The End of Fantasy Island Britain
The Scotsman, December 11th 2009
Many things have changed in the last year: how we think of our politicians, the economy, bankers, the state, and yet a large part of our political classes, corporate opinion and the media seem intent on sailing on for the rocks as if nothing major has happened and ‘normal service’ will shortly be resumed upon HMS Great Britain!
Alistair Darling’s Pre-Budget Review could not acknowledge this, but what we are witnessing is profound and long lasting and will shape our lives for decades. This is the slow demise of ‘Fantasy Island Britain’, the society and world built from the assumptions of late Thatcherism and high Blairism which have proven to be as secure and enduring as building a castle in the sand.
Firstly, lets reflect the complexity of recent decades. Not everything Thatcherism and Blairism did was wrong, malevolent or evil. This should be a starting point most can agree on. The 1970s consensus was a soggy, decrepit place, stultifying of people and potential.
There were gains from the Thatcher era: council house sales, individual choice, more entrepreneurship, as well as obvious losses. Blairism similarly for a period presided over a UK which seemed to be more at ease with diversity and cosmopolitanism than previously. And it did unleash devolution to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London, even if it didn’t understand it, which will long outlive it.
At the same time British governments have presided over an era filled with hyperbole and increasingly grandiose claims such as ‘putting the great back into Britain’ (Thatcher), ‘the British economic miracle’ (Blair), or ‘ending boom and bust’ (Brown), which have all proven illusionary.
These gave validation to a polity and culture which emphasised deregulation in certain places, alongside over-regulation of micro-detail, individual choice and sovereignty, our role as consumers not citizens, while turning a blind eye to inequality, and fawning over the rise of a virulent ‘overclass’ based around the City of London.
A philosophy of the ‘winners’ grew up based on this ‘overclass’, which celebrated acquisition, success and brashness for its own sake; a culture which makes Harry Enfield’s ‘Loadsamoney’ character from the 1980s seem positively quaint. This created a version of Britain which was a dreamland, an imagined, mythical land where if you had the money anything was supposedly possible.
Consumption and debt became a way of life for millions living beyond their means trying to keep up with the ‘overclass’. The property bubble was not just about people obsessing about house prices and investing in bricks and mortar; ‘the bubble’ was an all-encompassing entity shielding people from reality and shaping how they judged their own place in society.
Britain changed dramatically in ways we are only beginning to understand. The nature of British government and the state fundamentally altered. Gone was the old civil service culture of impartial advice; forever now seen as a ‘Yes Minister’ stereotype by impatient reformers always in a hurry for results.
A new kind of insider was born based on the consulting class and firms, which was invited into the heart of government, and ensconced in No. 10 and across Whitehall. This approach escalated under New Labour as a ‘new class’ in the Yugoslavian Milovan Djilas’s meaning of the phrase arose: people who came to use their positions to extend their privilege and power.
There is an irony here of the similarities between what the Soviet system collapsed into and what the neo-liberal order descended into as people such as PWC, Deloitte, KPMG, created a pseudo-language of business. This cost the taxpayer billions in consultancy for spurious savings based on an unquestioning narrow bandwidth of values, knowledge and expertise.
The British state, once the hope of Fabians and social reformers, as a vehicle for progress, became something grotesque: an advocate for the ‘winners’ in the system, captured and in collusion with this ‘new class’, and promoting a market fundamentalist view of the world. This was a state which while not feeling it could guarantee pensioners basic, decent incomes, extended its reach into our personal lives building a surveillance state, while encouraging a corporate leviathan to take over large parts of the public realm.
The political classes embraced the logic of the age and engaged in the basest aggrandisement helping themselves to build a self-preservation society of expenses and scams. This class seem to have little real idea of the public anger and contempt held for their sheer brass necks; there was Jacqui Smith, former Home Secretary, commenting on the Pre-Budget Statement as if we should respect her views, rather than her hang her head in shame!
In a long distant age, 1950s Britain, an eminent left-winger commented to an American observer that, ‘The British constitution was as nearly perfect as any human institution could be’. No one in our political classes would be as stupid to make such a public statement at the moment, but that is what they still believe.
After all that was the point of Thatcherism and Blairism and talk of ‘the economic miracle’. Our present classes: the Browns, Camerons, and even the Lib Dems, still believe in the uniqueness and intricacies of the British political system, with a little shoogling up and cosmetic reform here and there to get the show back on the road.
All of this has changed large parts of British life: the economy, culture and our sense of ourselves. Public culture in areas such as art has become a playground for the international rich and famous. London Frieze Art Fair and the Turner Prize have become symbols of an empty, conformist age which does not even have the wit to understand its meaningless and hollowness.
We are in a sense living at the end of a long story and a particular episode of it. This is the twilight of post-imperial Britain: a state, political class and economy in meltdown who have bust this country and any trust in them. Fascinatingly this view has even percolated through to ‘The Economist’ Bagehot column: a point alluded to by Anthony Barnett in OurKingdom.
The old progressive stories of Britain, whether Labour, Tory or Liberal, are exhausted and beyond renewal. The excesses of the last few decades saw the Thatcherites and Blairites use the political system to push through a revolution which has left Britain unbalanced, insecure and a less trusting, respectful society.
The first step in any radical change is recognising the self-interest of the ‘new class’ and the age of conformity they have built. The second is to encourage new radicals to emerge and take on this new establishment. Some are already emerging in the work of the progressive group Compass or Phillip Blond’s eclectic ‘Red Toryism’. Both attempt to address the economy and social justice, but are unclear and ambiguous about what we do about the state of British democracy.
These three: the economy, social justice and democracy, are the key areas where we need to address the debris of the last few decades and look for new radical voices at a time when people are looking for fresh answers to an extent our political class barely recognises.