Is Britain Broken? And what should we do in this election and beyond?
Sunday National, December 8th 2019
The United Kingdom is not a happy place at the moment. This has been a strange, unsatisfying election campaign. People feel ignored and distrustful of politicians. But more than that, they don’t feel that they own what passes for democracy.
This has a longer tail than this election. A host of factors have contributed to the current state of Britain. There is the UK’s struggle to find a global role post-Empire. The dependency on the so called ‘special relationship’ with the US. There is the inability to embrace the European project and become a modern European state – an ambivalence which paved the way for Brexit.
There is the stark reality of life in Britain for millions of people. The UK is one of the most unequal countries in the developed world – a land of wealth and affluence with one of the meanest and least compassionate in government with a parsimonious, punitive welfare state and paltry state pensions.
There has been the decline of the old British establishment and the rise of a new establishment even more self-serving. Adding to this is the increasingly capital-centric nature of British capitalism – dominated by London and the South East – and the City of London that crowds out the real economy, jobs and investment.
The Demise of the Stories of Tory and Labour Britain
There were once powerful stories that gave meaning and purpose to Britain, and even contributed to holding the UK together. There were distinct Tory and Labour stories that made many feel that the UK was more than the sum of its parts, and a country that was about progress and a more equal, fairer future.
The Tory account centred on benign elites not just acting in their own interests, but accommodating the views of working people and incorporating them in the existing order. That version of Britain – on evidence of the past forty years – has withered and died.
The Labour vision centred on the rising power of the labour movement and trade unions. It was anchored in the idea that the British state could be used as a force for good domestically and internationally. The past four decades have blown this apart (although large parts of Labour still cling to it) even under Corbyn.
Britain on the Brink
This year I published a study of the rise and fall of this Labour version of Britain – ‘The People’s Flag and the Union Jack: An Alternative History of Britain and the Labour Party’ – written with Eric Shaw, and asked a range of influential commentators, writers, public figures and intellectuals – across the political spectrum and all over the UK – what they thought of the state of Britain.
I asked them to describe its current condition, what they thought of Britishness, and whether they thought the UK and Britishness could be radically reformed and become more enlightening, pluralist and progressive. The answers not surprisingly were many and varied, but common threads emerged.
For example, author James Robertson expressed Scottish discontent with the union: ‘Britishness has been a highly successful brand and managed to reinvent itself as a post-imperial identity in the 1960s. But I think it is now, like M&S and other High Street brands which mirrored/reinforced it, in decline.’
Similarly, writer Kathleen Jamie thinks that the game is up on the British enterprise, saying: ‘Britishness is a busted flush. I just looked up ‘busted flush’. It’s the wrong analogy! I liked it because of the near anagram. In poker, a busted flush is one which didn’t fulfil its potential. ‘Britishness’ did fulfil its potential, but now it’s rank and gone to seed.’
The changing fissures of the UK and retreat of the ‘idea’ of Britain has affected some of its most ardent supporters. The academic Jean Seaton, the ‘official’ historian of the BBC, puts her feelings candidly: ‘Despair is what I feel at the moment’ and continues ‘that [and] the destruction of our soft power.’
Jason Cowley, editor of the centre-left ‘New Statesman’, believes that: The British state is imperilled but Britishness will endure. But can Britishness survive an English awakening?’
‘Guardian’ columnist and economist Aditya Chakrabortty sees present discontents in the context of the failure of the Blair-Brown years, aftermath of the banking crash, and decade of austerity: ‘When I hear the term Britishness now, it reminds me of some sunlit time in the mid-2000s. Like all centre-left projects of that time, it pretty much died in the wake of the crash.’ For all the political class-talk of the ‘sharing’ and ‘pooling’ union, he thinks this hides a fundamental truth about the UK post-2008: ‘The governing response to that was almost to trash the idea that Britain was a transfer union.’
There are still believers in Britain including the writer Tom Holland who paints a vivid vision: ‘Great Britain is an island that has something of the Tardis about it: while it can seem small from the outside, it nevertheless contains multitudes within it.’ He still believes in the multi-national idea of the UK: ‘300 years of the Union have not stopped Scotland from feeling Scottish – nor England from feeling English, nor Wales feeling Welsh.’
