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The UK and US House of Cards: A Special Relationship

November 16, 2014

When the political historians write the obituaries for the present government one factor they may overlook is the brief revival of Whiggism. This has been spearheaded by two men who are not at the heart of government, on the contrary, Daniel Hannan and Douglas Carswell both relish their reputation as outsiders. Both men are quite brilliant in their own way, but like many brilliant men there is much that is also quite awful about messrs Hannan and Carswell, I refer specifically to their plan to Americanise the British constitution.

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood

House of Cards (1990) was one of the most seminal television dramas I can remember growing up, and that’s quite something considering it came at the end of a Golden Age of British television drama. Ian Richardson was superb as the machiavellian Tory MP Francis Urquhart plotting his way to the office of Prime Minister. When I heard that Kevin Spacey was planning an American version of the drama my natural cynicism kicked in, surely it couldn’t be as good as the original I told myself. I was glad to have been proven wrong. Spacey’s Frank Underwood is every bit as compelling and deliciously malevolent as the original Francis Urquhart. Both versions of the political drama are currently available on Netflix, but if you have yet to see one or the other you may find a few spoilers in the following post. The differences between the two adaptations highlight how our respective political systems have evolved separately and distinctly.

Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart

Ian Richardson as Francis Urquhart

The British House of Cards begins with Francis Urquhart brooding in a darkened office. He picks up a framed photograph of Margaret Thatcher and says with a wry smile ‘Nothing lasts forever. Even the longest, the most glittering reign must come to an end some day’ After being passed over for promotion by a new, mild-mannered and hapless Prime Minister Urquhart starts to plot his downfall. As a Chief Whip he is skilled in the dark arts and is fully aware that he can become PM without ever being elected. A Member of Parliament has to command the confidence of the House of Commons before he is invited to ‘kiss hands’ with the Queen. This confidence usually entails an overall majority, but a minority government sustained through a confidence and supply arrangement or Coalition are other options. Also, Urquhart is not the type to wait for the Prime Minister to lose office at a general election. That would make him a member of Her Majesty’s Opposition and his party would face a hard slog back to power. An incumbent Prime Minister could be overthrown through a vote of no confidence or a rebellion in his own party. However, Urquhart, brilliantly cunning, wins the trust of the Prime Minister while simultaneously undermining him. Eventually the PM is advised to do the honourable thing and fall on his sword. His last act is to advise his party to accept Urquhart as their leader, and by extension Prime Minister, oblivious to the fact that Urquhart has been betraying him throughout his brief premiership.

The US version begins at a similar point. A new President has been elected and Frank Underwood, Congressman and House majority whip, is expecting to be appointed Secretary of State. Finding himself denied the post, Underwood plots his revenge, but his path to power is a lot more difficult than Urquhart’s. The Presidency is a directly elected post. Unlike the UK, it theoretically doesn’t matter which party controls both Houses as it is next to impossible to dislodge a President mid-term. Underwood has to earn the trust of the President while simultaneously driving a wedge between him and the VP. If the VP can be pressured to stand down and Underwood nominated as his replacement, it would put Underwood a mere heartbeat away from the Presidency.

In the UK, House of Cards was followed by two sequel mini-series To Play the King (1993) and The Final Cut (1995). In To Play the King, Urquhart seems unassailable as PM until he is confronted by the reign of a new King with very different political views to his own. The King, expertly played by Michael Kitchen and clearly modelled on Prince Charles, is so repulsed by Urquhart he increasingly oversteps the constitutional limitations of his role to challenge Urquhart’s power. The series was broadcast at a time when the House of Windsor was mired in scandal and the monarchy seemed more at risk than at any time since the long seclusion of Queen Victoria. However, we see another side to Urquhart; a glimpse of the principles that guide him in spite of the evil acts he is driven to. He does not seek to abolish the monarchy as his family have been Royalist since the Civil War. The King is pressured to abdicate and is replaced as Sovereign by his teenage son: a Head of State who can be easily manipulated by Urquhart. Clearly this is a narrative which the American House of Cards cannot follow. That being said, once he is ensconced as Vice President, Underwood resumes his clandestine war against the Head of State. He is not going stay in an office that John Nance Garner described as ‘not worth a bucket of warm piss.’ To date, fourteen Vice Presidents have become President. Eight of these were due to the death of a sitting President, including four assassinations. Gerald Ford assumed the office after Richard Nixon became the only President to have resigned the post. If you have yet to see the US version of House of Cards, I will leave it for you to guess what method Underwood uses to become leader of the free world.

