I thought you all might be getting a little fatigued with your Presidential race (I may be wrong) so I thought that this week’s Very Short Introductions column might come as a welcome break. Dr Tony Wright, the Member of Parliament for Cannock Chase in Staffordshire, is the author of British Politics: A Very Short Introduction. He has kindly answered a few questions on politics on this side of the pond.
OUP: You talk in the opening chapter of your book about the confusion between Britain, England, and the United Kingdom. Eight years into devolution, do you think the confusion has improved or got worse?
TONY WRIGHT: There is a lot more attention to this issue now, inevitably so. Independence is on the agenda for Scotland now that the nationalists are in government, and there is more focus on the English question too in terms of England’s place in the union and a growth in Englishness. It is no longer possible to use words interchangeably as it once was. But much is still confused!
OUP: “The British enjoy a marvellous constitutional illiteracy. They think pluralism is a lung disease. This is not because they have no constitution… but because they have a constitution of a peculiar kind.” Can you briefly explain our peculiar constitution for our non-British readers?
WRIGHT: It’s the peculiarities of a constitution that has been made up over time, adjusting to circumstances, and never taken in hand or written down in a joined-up way. That’s why it’s been called a ‘political’ constitution. Whether we can go on like that in the future is less clear than it once was.
OUP: Is Britain still “the home of strong government”?
WRIGHT: In key respects, yes. There are more checks now (such as the Human Rights Act) but executive power is still largely in place. Just compare the different responses to the financial crisis in the UK and USA. In the latter Congress was central – in Britain, Parliament was not even sitting!
OUP: Back in 2003 you wrote a piece for The Guardian newspaper calling for an end to political spin. Has this been achieved?
WRIGHT: I called for an end to outrageous and excessive spin, and I do think it has been reined back from then. But spin of some kind is intrinsic to politics – it just has to be kept in check and not allowed into areas (like the civil service and official information and statistics) where it should have no place.
OUP: Once people have read your British Politics: A Very Short Introduction, which books would you point them too next?
WRIGHT: I would suggest Anthony King, The British Constitution and David Marquand, Britain since 1918: The Strange Career of British Democracy.