Historian Margaret MacMillan emphasises the backstory of Britain: ‘To be British is to be an islander – except at the moment if you come from Eire – to remember some shared history – Roman invasions, William the Conqueror, the empire, Napoleonic Wars, two World Wars’, but emphasises that ‘even then there are different memories.’
The Left and the idea of Britain
Why Britain has ended up in this set of crises isn’t just about the right, but failures and omissions of the left. New left thinker Hilary Wainright touches on this stating that ‘I don’t feel I can talk about ‘how people in Britain see themselves’.
Mark Perryman, a Labour activist, assesses that for all the positive energies in the Corbyn project it is not radical enough on Britain: ‘Corbyn has a blind spot when it comes to the Union as has historically most of the Labour Left.’ This has not been assisted by the lack of a serious Corbynite project in Scotland: ‘the apparent absence of a pro-indy Corbynite wing to Scots Labour does undermine a lot of this’ – meaning a far-reaching Corbynite project remaking the concept of Britain.
The existing Corbynite project brings up numerous fears and anxieties. Academic Arthur Aughey assesses that ‘Corbynism would be a disaster’ and that there is little prospect of a return to ‘normality’ saying that ‘I expect system disruption by 2020.’ Others go further. An anonymous senior establishment figure commented with relish that ‘Corbyn deeply, fundamentally, to his whole person and history loathes Britain.’
Some English left-liberal voices are caught between wanting radical change and fear of England left alone. Polly Toynbee stated candidly: ‘I live in fear of Celtic departures leaving us to our own miserable devices [and] a Tory-voting rump England.’ Another establishment voice who wanted to remain anonymous reflected on the indyref: ‘In 2014 I was in Kabul for the night of the Scottish referendum. Someone was – it seemed to me – about to say it was theirs not ours.’
Underlying these deep-seated worries is an awareness of the cumulative failure of successive Labour Governments to champion progressive values. The writer Madeleine Bunting puts it lyrically: ‘Solidarity is a delicate flower. It requires many institutions, educational systems, healthcare to cultivate and establish solid roots.’ She reflects on recent decades about the state of solidarity: ‘It has been under multiple assault for several decades. Only the NHS struggles against the odds to hold a candle for the ideal.’
The writer Gary Younge notes that one version of Britain works for those who are winners in the modern economy, observing: ‘London is more like Edinburgh in some respects than either city is like Shropshire. So within Britain or even England, there are huge, huge differences.’
Sunder Katwala, head of the think tank British Future, thinks that the nature of the union is now fundamentally different: ‘Consent is now considerably more contingent than it was across the twentieth century.’ Things will never be the same as ‘the Scottish referendum of 2014 revealed a narrow, pragmatic and highly transactional majority for the Union.’
There is the chasm at the heart of Britain – the English dimension – a country which does not have its own government or Parliament. Gary Younge thinks that ‘England is only defined by what it’s not – and a football team.’ Academic Ruth Lister asserts that ‘Britishness is about citizenship, Englishness nationality.’
‘The Guardian’ writer John Harris has travelled the length and breadth of Britain during the election. Reflecting on this, and how his young daughter sees Britain, he comments that ‘England is where she lives, Wales is where she was born and where she roots her identity, and Scotland is that interesting place where they had the Yes/No referendum. Britain only comes up when there’s athletics on TV.’
What is left of British politics?
The question of what British politics means should be central to this election, but is taken for granted by most British media. Sunder Katwala states that ‘We have seen ‘the disaggregation of national media and political systems: there was no British general election in 2015 and 2017.’
Stephen Bush, Political Editor of the ‘New Statesman’, looking back on 2015 and 2017, observes that ‘For the second successive election, a different political party won in each of the four kingdoms’ and there is little prospect of this changing in the coming election, pointing to something fundamental.
The state of Britain didn’t arise overnight, but Brexit has offered the radical right the chance to advance their ideological vision of the UK, as writer Henry Porter recognises: ‘The shock of Brexit will be considerable. Right wing conservatives believe they can jump the country into a new post imperial, buccaneering future.’
Gary Younge views the current political dispensation as representing a fundamental shift ‘The importance was highlighted during the Brexit campaign where a certain embattled, nostalgic version of Britishness was evoked that won the day, not because it made sense but because no coherent alternative was really set forward.’ They have advanced their right-wing plans since 2016 and the intention to ‘Put the Great Back into Great Britain’.
