Conservative it is predictable that Redwood should want to conserve most British institutions. But this forces him to decry other countries' ways, even those which work perfectly well. Whether or not you are a monarchist, it is obvious many countries operate perfectly well without a monarchy; whether or not you agree with the way the government has handled the break-up of the Lords, it is obvious most countries manage without a hereditary second chamber. Doubtless, to Redwood and his supporters, conservation of these institutions is patriotic. The reality is that it is myopic. Britain is Great, but it is far from perfect.

Nonetheless, the underlying thesis of The Death of Britain? is far from trivial. Redwood believes that a mishmash of interlocking developments now in train will destroy Britain. The changes he spotlights are devolution; the reform of the Lords; the marginalisation of the Commons; the weakening of the monarchy (hence the significance of the Britannia 's demise); the spread of proportional representation, which would impair an MP's constituency links; the globalisation and consequent loss of identity of British companies; and of course the increasing power of Europe and the threat of the euro. Taken together, he argues, these changes will unmake the United Kingdom and nobody seems to be noticing, still less to care.

This thesis is not untenable. As soon as it is stated it can be seen to have some justification. The trouble is that the details with which Redwood supports his case are frequently unsympathetic, not to say unsound.

The weakness of many of his arguments is cruelly demonstrated by the fact that although the book has just been published, time has already overtaken some of his direst fears. He huffs and puffs about the European Parliament being in thrall to the commissioners because it is nearly impossible to fire them. Oops! He grumbles about Peter Mandelson and Geoffrey Robinson emasculating the House of Commons. Oops! He claims Paddy Ashdown and Tony Blair are in cahoots trying to foist proportional representation on the country. Oops! Such lapses force you to question the soundness of Redwood's judgements and the foresight of his prophecies.

For most people, and certainly for most THES readers, reading The Death of Britain? will be like visiting a strange country. It is Britain in a distorting mirror: the same elements are present as in the real Britain, but many have changed shape so much they are barely recognisable.

"Our life is frittered away by detail," Thoreau said. And so are Redwood's arguments. Like his emphasis on Britannia , the details in The Death of Britain? frequently detract from, rather than bolster, the power of his polemic. Had he advocated his case in an essay, not a book,it would have been stronger, bolder and probably moreinfluential.

Winston Fletcher is chairman, the Bozell UK Group, and chairman, the Royal Institution.

The Death of Britain? The UK's Constitutional Crisis

Author - John Redwood
ISBN - 0 333 74439 X
Publisher - Macmillan
Price - £9.99
Pages - 201

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