‘Broken Britain’ and Why Some People Are More Unequal Than Others?

Gerry Hassan

Compass, July 31st 2009

Response to comments on ‘Broken Britain’ article on Compass website:

I think it is much simpler and more complex than people seem to be saying. For example, it is not difficult to start by acknowledging the reach of ‘Broken Britain’ and that the left has lost its way. Some find it difficult to acknowledge Labour has done some decent things in power, while others find it difficult to be critical of anything. These both seem inherently conservative positions.

Here are two simple statements:

First. The experience we have undergone is not unique to the UK: the inequality, division, concentration of wealth and power, status fetishism and anxiety. It can be found across the Western capitalist countries in the nations of ‘the Anglosphere’: the six English speaking Anglo-American nations: the UK, US, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and Canada. With the exception of Canada, the other five had brutal neo-liberal experiments in the 1980s – New Zealand being the worst.

There is a set of common factors across the five: an incomplete post-war progressive settlement, powerful parties of the right, a culture of individualism, a certain model of corporate governance, a media significantly foreign owned and promoting a pro-business, pro-inequality agenda.

Second. Every Labour Government bar one has failed to shift inequality and concentrations of wealth and power. The Blair and Brown Governments have failed. So did the 1964 and 1974 Wilson-Callaghan Governments as we know from the Peter Townsend Fabian Society studies. The only Labour Government which has narrowed inequalities has been the 1945 administration, and from my memory the figures for this compare 1938 to 1949 – and so could have been a result of the levelling of the people’s war.

If Labour Governments cannot address seriously or in any real way the significant disfigurements of inequality in the UK, what is the point and purpose of Labour?

From these two facts I think we need a different kind of radical left. It is no use invoking socialism or social democracy – the latter of which is viable in Sweden – but hasn’t proven viable in the UK. We need to start from where we are, look at what vehicles and ideas we can use to get out of the mess the UK is currently in, and that starts with admitting that ‘Broken Britain’ in the short-term is a better narrative than any on offer on the left.

I find there seems to be quite a bit of denial and evasion on this – the reach of ‘Broken Britain – but nobody really wants to confront and engage with it head on. The left has made this sort of mistake before – with Thatcherism.