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‘Downton Abbey’ Britain: Living with the Ghosts of an Imagined Past

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 18th 2019

‘Downton Abbey’: The Movie opened last weekend in the UK. It came at the end of a tumultuous week with the UK Parliament suspended, the UK government found to have acted unlawfully, and the Prime Minister accused of having misled the Queen.

This isn’t how Britain is meant to behave, and certainly not as portrayed in the cinematic version offered in ‘Downton Abbey’ and other period dramas. The popularity of such productions says something about the state of modern day Britain, and how it is represented and portrayed. This selective, mythologised version of the past is also increasingly framing the present – and our future.

The ‘Downton Abbey’ film is situated in 1927, one year after the General Strike and – despite the nods at division and turbulence such as trouble in the North of England, Communists, Ireland and republicanism, as well as wider anti-monarchial views – presents an England where class, hierarchy and order are defining values. Read the rest of this entry »

The Queen’s role in politics is one of the last remnants of feudalism

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, September 15th 2019

The Queen has been publicly involved in politics in the past few weeks on an unprecedented scale. There has been Boris Johnson’s suspension of the UK Parliament, the nature of his advice to the Queen, the Court of Session judgement calling his actions ‘unlawful’, followed by Johnson saying when asked if he mislead the monarch: ‘absolutely not’.

The Queen is the public front of an intricate, complex institution called ‘the Crown’. As any watchers of the Netflix series of the same name will understand, this entity sits at the centre of the British establishment and its networks of power and influence, and is staffed by a host of experienced, but nearly always discreet, advisers and courtiers who work for the royal household and Queen.

There are also what are called Crown powers or the Crown prerogative. This is the ancient ways that government has been run in the UK, once practiced by the monarch, but which have come to be used by the executive, and in reality, the Prime Minister, rather than Parliament. Tony Benn described the royal prerogative as ‘the final guarantee that democratic decisions by Parliament and the people could never be allowed to undermine the hierarchical and semi-feudal system we have.’ Read the rest of this entry »

The death of British conservatism as we have known it

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 11th 2019

British conservatism has been one of the most successful political philosophies and political parties the world has ever known.

As we speak it is engaged in the latter stages of its thirty year civil war on Europe, which has convulsed the party, bringing it to a state of near self-destruction, abandoning its traditional tenets and debasing constitutional norms that for most of its history have been its raison d’etre.

Whatever happens on Brexit in the next few months and years, much will have long term and irreversible consequences not just for the Tories, but for the rest of us. Michael Heseltine, former deputy Prime Minister, said this week: ‘We are literally fighting for the soul of the Conservative Party’ – which is true, but the reality is actually much more serious than that.

British conservatism used to stand for, or more accurately, claimed it stood for, parliamentary sovereignty, the rule of law, being pro-business, the integrity of the UK, and protecting and projecting Britain’s geo-political interests globally. This is how it has presented and understood itself although what it has actually done and stood for has long been more complex. Read the rest of this entry »

Boris Johnson and the art of self-deception

Gerry Hassan

Sunday National, September 8th 2019

Boris Johnson has long had a problematic relationship with the truth. When a journalist, he was fired from ‘The Times’ for making up a quote; in the last month as UK Prime Minister he stated that he was in favour of proroguing Parliament when he publicly said he was against it, claimed to be against having an election he was planning and then for holding a contest, and saying that he is negotiating a Brexit deal with the EU, while preparing for a No Deal Brexit.

One month ago at the Edinburgh TV Festival, the head of Channel 4 news and current affairs Dorothy Byrne said that Boris Johnson was a ‘known liar’ and needed to be called out as such by news outlets. This was met with controversy in many media circles, and led to Downing Street cancelling an agreed Johnson interview on ‘Channel 4 News’.

There is a long political tradition of lying in politics: infamously in recent times, Tony Blair and the Iraq war, Bill Clinton and his ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’ comments in relation to Monica Lewinsky. Before that, Anthony Eden lied to the Commons on the Suez invasion and had to resign; John Profumo and the sex scandal with Christine Keeler; and Margaret Thatcher and the infamous case of the Argentinian cruiser the Belgrano which she claimed was sailing towards the British task force when it wasn’t. Read the rest of this entry »

Britain is in a mess: Is a different democracy possible?

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, September 4th 2019

Nearly everyone now agrees that British politics isn’t working – and that our political system, politicians and Parliament are in a mess and broken. Even more than this, our economic system and social contract have long ago become frayed, discredited and stopped working for the interests of the vast majority of people.

This is the context in which the country is convulsed by Brexit. Everywhere people are talking, thinking and worrying about it. Out on a Saturday night in a local Indian restaurant on Glasgow’s Southside, I sat near four men in their 30s who worked in the construction industry, who proceeded to have a thoughtful, informed conversation about Brexit, with none of them uber-partisan.

Three years of public conversation on affairs of state could be seen as a positive in many circumstances: a mass act of political education and citizenship indicating the health of the body politic. But Brexit has been the opposite of that. Such is the anger, dismay and feelings of betrayal on both the Remain and Leave sides, and as critically, mutual incomprehension of the most fanatical true believers in each tribe in the opposing side. This has resulted in the UK Parliament being in constitutional and political gridlock for the past three years. Read the rest of this entry »

The People’s Flag and the Union Jack: An Alternative History of Britain and the Labour Party
Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and thinker about Scotland, the UK, politics and ideas. more >
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