For the Union dead

Devolution in the United Kingdom

Vernon Bogdanor <em>Oxford University Press, 304pp, £8.99</em>

Devolution aspires to be all things to all men. In attempting to woo all it ends up winning none. Unionists do not like it; it starts to pull the Union apart. Nationalists do not like it; it is not the proper thing, namely self-government. Devolution is a compromise waiting to be cast aside, an accident waiting to happen, a question mark of a policy.

Vernon Bogdanor catalogues the many failures of past devolution in the United Kingdom, approaching it as a historian and political scientist. In the main he writes an informative and balanced book. Just occasionally there is an optimistic sub-plot, a whiff of opinion showing a triumph of hope over experience.

His conclusion is that "an alternative answer is possible" (other than a centralised state) - "that a society may be held together through what Gladstone called a 'recognition of the distinctive qualities of the separate parts of the great countries' ". The author believes that Gladstone's Home Rule proposals for Ireland could have worked. This is a strange judgement, not least because they didn't. There were three versions of Home Rule for Ireland from 1885 up to the first world war. All had deep flaws and none succeeded. Many Irish leaders had already decided that they wanted Home Rule, if at all, only as a stepping stone to full independence.

Vernon Bogdanor shows considerable erudition in setting out the differing types of federal, Home Rule and confederal structures that were used at different times and in different parts of the British empire. He has a soft spot for the methods used in Canada, Australia and South Africa, and wonders if they should have been adopted more comprehensively closer to home. He should remember the most obvious point: that these systems of devolution or federalism failed to keep the empire together. All those countries granted devolution ended up independent, with the sole exception of Northern Ireland, which never wanted devolution in the first place. It was forced on it by Westminster in a miscarried attempt to rid itself of the Irish problem.

Bogdanor is more impressive when describing and analysing than he is when expressing opinions. He offers a good account of how Ireland was lost to the Union. He explains the different ways in which Scotland and Wales came into the Union in the first place. He never seems to understand fully the passions that drive the wish for self-determination. That is why he thinks devolution can be an attractive third way, a stable state, despite so much evidence to the contrary.

Devolution is seldom stable. A devolved constitution is usually on the way to becoming a unitary state, or on the way to the dissolution of the empire. The British colonies became dominions with their own parliaments and governor generals before becoming independent. Irish Home Rule campaigns predated full independence. Scottish Nationalists will use the Scottish Parliament to press endlessly for separation. Quebecois separatists have never given up, and have come close to turning their devolution into independence.

Bogdanor is an enthusiast for proportional representation, as he has become an admirer of Gladstone after his move to the Liberals from the Conservatives. He tells us that proportional representation in Ulster may have averted the troubles if they had persevered with it. I doubt it. Nationalists did not want a fairer Ulster; they wanted a united Ireland.

The book does lapse occasionally. We are told that the Welsh Assembly has 40 constituency seats and 20 list seats: a ratio of 60:40. The professor is clearly in need of Labour's improved teaching of mental arithmetic. I learn that as Welsh secretary I was following a free-market agenda which was unpopular in Wales. It is clear that the professor read none of my press releases, and knew nothing of the policies I followed.

I used the Welsh Office to adapt and adopt those policies from England that I thought made sense, and to block those I thought damaging. I refused to close hospitals in Wales in the way we were doing in England. I cancelled road schemes through environmentally sensitive areas, concentrating instead on two major east-west routes and protecting the rest of the country. I launched the policy of popular schools, allowing money for successful schools to expand, which is now being taken up nationwide by the Labour government. These policies followed extensive travelling, meeting people, listening to their problems. The Welsh Office was small enough to be able to offer a personal service to MPs, and to local authorities who wanted meetings to put their case. There was no need for another body between local and national government.

A good case can be made for the United Kingdom as a unitary state. By all means delegate more to local government; by all means think of ways of restoring more pride, influence and power to good local government; but do not split the country with new and unneeded regional administration. Labour would have been better advised to have held a referendum on independence for Scotland or for Wales, and won it for the Union when they could.

I think the United Kingdom is worth preserving. Conservatives will work within the new structure to make the continuing case for the Union, in the knowledge that our task will now be harder. No one has solved the problem of the government of England, which does not want elected regional parliaments. Devolution will not be some magic solution to keep the kingdom together. Rather, Labour is in danger of presiding over the death of Britain.

John Redwood is a former secretary of state for Wales. His "The Death of Britain" (Macmillan, £9.99) is published in May

This article first appeared in the 03 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, The NS Essay - This country is not so special

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Do you have to look like someone to play them in a film?

Physical resemblance between an actor and the real-life figure they are portraying is highly prized, but there’s much more to a successful biopic than the right face under a good wig.

