Living in the Shadow of Empire State Britain and the Problem of Cultural Dementia

Gerry Hassan

Bella Caledonia, April 19th 2018

The UK has been an uncomfortable place in the last few days. There has been the controversy over the Windrush deportations, Tory Cabinet minister Esther McVey defending the rape clause at the Scottish Parliament as ‘non-invasive’, and the resuscitation of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ 1968 speech from beyond the grave. On top of this there has been the Trump-led bombing of Syria, backed by UK and French forces, without parliamentary vote or international approval.

We have to understand the deeper context of the state we are in. The UK has not and never has been a democratic state or polity. Instead the overhang and past influence of feudalism and absolutism define much of public life, institutions and attitudes to this day. Take just one obvious example. We talk about electing the UK Parliament, but we elect one part of it (the Commons), and don’t the other (the Lords), leaving it completely unelected (and this after a hundred year long campaign to abolish or overhaul it).

From Warfare to Welfare and Back

The UK has for all of its existence been first and foremost a warfare state: one whose purpose has been historically to wage war, conquer territories, dominate the high seas and maintain its Empire. If some people think this is something deep and buried in the past, just consider that since 1945 Britain’s armed forces have been involved in military action in every single year apart from one – 1968. That year represents the gap between the retreat of Empire and Aden and the beginning of British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland.

In short, the characteristics of the UK state and polity are that of an Empire State: an entity fashioned to pursue international conquest and dominance, and focus less on the well-being of the people at home. Mistakenly, Labour at its peak of intellectual confidence in the mid-20th century showed little understanding of this or interest in radically changing it. Instead, Labour believed through Fabian gradualism and osmosis (a kind of entryism into elites) that the warfare state could be turned into a welfare state, that civil servants and administrators who had ran the Empire and fought World War Two could with their new found legitimacy and confidence remake a country and banish the five evils of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness.

Fast forward to the present day – and sadly Empire State Britain is still alive and kicking. It can be seen in the moral disgrace that is the Home Office racism of the Windrush deportations, the injustices of the rape clause and false claim that it somehow offers ‘double support’, and our pretence at still believing we are a global power. Then there are is disaster capitalism invoked by Brexit – driven by the delusions of British exceptionalism, Atlanticism and the yearning for a newly empowered Commonwealth on British terms, and unshackled ‘global Britain’.

Thirty years of post-war Labour Governments have not shifted the fundamentals of the Empire State. Instead, they have shown a mixture of at first and at best, naivety and idealism in the Attlee years of Empire retreat; of clinging to the wreckage and debris of Empire while engaging in the last imperial withdrawal from East of Suez, under Wilson; and then, the ultimate folly of embracing and becoming leading advocates for the new imperialism of the US under Blair and Brown. All human history has shown us that you cannot build enlightenment and human progress on top of conquest and the militarisation of government and society; think of LBJ’s ill-fated Presidency and how the Vietnam war unraveled the ambitions of ‘the Great Society’ and thus the Democratic coalition for nearly forty years.

The shadow of Empire does not stop there and is even more serious and damaging. For it is not just a British predicament and set of delusions, but can also be found in France, the other great European empire and country which hasn’t quite divorced itself from that role and which sees itself with a contemporary global and regional role in former colonies such as sub-Saharan Africa. And then of course there is the new imperialism of the US.

The Prison of Cultural Dementia and the Lure of Greatness

The UK, France and US are in the words of David Andress in his book of the same name shaped by what he calls ‘cultural dementia’ – namely the deliberate forgetting, selective remembering, and invoking of a mythical golden era where the world was a simpler place and those in power could more easily bully those without it.

Andress argues, in a penetrating analysis, that this prevailing climate across much of the West affects the UK, US and France more because of the imperial imagination and ‘a sense of entitlement to greatness’. Furthermore, this is not just mere nostalgia for the age of Empire, but ‘a distorted and demented version of the past’. Despite the populist demagoguery of Trump (‘Make America Again’), Le Pen (‘We are at home’ the subtext of which is ‘This is our home (and not yours, immigrant)’) and Brexit’s ‘Take Back Control’, Andress writes that ‘Britain, France and the USA never existed as entities that were both closed off and commanding’, something the Windrush moral crisis has brought home to roost.

Scotland at the Edge of Empire

This has big consequences for everyone living in the UK and its future debates and choices, as well as in Scotland. We here sit on the edge of the Empire State, in the words of Ezra Pound: ‘from the edges of the Empire where the effect of the Central decay was showing, where the strain of the big lies and rascalities was beginning to tell.’

