‘Ruling Britannia’ is perfect for understanding why political reform is necessary.
Andrew Marr has been an astute, dominant political commentator for decades. Formerly Political Editor at the BBC, he has hosted the flagship ‘Andrew Marr Show’ every Sunday for 15 years, where an array of politicians and media commentators assemble for interrogation on the latest political developments. Alongside this, he has written a number of books on history and politics. One of his earlier works, ‘Ruling Britannia: The Failure and Future of British Democracy’, is a sterling, incisive read. That the book was published in 1995 makes the words within no less relevant or important.
Within the book, Marr, then chief political commentator at the Independent, takes readers by the hand and explores the murky, obtuse and sometimes hidden world of British democracy. Throughout the pages, the key relationship between the individual and the state - perhaps the bedrock of politics - is untangled and analysed. Voting, the process of deciding who governs over us, is portrayed as a radical act, even if individuals are voting once again for the same party and following family traditions. Even more radical is the concept of joining a political party, the membership of which, despite the brief surge for Labour under Corbyn, remains low.
This book is perfect for political obsessives like myself. Local government may seem a dull topic on the surface, but it is the main interaction individuals have with those in power. Whether through accessing schools, the collection of rubbish or dealing with neighbourhood issues, Marr makes a compelling case for why individuals can easily feel frustrated by politics. Laced in with this is an examination of national issues that prevent change, like the hegemony of the two main political parties and First Past the Post, an electoral system which, while ensuring strong government, can leave many feeling disillusioned and unrepresented.
What is remarkable about this read is the whistle stop tour of the political system it provides. A description and the merits and faults of key systems are made accessible to readers. Yet, despite this accessibility, Marr is unafraid to reference history and provide his own opinion in a manner that is far harder now he works at the BBC. For example, the whipping system, by which MPs of each party are told how to vote, is decisively analysed. The justification for the system - that, in return for a party helping you win a seat, you should vote with it - are made obvious. But the difficulties, not least an MP choosing between their personal philosophy and their party’s wishes, are clearly laid out.
Challenging and provocative questions are raised which deserve serious answers. Marr is unafraid to look at Britain’s changing international influence since the Second World War and the decline of the British Empire. While I believe the British Empire must receive greater scrutiny and attention, the book focuses on the future path Britain, domestically and internationally, can take. Part of this scrutiny focuses on the role of the media in shaping individual behaviour, with Marr arguing that Rupert Murdoch - media titan and owner of the Sun and Times newspapers - alone doesn’t shape the views of voters. Given this was written long before the dawn of Facebook and twitter, the book remains fascinating for exploring legacy media platforms like newspapers which continue to wane in influence.
Parts of the book can read like a politics module. On occasions it feels like Marr is covering everything possible in the word count available to him. Brief sections are raised on the impact of globalisation on communities, a topic even more pressing now than in 1995 when the Cold War had barely concluded. Similarly, sections like the purpose of pressure groups in politics, be they environmental or gender equality, are briefly summarised. Another book entirely could be devoted to them. However, Marr’s purpose is to provide both a broad approach for how people involve themselves in politics and why, to coin a phrase, things can only get better.
From start to end, I was struck by how many of the topics could have been written in the present day. In relation to the European Union, Marr talks of balancing ‘[getting] more out of world trade negotiations [as] part of a bloc’ against ‘the frustrations…of lost national autonomy’. In 1995, he is framing the European debate that would encapsulate British politics two decades later. There are divisions between a group who complain about the ‘loss of power’ to the EU and a group who are ‘denying’ anything has changed regarding the EU’s ‘bureaucratic and undemocratic haggling’. The passages are timely, haunting and prophetic by coherently producing the same slogans that would shape Britain’s future identity. In a more ominous manner, Marr also refers to the ‘home working revolution’ because of ‘technological changes.’ Even he couldn’t have foreseen how a pandemic would transform our public and private lives.
‘Ruling Britannia’ does have room for optimism. After investigating ideas and identifying problems, Marr poses both predictions and personal beliefs for how the political system can improve. Under a future Labour government (of course, this ends up being the Labour government from 1997 to 2010), Marr believes ‘Scottish Home Rule’, an extension of rights and Lords reform would take place. Pleasingly, all of those constitutional predictions were correct. However, so many arguments raised still require attention, with both Brexit and coronavirus reducing the amount of time for those battles to occur. Whether on the meaning of sovereignty, the undemocratic House of Lords, the role of the judiciary in politics or local government, areas of the constitution - how Britain functions - have been placed on the back burner. As Marr states, unlike warfare, ‘no heroes are required to die’ for those changes to occur. Instead, the question is whether politicians have the courage to implement such wide-ranging reforms.