The writer Ian Jack is of the opinion that ‘Brexit and its champions have alienated me from a British identity’ that he previously felt familiar and comfortable with, and comes to the viewpoint: ‘Perhaps this is because ‘Britain’ has once again become a synonym for England, at least in England, and at the moment England is very unattractive, politically.’ This leads him to the conclusion: ‘I am not at the moment too optimistic about the survival of my preferred identity. I feel in a way that I have hitched my fortune to the wrong star.’
Arthur Aughey assesses that the constitutional and political status quo that underpins the union is now needing urgent reform, but that there is no widespread agreement as to what that might be across the forces of reform: Labour, Lib Dems, Greens, with the SNP and Plaid Cymru having their own self-government priorities. He states: ‘We know that significant constitutional and political change is required but not sure where it will come from. How new practice can be translated into an idea of the Union – if it can – is the key question.’
The above contains a number of threads and influences – politics, class, ethnicity, generation and gender, just to identify the most obvious. One of the most potent was the overwhelmingly masculinist and predominantly male responses that my inquiry elicited. Several women ruled themselves out at first contact, and then a number made comments such as, from one very prominent Westminster female journalist, ‘Strange as it feels to say this, I don’t think I have anything to say’. This seems worth noting for the story of Britishness – for all its official emphasis on multi-culturalism and diversity – is actually very gendered as well as having its roots in an imperial identity and elite power dynamics.
Hilary Wainright expressed some of this sentiment, commenting that she would like to see the UK evolve into ‘a mosaic of non-antagonistic identities nurtured by a democratic constitution’. She states on the importance of national identities: ‘I just disagree that it’s the most appropriate lens through which to understand geographic identity. For me it does not capture the complexity, historical and structural, of territorial identities.’
This election may seem mundane and missing in drama and substance, but underneath huge issues are at play, about what kind of country the UK is and what kind of collective future is possible. The long retreat of progressives, Labour and the left over decades cannot leave anyone – irrespective of the election result – feeling optimistic about the prospect of radically shifting politics and power in Britain, tearing down the citadels of elite rule, and addressing the deep-seated wrongs which blight British society.
It is too easy to blame the present picture just on the Conservatives and Thatcherism. Thirty years of post-war Labour Governments over four periods – 1945, 1964, 1974 and 1997 – did many positive things but did not do challenge the institutions and values of the conservative nation and ideology which underpins the ruling elite. With the exception of 1945 they did not remake what Britain means.
This has left any idea of Britain bereft of a plausible, progressive story. Scottish voters have no option but to draw their own conclusions in this election and beyond. That leaves some fundamental challenges. Independence supporters have to flesh out a different future from the wreckage of the British state. And pro-union advocates have to answer the reality of the existing union and its inability to fundamentally reform – economically and socially as well as constitutionally.
What then is the future of the UK and the idea of Britain after the dust settles on this election? Not only is Boris Johnson failing to address any of the long-term fissures that are shaping the multiple crises of Britain, his arid vision is a symptom of a deeper, longer term malaise: the demise of the power and pull of Tory Britain.
Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn’s conspicuous failure to articulate a convincing account of what is wrong and what to put right in how Britain sees itself and acts, is not just about his leadership. Rather it is an expression of the decline of the story of Labour Britain – whether left, centre, or right within the party.
This collapse of the twin pillars of post-war Britain leaves politics, media and public life with a vacuum at its heart – one obvious over the course of this election. This has been filled in part by the English revolt of Brexit, as well as the journeys of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into different political centres distinctive from Westminster. But that still leaves the issue of what to do with Britain and British politics.
Whatever happens to the UK there will always be some kind of pan-UK co-operation across these isles. Such a set of arrangements entailing a self-governing Scotland, an increasingly autonomous Wales, and Northern Ireland articulating north-south and east-west identities, will require an English dimension. The British left (and English left in particular) need to start thinking about those areas that they have historically avoided: the nature of the British state, its territorial dimensions and the English dimension. These cannot be avoided any longer and be left as a rich terrain for the right and reactionaries to exploit at a huge cost to us all.