'The Neo-Liberal State and its Context' - part II of the Last Utopia paper

Part two of the 'The Last Utopia: Thatcher, New Labour and the Cameron Conservatives and the Demise of Social Democratic Britain'. OurKingdom will be publishing the paper as three consecutive posts.

The Last Utopia: Thatcher, New Labour and the Cameron Conservatives and the Demise of Social Democratic Britain.

Part I: 'Empire state Britain' published here

Part II: 'The Neo-Liberal State and its Context'.

Part III: 'Territorial Politics and British futures' published here

 - taken from the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis Colloque Keynote Address.


The character of the British state has been transformed over the last thirty years – to a degree which is barely understood by the British political classes.

This is the cumulative effect of the Thatcher and Blair revolutions – which are now being built upon and extended by the Cameron Conservatives in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. The UK state has become a neo-liberal state – one which has changed how it acts in the UK and globally (Hassan and Barnett, 2009).

The neo-liberal state has a transformed political centre; one which at the core and highest echelons of British government now prioritises marketisation, corporatisation and outsourcing, and economic relationships which aid this. The political centre has been captured by entrepreneurs of the state, corporate interests, and the accountancy firms. 

The old Whitehall mandarins have been caricatured by ‘Yes Minister’ – an account the Thatcherites and Blairites thought accurate in describing them as obstacles to change, stuffy, high bound to tradition and Oxbridge dominated. This has been used to push through a supposed opening up – with more diversity in terms of women and ethnic minorities, concealing a new ossified social order and even more virulent conservatism.

The mantra is now about modernisation, change and reform, ‘the status quo not being an option’ and lots of other cliches. This leads to a culture of constant change as the narrative and a lack of continuity with only 23% of senior civil servants having been in their post for four years or more, with an average time in post of 2.9 years, leading to a ‘limited remembrance’ of the past and ‘hazy organisational memory’ (Brindle, 2009).

Older values such as ‘public sector ethos’ are openly disparaged and scoffed at as ‘out of date’. This is Steve Robson, then a Treasury official, who guided through British Rail and London Underground privatisation, in evidence to the House of Commons Public Administration Committee:

"… the public sector ethos is a bit of a fantasy, it is rather like middle-aged men, who fantasise that beautiful, young women find them attractive." (Sampson, 2004, 120)

When Robson left government he took up himself like many of the new British mandarins a number of lucrative corporate directorships including Royal Bank of Scotland and JP Morgan.

The UK policy agenda has entailed the first big privatisations by the Thatcher Governments and the ‘choice’ agenda of the Blair Government giving sizeable parts of the public sector to private interests (Craig and Brooks, 2006). And now comes the Cameron reforms – opening up the NHS to private health care companies, privatising the Forestry Commission, and introducing ‘free schools’ – all in England – and all accurately presented by Tory ministers as ‘Blair, better’ (Forsyth, 2011).

The Tony Blair memories are the bible of ‘the Cameroon Conservatives’ – on how they implement public service reforms, not make war (Blair, 2010); while the Thatcher memories were read cover to cover by the Blairites as a guide on how to govern and succeed (Thatcher, 1993). Here is a description of Michael Gove, Education Secretary, in the Cameron Government:

"The Education Secretary, for his part, devoured the Blair memoirs and during the Tory conference slept with them by his bed. Often, if someone challenges Gove on an aspect of his policy of school reform, he will refer to his copy of the Blair bible." (Forsyth, 2011)

At an international level the UK, even under New Labour, was a leading advocate for privatisation across the world often under the guise of international development. The UK Government funded the right-wing Adam Smith International to preach the virtues of privatisation across Africa. Even Clare Short, a left-wing Labour Minister for International Development, who resigned in the aftermath of the Iraq war in 2003, made the case for privatisation:

"Privatisation is the only way to get the investment that poor countries need in things like banking, tourism, telecommunications, and services such as water, under good regulatory arrangements." (Hassan, 2008a)

The UK has been remade by this revolution. A huge industry has grown up around the Big Four accounting firms: Ernest and Young, KPMG, PwC and Deloitte Touche.  Then there are the top law firms – Allen and Overy, Linklaters, Freshfields – who have become the world’s top law firms.

This has resulted in the UK becoming a world centre for legal contracts and accountancy, for making deals, doing business and oiling the wheels of the global economy (Barnett and Hutton, 2011). All of this has repercussions for the make-up of British society and politics, and in particular for London and the South East of England.

Neo-Liberal Culture 

Secondly, from this flows the promotion of neo-liberal culture: a culture which is based on celebrating the cult of the individual, selfishness, greed and the validation of winners. I want to choose two emblematic examples: British TV culture and football.

