The Empire State Building of the United Kingdom
The Scotsman, April 8th 2010
The 2010 election campaign has now formally begun, as politicians zigzag up and down the country in search of voters. There is a palpable sense of anxiety and doubt about the multiple crises the country faces: economic, democratic, and where we see ourselves in the world and how we conduct our foreign policy.
Despite all this there is a propensity in our political classes to adopt a business as usual approach and talk in only the narrowest of ways of the crises we face. Politicians can barely conceal their desire to see a ‘restoration’ of the state of affairs of the world pre-crash.
This would see a return to banks lending massively, bonuses driving financial decisions, the housing market going ever upwards, and an economy based on never ending growth. All of this is meant to produce a return of respect and trust towards our tarnished Westminster classes.
What is not discussed is the long view of how Britain got itself in this mess domestically and internationally. Instead we have vapid slogans such as ‘broken Britain’ or ‘broken politics’ which capture only a slither of what has gone wrong. The left blame Thatcherism and the greedy, selfish 1980s of ‘Loadsamoney’. The right blame the perfidy of Blair and Brown, or if they are more traditionally right-wing, the 1960s and liberal lack of morals.
Britain’s crisis goes far back beyond the limits of New Labour, Thatcherism or even the sixties. The origins of our present predicament have been a long time coming, and can be found in what Britain became at the height of Empire, which still affects us today.
At the high point of the British Empire, the British state, its identity and our sense of ourselves were given huge self-belief. This was not just about what happened in the Indian Raj or distant bases in Africa or the Far East, but how this affected our Parliament, political classes, the role of the City and view of the economy and society.
There was a direct link between Empire, the pre-eminent role of the City of London, and the anti-industrial ethos of much of Britain – which extended through the ruling classes, public schools, our politics and much of our culture. This shaped the character of British power at its peak and still matters today.
The City and Empire were interwoven with imperial trade, networks and investment contributing to make London the world’s first global financial powerhouse. This made the City central to the British economy, while overshadowing and distorting the rest of the economy, and in particular, real industry which involved making things such as manufacturing.
The role of the City also became a kind of offshore extension of the UK, a part of Britain that saw its interests outside the UK, and as part of a vast global trading nation. It is no accident that Britain has three of the top tax havens in the world, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, which sit in the British Isles but outside the UK, or that all of our mainstream political parties are significantly funded by non-doms, of whom Lord Ashcroft is only the most public and influential.
The position of the City has affected much of how we see ourselves and the place of the UK in the world. An anti-industrial ethos took route across British society in the ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ which arose and which found common ground with a whole host of similar attitudes in politics and society.
The British Parliament and state saw themselves as advocates and part of this worldview, and what grew up was an Imperial Parliament and an Empire State, which saw its prime responsibility as the maintenance of the UK, its status and power, based on its global reach.
Until recently many politicians and commentators would have agreed with some of this account of the past, but would have seen it as just that, firmly in the past, and the present and future characterised by bright, shiny modernisation.
Instead, as even The Economist’s Bagehot column has commented ‘Britain is living in the shadow of its Empire’, and that it is ‘perhaps, increasingly, trapped by its imperialist past’.
Thatcher and Blair came along post-Empire and promised to do away with the acceptance of decline and Britain’s diminished role in the world. In its place came ‘putting the Great back into Britain’ and a triumphalist ‘British economic miracle’.
As they threw off the shackles of defeatism and decline, Thatcher and Blair gave renewed energy to the Empire State, giving even more importance to the City of London, and an unbalanced, unsustainable economy, along with an obsessional Atlanticism, which culminated in Blair’s liberal imperialism with its overtones of Gladstone and JFK.
This ‘Fantasy Island Britain’ which was seen by many as leading to a new British renaissance we could preach to the world pre-crash is now crumbling and collapsing from within: witness all the talk of malaise, ‘broken Britain’ and our failed politics, yet our political classes still shy away from fundamental reform.
Despite thirty years of post-war Labour Governments and a decade of supposed reform and constitutional change, the Empire State and with its atrophied notions of democracy and politics, is even more powerful, arrogant and fundamentally the problem.
One paradox here is that the Empire State which used to run a quarter of the world with a small, nightwatchman state, as it has turned in on itself, has become a giant Leviathan, which pokes its attention into every aspect of domestic life, has ridden over the old checks and balances which used to restrain it, and despite the wreckage it has created, has an appetite for sucking in more powers and life through the database state and continued dilution of our liberties.
The forthcoming election will be a fascinating and possibly close one, but our mainstream politicians will be united in one thing – trying to avoid the big issues of why we are in this mess, economically, politically and where the UK situates itself as a geo-political entity.
They seem content to talk the language of ‘crisis’ while practising the politics of ‘restoration’ and seeing our problems as the product of either Thatcherism or Blairism, of too much state or too few regulations, rather than being the culmination of a long story of Britain which our recent leading politicians are only a small part of.
All of our Westminster political parties remain committed to the Empire State Building that is the present day UK: the entity that presided over our current predicaments, and aided, encouraged and validated them. When can some of our politicians have the courage to start the conversation which questions the purpose and role of the whole rotten structure?