Affairs of state

The Hidden Wiring: Unearthing the British Constitution by Peter Hennessy Gollancz, pounds 17.99
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The Independent Culture
This review necessarily starts with a health warning: Peter Hennessy has recently reviewed the reviewer's recent book, favourably. Had Hennessy not been a national ornament, then readers of a mildly suspicious nature would have been strongly advised to turn elsewhere. If you are very suspicious, do so anyway.

But he is an ornament and this is a very good book. Based on a series of lectures and bang up to the minute, it is the sort of thoroughly earth- bound and quotidian work which Walter Bagehot, Hennessy's hero, would have admired. It is the constitutional book not of a theorist but of a practical man.

Professor Hennessy has become the irreplaceable analyst of the inner core of the British system of government, a man whose zest, perpetual curiosity and goodwill has carried him further into the confidence of the mandarins and some politicians than any of us. And if the state is sick, or at least a little unwell, Hennessy is the man with the bedside manner. He is a reformer, but a cautious one, who coats his pills with affection and respect.

The Hidden Wiring takes the reader through a discussion of the procedural and blurred nature of the constitution; the Monarchy; the nature of the premiership and cabinet; Whitehall and the House of Commons. Everywhere the emphasis is on fluidity and change beneath the crust of precedent. The European Union, however, barely features. It would be good if Hennessy did at some stage turn his British-constitutionalist mind to it; the reaction would probably be bafflement, followed by horror.

He concludes with an illuminating discussion of the Nolan committee into standards in public life, and an unexpected piece on stress. Hennessy rightly regards overload as a serious constitutional problem and suggests that Douglas Hurd ought to be asked to examine the work of ministers and suggest ways to find them more thinking time.

It is a characteristic suggestion, in that it is moderate and easily do-able; in the same category come Hennessy's reworking of Nigel Lawson's proposal for an inner cabinet - a strategic policy committee, he calls it - and his ideas for the development of select committees of MPs. It all falls short of the programmes of radical reform which have been widely discussed of late. But on the other hand, these suggestions may be taken up.

Most people, though, will not read this book for its programme of reform, but for its shrewd assessment of how the commanding heights of British governance actually work. Hennessy seems to have read everything. He seems to have spoken to everybody and genuinely to believe the best about almost all of them. (How terribly, hilariously unfashionable. But how refreshing, too.)

This ought to have resulted in a thick, constipated tract, but what we get instead is a sequence of sharp provocations and arguments, some of which are now unfamiliar - Hennessy, for instance, is a great believer in the potency of the Monarchy as a political institution.

The effect is of one his famous seminars, but a seminar conducted with benefit of ouija boards, so that Simon Jenkins, Lord Armstrong, Nigel Lawson, Peter Riddell and Enoch Powell are heckled by Macmillan and Dangerfield; Tony Benn is jostled by Bagehot; Sir Robin Butler is cross-examined by Gladstone; and Tony Bevins gets into a row in the corner with Stanley Baldwin.

It is a grand fantasy party for the political establishment past and present, at which everyone has papers stuffed in their pockets to be flourished at the opportune moment, and where everyone gets only a little tipsy as the arguments and the Chardonnay circulate ever faster. In the end, they all stagger home and wake up the following morning to discover an extraordinary note-taker has been among them.

The result, this book, will be treated by some civil servants, MPs and journalists as being pretty close to the ''written constitution'' everyone says Britain doesn't have. This Prof, this newspaper hack, this wildly enthusiastic teacher, is in serious danger of turning not merely into an authority, but The Authority. Bagehot would nod, and roar with laughter.