The Program is a film in search of a hero. It never really finds one. On one hand it has the crusading journalist David Walsh, played by Chris O’Dowd, who risks the derision of his colleagues and the scorn of the cycling industry to expose Lance Armstrong as a drugs cheat. On the other, it has Armstrong himself (Ben Foster), propelling himself to multiple Tour de France victories and into the hearts of his countrymen by foul means, not fair. It feels hard to root for Walsh: he’s on the side of truth, but he never comes to life as a character, and the movie hits a slump whenever we’re back in the newsroom with him. Then again, we know we shouldn’t get behind the cyclist. But if the film is conflicted over whose story it’s telling, there is at least one element about which there can be no argument: Ben Foster’s resemblance to Armstrong.

It is not a prerequisite that an actor playing a real figure must be able to swap places with them unnoticed in an identity parade, but Foster could certainly pass that test if it were. Both men have their features crammed into the centre of their faces, lending them a concentrated intensity. And Foster has captured the intentness of Armstrong’s expressions – that taut downward curve in the mouth that looks like an exaggerated frown as drawn by a child.

For the biopic performer, there are several options when it comes to physical accuracy. There is the simple, almost effortless mimicry – a classic example being Ben Kingsley in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. (There have been occasions on which newspapers have printed pictures of Kingsley to accompany a story about the real Gandhi. Let’s blame that on the actor’s persuasive ability to inhabit the part, rather than any laziness in the media.)


Where there is no overwhelming natural similarity, this can be helped along by a recognisable accoutrement or physical characteristic. I wouldn’t swear that Robert Downey Jnr was the spit of Charlie Chaplin (in another Attenborough film, Chaplin).


Or that you couldn’t tell Salma Hayek from Frida Kahlo (in Frida) but it certainly helped that the former had that universally familiar toothbrush-moustache to trick our eyes, and the latter sported a convincing unibrow.


Even once the physical side is in the bag, there is the matter of poise and demeanour to consider. Did Helen Mirren look like Elizabeth II in The Queen (another Frears) or on stage in The Audience? Not especially. But then the bit that isn’t covered by hair, make-up, wardrobe and physiognomy is called “acting”. It should, if all goes according to plan, render cosmetic objections irrelevant. Look at Gary Oldman with the black porcupine spikes and milky-white pallor of Sid Vicious in Sid & Nancy. We can see that’s a fancy-dress Sid. But Oldman’s self-belief pushes him, and us, over the line. We buy it. His Joe Orton (Frears yet again: Prick Up Your Ears) is even better, perhaps because he shares with the playwright a natural knowingness that lights them both up from within.

My own favourite sorts of biopic actors are those that succeed through sheer force of will. They don’t look like the people they’re playing, and only the most cursory attempts have been made to convince us they do, but their own internal conviction overrides any complaint. Anthony Hopkins did a fine job of playing the lead in Surviving Picasso but I prefer him in two movies where he had to take more of a running jump: Nixon in Nixon and Hitchcock in Hitchcock. No one ever said about Richard Nixon and Anthony Hopkins: “Isn’t it funny how you never see them in the same room?” But there was something in the slightly delusional casting that made sense in a film about Nixon – never a man, after all, to face the truth when he thought a bald lie would do the job just as well. And by the end of Oliver Stone’s impressively controlled movie, Hopkins had done it. He had strong-armed the audience and bent the whole endeavour to his will. The same was true in Hitchcock: he expanded into a part as though it were an oversized suit he was convinced he could fill. It was a confidence trick. Doesn’t that go for most acting?

It doesn’t always work. Philip Seymour Hoffman as Capote? The physical disparity is so great (compare it to Toby Jones, far better-suited to the role, in Infamous, which opened around the same time) that it seems to make the effort visible. Sean Penn as Harvey Milk in Gus Van Sant’s Milk? Just about. The bubbly enthusiasm of the performance is very winning, just as Milk himself was; it’s a charm offensive, a campaign. Like Hopkins as Nixon, it suits the part. Denzel Washington as Malcolm X in the Spike Lee film of the same name? Yes: he has the looks and the charisma. Josh Brolin as George W Bush in (Stone again) W? Remarkably, yes, even though he’s too bulky. His physicality is reduced magically by the character’s small-mindedness and inexperience. Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland is good but he’s too actorly and not terrifying enough – unlike Yaphet Kotto in the same role in Raid on Entebbe.

Awards season is upon us, so there will be more games of compare-and-contrast: Johnny Depp as the criminal James “Whitey” Bulger in Black Mass, Michael Fassbender in Steve Jobs. Don’t talk to me about Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Phillipe Petit in The Walk. Good film but why have they tinkered digitally with the actor’s imploring eyes? He looks like a motion-capture version of himself at times. But no one can seize the Complete Lack of Physical Resemblance prize from Benedict Cumberbatch, who seems not to even believe in himself as Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate.

Though with his elfin eyes and silver mane, Cumberbatch is a shoo-in if they ever make Legolas: The Later Years.

“The Program” is released 16 October.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.