The success of TV programmes such as ‘The X Factor’ and ‘The Apprentice’ is deeply revealing – and often sees programme formats made which are sold around the world. 

Such programmes are more complex and nuanced than traditional commentators from ‘The Daily Mail’ and ‘Daily Telegraph’ acknowledge. They do have entertainment value, and they do show a way in which in a media-saturated, communication society people want to find voice, be visible and public, and that this is a form of validation and acceptance. There is in these kind of programmes a mass appetite for people desiring to become actors in their own lives and wanting to seek an audience.

All of this is in a very constrained, controlled environment. These programmes are not the heralding of a new participative democracy - something ‘Big Brother’ was lauded as when launched in 2000. It soon became a cliché that more young people voted in ‘Big Brother’s’ final than voted in the UK general election; it didn’t matter that you could vote as many times as you wanted in ‘Big Brother’ - changing the value of a vote.

These shows are symbols of the crisis of public service broadcasting and the rise of a ruthless manipulative populism – which sees popular culture and music as ephemeral, disposable and inherently worthless; and has a similarly low opinion of the audience.

Then we come to the world of English football. The English Premiership is regularly celebrated as ‘the best league in the world’ and is a significant promoter of England across the world (Radcliffe, 2000).

Ten of the twenty clubs in the Premiership this season are foreign owned (Beckett, 2010); fourteen of the clubs have offshore financial arrangements: Birmingham City are registered in the Cayman Islands, Tottenham Hotspur in the Bahamas, Sunderland in Jersey. This allows clubs to pay less UK tax and overseas football stars coming to England to have substantial proportions of their earnings as image rights and not incur full UK tax (Watts, 2010).

More than half of all debt in European football – 56% - is in the English Premiership (Conn, 2010). The English game is not a metaphor for ‘Fantasy Island Britain’ and the illusion of ‘the bubble’; it is directly a creation of it.

This is presented in the British media as a natural development: as the equivalent of the product of nature when it is a direct result of the open door policy of British capitalism. This results in no restrictions on foreign ownership of any of the strategic parts of the British economy from the major airports to nuclear power stations.

The ultimate destination of this is ‘the world island’ of England literally moving shop. Harry Redknapp, manager of Spurs commented: 

"Soon I believe every Premier League Club will be owned by a foreign billionaire and they will want the same thing – the title." (Redknapp, 2010)

Then we have the clamour for a final round of Premiership games – the so called ‘39th game’ – played in somewhere supposedly glamorous such as Dubai – all to increase TV rights, revenue and sponsorship. 

Redknapp has said:

"I am absolutely convinced down the line Premier League games will, take place all around the world." (Redknapp, 2010)

This is a vision of football bereft of the people’s game, fans, supporting a club linked to place, family and tradition: the ultimate extension of neo-liberal culture.

The Neo-Liberal Self 

Finally, in this triptych is the emergence of the neo-liberal self. Any revolution worth its name has to aspire to remaking the notion of ‘the self’: its equivalent ‘new workers’ of the new order. The nature of the neo-liberal self is one who is supposedly the all-powerful and sovereign consumer, narcissistic, selfish, superficial and instrumental in how and who they choose to have relationships with.

The neo-liberal self is the modern day version and recreation of Marcuse’s ‘one dimensional man’ (Marcuse, 1964) – a self which is increasingly isolated, atomised and without voice and power, and permeating and penetrated by the unrelenting logic of consumer capitalism, advertising, marketing and the power of brands. 

It is true that shopping and consumerism have given people more choice, a degree of liberation, and one with a gendered story; there is play, fun and visibility to be found in shopping for many people which is often ignored by critics (Lawson, 2009); yet ultimately the neo-liberal self is a world shorn of many of the most profound things which make us human.

This is the terrain in which Britain has evolved in recent decades; one which has been advocated by the Thatcher and Blair eras, but which was only possible because of the nature of British society, capitalism and the state. Without that long story the far-reaching changes we have witnessed so far would not have been possible.

'The Neo-Liberal State and its Context' is the second part of a three-part serialisation of the 'Last Utopia' paper. The third part, 'Territorial Politics and British Futures' will be published tomorrow, Sunday February 28th. 

Part I: 'Empire state Britain' published here

About the author
Gerry Hassan is Research Fellow in cultural policy at the University of the West of Scotland who has recently been awarded his PhD on political and cultural contemporary debate in the public sphere of Scotland. Gerry is the author and editor of numerous books including ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ and the just published 'After Independence' (co-edited with James Mitchell). His 'Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland' was published in April 2014. His website is: www.gerry.hassan.com