Unfortunately, whoever you vote for at the next election I doubt it would stop the ongoing Americanisation of the UK constitution as devised by Hannan and Carswell and laid out in their book The Plan (2008). At this point in articles such as this it is customary to say ‘Now don’t get me wrong, some of my very best friends are…’ I’m not quite brave enough to forego the tradition. All I can say is having married an American, and spent most of my life studying American writers, I dearly love the US, but I do not wish to see American politics transposed onto this country. Hannan described the US system as ‘the most sublime Constitution devised by human intelligence.’ There may be some truth in his purple prose, but that doesn’t mean that ham-fisted attempts to impose it here will work. Most of my American friends and family agree incidentally. Some of the specific American style changes have been the creation of elected police commissioners and move to elected mayors. I’m sure there are readers who would lay bigger crimes at the government’s door, but take for example elected police commissioners. Every shrewd commentator on the left and right said it would lead to the politicisation of the police and was not the type of the reform that was needed, but the government ploughed on blindly with ideological certainty. Elected mayors were almost unanimously rejected by referendum as voters rightly feared the centralisation of power, but now we are told that Manchester will get one despite voting no anyway. At least they did get a vote, even if it was ignored. Here in Liverpool we were told we’d have to accept an elected mayor if we wanted one or not. To be fair, not all the changes to an American system can be laid at the government’s door; the move to a US-style paramilitary police force began long before the present lot came in. Hannan has since conceded that elected police commissioners have been disaster (although he blames the voters), and Carswell made the bizarre decision to defect to UKIP. Perhaps their ill-judged reforms can be reversed.

If you want to read one of the best fictional celebrations of both British and American culture, I would recommend George MacDonald Fraser’s Mr American (1980). The novel begins with Mark Franklin, the titular character, arriving in Liverpool on the RMS Mauretania in 1909. Ostensibly just another American prospector trying to discover his roots in the ‘old country’, Franklin hides a shadowy past as an outlaw but he is able to work his way to the very top of British society, including a friendship with King Edward VII ,until a criminal acquaintance from back home tracks him down and threatens everything. More than any other novel I’ve read, Mr American conveys the shared heritage and Romanticism of our two countries, whether it be the flashbacks to lawless American west or the bucolic life of the landed gentry, this book should appeal to anyone who is interested in the US or UK.

The quote below is taken from near the end of Mr American. The year is 1914, Britain is now at war with Imperial Germany, and Franklin is pondering whether he should return to the US or fight with the British. Whenever I think of the words below, they serve as a reminder that what our two countries share in kith and kin is far more valuable than politics:

to those imagined people on the road away, so very long ago, who had travelled so far and so well, so that he might travel back, and in the way of things, set out again. For he was going, and he could not really tell why; it was not that he was restless, or drawn like his ancestors by the horizon, or tired of his surroundings, or longing for the places of childhood – this was the place of childhood, far more than the Nebraska farm he could hardly remember, this was the place where the “free-born landholder, not of noble blood” had begun it in the unknown past, and where the generations of yeoman had tilled their land and planted their seed and courted their wives and watched their children grow, and in their time taken the terrible seven-foot staves cut from the hearts of these black twisted trees and gone out to the vineyards of Bordeaux and the passes of Spain in their country’s quarrel, and perhaps to Shrewsbury and Barnet and Bannockburn and Halidon Hill, and certainly to Edgehill and Naseby and Marston Moor – and to the long road of the pilgrims, across to the western sea to the place which in their homesick longing they had called New England. His people, and in a dim, half-understood way he had felt he was realising some great hope by coming home again, and now it was over, with the hope unfulfilled, and he could not tell why. He had wanted to stay, God knew but he wanted to stay, and yet there seemed to be nothing new to stay for.

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