Despite the self-declared radicalism of the Corbyn project it has shown little comprehension of the scale of the challenges they would face if they got into power – one of which is the worldview of the Empire State. Instead, the old style Corbynistas in the leadership are profoundly conservative and not that democratic, and still hold to the faith that if they capture the central tenets of the British state, somehow these can be turned into champions of building a democratic socialist country.

The fissures and faultlines of the UK are everywhere, and they also run through debates and opinion in Scotland. There is wariness, nervousness and the waiting for Brexit; there are debates and distinctions within independence opinion between those who are more impatient and don’t want to wait beyond 2021 and those who think waiting in a topsy-turvy world might be the best choice.

This is not as first appears a difference of just timing, but temperament and strategy. In his recent book, ‘On Grand Strategy’, John Lewis Gaddis, chooses as one of his examples of a master strategist the Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov who defeated Napoleon at Moscow in 1812. He did so by waiting and opposing his military colleagues who demanded he attack at every instance. His retort was a telling one according to Tolstoy in ‘War and Peace’: ‘We can only lose by taking the offensive. Patience and time are my warriors, my champions.’

What this necessitates is what I would describe as a radical and calm honesty and an awareness that passion, anger and indignation are poor guides and substitutes for political analysis and strategy. Pivotal to this is an awareness of timing and timescales. It isn’t enough because people want the next independence vote to happen as soon as possible to think that is the appropriate response and best way to act.

Similarly, the divide between the Now-ists and the wait and see futurists is a divide which matters so much because of the high wire politics and stakes that are being played out. But there is also a sense that this is in part not the full picture, and that there is an element of displacement into focusing so much on timing, when other factors such as the detail of any offer are less examined.

We somehow need to have a political environment that isn’t just defined by when the indyref is going to happen, or waiting for the SNP Growth Commission or, for some, the Scottish Government Cultural Strategy. We need a wider understanding of how we do political and cultural change, which has to be more than reheating the heady days of the summer of love (for some) of 2014.

Central to this is understanding culture and cultural change in our country: a subject the SNP have been notoriously quiet. We need more discussions, activism, reflections, creative work and spaces. In this many of our traditional pillars have retreated or crumbled such as the mainstream press, and this leaves us with a vacuum. This subject is explored in the next Scotland’s Festival of Ideas event on Saturday April 28 at Govanhill Baths, Glasgow, examining how we nurture, support and make new cultures as the old public platforms have retreated and new ones haven’t yet emerged – with Jude Barber, Andrew Tickell, Sarra Wild and Harry Giles with Joyce McMillan.

A critical perspective to the practices and traditions embodied in Scottish public life is necessary to understand where we are and where we go. Scotland for all its enlivening talk of a ‘democratic intellect’ and ‘diverse assembly’ has traditionally in its public life pre-Parliament been run by a closed order of institutional bodies and elites. This society, with much to be proud of – its distinctiveness, traditions and autonomy – also had for all its self-belief, a very managed, arranged set of public codes and cultures, which produced what I have described as ‘unspace’: the privileging of certain institutional actors, bodies and voices, and marginalisation and exclusion of the vast majority of the country.

This state of affairs has not gone away with the arrival of the Scottish Parliament and the SNP. Indeed, the Parliament has been, on too many levels in terms of how Scotland is governed, a force for continuity more than change. Thus, the shift in power in policy and formal institutions has not been dramatic, but with significant similarities and continuities to what existed pre-devolution.

The current state of British politics is directly related to the Empire striking back and the continued legacy and existence of the Empire State. For some pro-independence supporters the travails of living in the UK are such that they want instant redress and exit now, and believe that such is the wreckage around us that the case for Scottish independence will be won almost by default.

These are turbulent times: from disaster zombie capitalism, to the self-interest and self-motivation of Empire State Britain, and the prevalence of a cultural dementia which has given headwinds to the forces of reaction, privilege and a virulent xenophobia which has made strangers in their own land people who were once our fellow citizens.

Scotland, just like anywhere else, is not immune from this. We need to understand the politics of certainty and instant change aren’t really appropriate, but nor is just a steady as she goes continuity and trying to safeguard what we have as the barbarians are knocking at our door. We have to face these challenges, and even the shortcomings of our own institutions and practices: the remnants of the Empire State which can be found in the way numerous public authorities treat and belittle people, and how that infantilises and depowers too many of us. Empire State Britain is the problem which needs to be opposed and ultimately defeated, but we need to recognise that even here at the edge of the Empire, it is present and active, and needs to be challenged and overcome.