Britain – no longer the land of the future, but one living in the past

Gerry Hassan

The Scotsman, July 27th 2013

Once upon a time many years ago, like many other Scots, I believed in Britain.

Britain seemed the future: it had appeal, appeared modern, progressive and full of promise.

That now seems a world away from the Britain of today: one which looks to have given up on the future and instead appears content to live permanently in a fictitious past.

This is the fantasyland Britain we see before us this week – of a society, culture and media obsessed with celebrating the birth of Kate and William’s royal baby and third heir to the throne. And this Sunday is the anniversary of the onset of the First World War which will be officially commemorated next year.

What recent events tell us is that this is part of a longer story: that the UK is not really a modern country or a fully-fledged democracy. This isn’t just about the UK having a monarchy. Countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden, to take two examples, have monarchies, but about our wider culture and democracy.

For one thing, the only part of the British constitution which is elected is the House of Commons. The Lords, under the Blair partial reforms, went from being one of the few upper houses in the world with a significant hereditary element, to one dominated by Prime Ministerial patronage.

Britain’s limited experience with democracy – the 1832, 1867 and 1884 Reform Acts which lots of us learned about at school – didn’t come about through Chartist agitation. It arose as an aristocratic then industrial elite incorporated growing parts of the middle class then working class, in the limited sphere of democratic participation.

For a large part of the 20th century generations of socialists thought they could build a fairer, better Britain on this narrow, elite controlled version of democracy. This is the perspective which gave us 1945, the NHS and welfare state, but which progressives have been unable to extend, entrench or even successfully defend.

The idea of such a Britain founded on Westminster, Whitehall and establishment institutions turned out to be an illusion. It was a world of enlightenment beliefs, experts and planners, but not about fundamentally widening democracy or dispersing power.

The Labour Party became part of this undemocratic order, an example of a group of outsiders who were changed by becoming insiders – embracing flummery, tradition and patronage. To this day it still gets caught out on the NHS and education, defending ‘the system’ rather than people relying on services.

It is not an accident that as the progressive dream of Labour Britain withered and the UK became more divided, insecure for many and unequal, that the allure and glamour of the past intensified. This power of the past has been used to fill the void that used to be taken by ideas of creating a shared, collective future.

The UK seems now to be in permanent celebration and marking of battles and wars: whether it be the Battle of Trafalgar of 1805, the Battle of Britain of 1940, or the more recent anniversary last year of Montgomery’s defeat of Rommel at El Alamein in 1942. And next year there will be the big ones – the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, the 75th of the beginning of the Second World War, and the 70th of the D-Day Normandy landings. Lest we forget and how could we there is also the 700th anniversary of Bannockburn and Robert Bruce’s famous defeat of Edward II.

There is an element of similarity but more of difference between Scotland and the UK in this. Scotland has the chance to embrace and create its own collective future, and embark should it want on a different path from the rest of the UK: one more social democratic, inclusive and pro-European.

The same cannot be said of Britain. The increasing potency of the past, the veneration of wars, conflict and military prowess, along with tradition and heritage, are related and shaped by the power of reactionary ideas over British politics in recent decades.

This can be seen in our increasing obsession with the Second World War, the Nazis, and the rise of the Churchill industry. The period of 1940-41 when Britain supposedly stood alone, but in actual fact was backed by the resources and manpower of the Empire, colonies and dominions, has become close to a foundation myth about modern Britain.

It is the last plausible story of Britain as a force for good in the world. Despite the attempts of revisionist historians such as Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts Empire cannot be presented in such a light. Nor can the so-called ‘Great War’ with its senseless carnage and deaths in the name of imperial rivalry. And neither can modern Britain, considering Iraq and our role as a leading apologist for American foreign policy and interests the world over.

This is surely a central and pivotal question which will decide the future direction of British and Scottish society and politics. Do we want to live in a modern country, and a fully-fledged democracy, and if so what is the most likely and plausible way to get there from here?

To answer this requires taking one of two approaches. The first involves embracing and outlining a wholesale transformation of British public life of the kind which hasn’t ever been on the political agenda. The second is to explore how radical change is possible in Scotland involving either independence or much greater self-government.

What can be said given the economic, social and cultural impasse that Britain now finds itself in, and the crisis of its political elites and various establishments, is that the far-reaching change which would be required to drag Britain into the 21st century, just doesn’t look possible given the power of vested interests and the hollowed out nature of British politics.

So far the Scottish debate has barely touched on talking of radical change, with all sides recognising the need for reassurance and continuity. That is understandable given the shocks and uncertainties of the last few years.

But do we really want to continue living in a culture where the loudest, most influential voices are those of past generations, who are being used to legitimise one of the most unequal places in the rich world? We should at least begin to ask the question.