The Official Voice of Our Broken Constitution Speaks

Professor Vernon Bogdanor, constitutional adviser to the Cameron government, embodies the complacency and conservatism of the British political elite.
Gerry Hassan
19 June 2010

Vernon Bogdanor is a respected authority on the British constitution, and someone who we should take seriously. In his writing and in his previous position as the tutor to the young David Cameron at Oxford University, Bogdanor has become in effect a pillar and part of the British constitution. 

Bogdanor is both a reformer and a deep conservative, someone who sees the British constitution in needs of radical overhaul, but believes in it as an idea and sees reform as reinforcing its legitimacy, authority and place without changing many aspects of what it does and its purpose. In this sense Bodganor is in the tradition of the last of the Whig imperialists.

In this week’s New Statesman, Bogdanor reviews Paul Addison’s No Turning Back: The Peacetime Revolutions of Post-War Britain. Addison, author of the magisterial ‘The Road to 1945’ identifies three post-war liberal revolutions in Britain since Attlee: Thatcherism, the progressive reforms of the 1960s, and Scottish and Welsh nationalism.  His most recent book, ‘The New British Constitution’ showed the limits of Bogdanor’s radicalism with his chapter on Scotland constantly referring to the SNP as ‘separatists’ with no explanation or quotation marks, the reasoning being that the Nationalists want to ‘separate’ from the British state.  

Addison is on unusual terrain as a mainstream British historian in bringing Scots and Welsh nationalism centrestage, and understanding the territorial dimensions and challenge to the British state which this posed. This is ground which the British state itself, its political class and hangers-on just don’t comprehend – whether it be the Labour hierarchy or establishment figures such as Bogdanor.

It is not surprising then that Bogdanor uses his review to take a swipe at this part of Addison’s thesis, and in particular, downplaying the impact of Scots and Welsh nationalism commenting after questioning the impact of ‘swinging London’ in the 1960s that: ‘It is equally easy to overestimate the force of Celtic nationalism’. 

Then, it is on to dismissing the impact of the Scottish Nationalists: 

The SNP achieved its best result - just over 30 per cent of the Scottish vote - in October 1974. Its support has fallen by a third since then. In the recent general election, more voted for the British National Party than for the SNP. 

The electoral comparison of the SNP and BNP in the recent elections is a revealing and ridiculous one; the SNP stood in 59 seats and won 491,386 votes and the BNP in 338 seats and won 563,743 votes. Whereas the BNP won 1.9% of the UK vote and the SNP 1.7%, the more relevant figure is the 19.9% the Scottish Nationalists won north of the border. 

The BNP are despite all the media hype a marginal political force across Britain – a party of two MEPs and a couple of dozen councillors who have failed to win control of a single council. The SNP are the government of Scotland, and the more relevant figure to cite as their popular support is the 32.9% they won in the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections. Bogdanor’s comparison has an element of Westministerism in it, but also a deep condescension towards Scottish nationalism. 

Bogdanor then goes on to paint a picture of a happy, contended Britain which has not been disrupted or challenged too much by the stories of Thatcherism and Blairism. Still despite the gloom makers and pessimists of left and right, the glorious story of Britain goes on: a kind of Plantagenet triumphalism of the forward march of some kind of liberal-ish progress and the continuation of its enlightened elites, and people like Bogdanor. 

He writes of Britain post-Thatcher/post-Blair that: ‘Addison surely goes too far when he assumes that the social-democratic settlement has been fatally undermined.’ Instead, ‘the road from 1945’ still runs powerfully through Britain: ‘The Attlee settlement dug deep’ whereas: ‘The Thatcher revolution, by contrast, was more superficial’, summing this up as: ‘We listened politely to her sermons and then continued in our old habits.’ 

Here is the voice of the Oxbridge liberal political elite who have shaped and dominated our country’s institutions and identities for so long. Thatcherism may have done damage and preached a gospel to us – but the ‘old habits’ linger on. There is a deep complacency in all of this, along with no real analysis of the damage done by New Labour, or the profound shift which Thatcherism and New Labour both responded to and gave voice and encouragement to. 

Vernon Bogdanor is in many respects unwittingly giving voice to the denial and collusion of our political elites with the vandalism and actions of the last few decades, and doing so in a way which misunderstands the nature of the United Kingdom. What an ominous sign for David Cameron’s government that Bogdanor has become one of their main constitutional authorities for the ‘new unionism’. This does not hark well for either the coalition or the union. 

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