The Last Utopia: Thatcher, New Labour and the Cameron Conservatives and the Demise of Social Democratic Britain.
Part III: 'Territorial Politics and British Futures'.
- taken from the University of Nice Sophia Antipolis Colloque Keynote Address.
The Territorial Dimensions of the United Kingdom
The Same Old Story
The territorial dimensions of the UK are despite devolution – often ignored or diminished by the British political classes, academia and media accounts – which cling to a unitary state politics. Esteemed commentators such as Anthony King, Peter Kellner and Vernon Bogdanor articulate a complacent, self-congratulatory manner and content.
Anthony King in ‘The English Constitution’ addresses in the conclusion all the many concerns and calls for reform of the UK constitution and asks, ‘What, then, is to be done?’ and then states, ‘The short answer is nothing’. Reform is ‘likely to fall on deaf ears – and deserves to fall on deaf ears – for six separate reasons’ (2007, 363) which he then lays out:
1. That there is no need for a written constitution.
2. There is no popular demand for either a convention or a written constitution.
3. A broadly agreed draft constitution would probably not in fact emerge from the proposed convention.
4. There is a high probability, though not a certainty, that any agreed constitution that did emerge from the proposed constitutional convention would be a bad one, possibly a very bad one.
5. Even if men and women of comparable statute could be attracted, it is not at all clear that attending such a convention would be the most profitable use of their time.
6. Finally, but not least, the UK has already undergone – even since the late 1960s– a period of intense and unremitting constitutional change. Good sense would seem to suggest that the time has come to pause …. Enough is enough, one might think – if not forever, then at least for the time being. (King, 2008, 363-65)
Peter Keller in his ‘Democracy: 1,000 Years in Pursuit of British Liberty’ opens with the statement, ‘Liberty is Britain’s gift to the world’ (2009, 1).
Vernon Bogdanor writing in the ‘New Statesman’ last year illustrates the contemporary power of the Whig like story of progress and 1945 and all that reviewing a book by Paul Addison stating:
"Addison surely goes too far when he assumes that the social-democratic settlement has been fatally undermined …. The Attlee settlement dug deep. Indeed, the history of postwar Britain often seems a mere coda to it. The Thatcher revolution, by contrast, was more superficial." (Bogdanor, 2010)
The English Dimension
Central to this is the issue of England, which seems to have turned its back for the time on any notion of territorially rebalancing itself through regional decentralisation. This would not have directly addressed ‘the essential asymmetry of the UK’ (Keating, 2009, 178), and in particular the over-concentration of wealth and power in London and the South East of England which disfigures British society and politics.
While we have had lots of attention and books looking at Scotland or posing Scottish public spending as the problem – not one high profile book has been written on the South East problem and power in the UK. Reform could have offered the prospect of beginning a differentiated territorial politics in England which explored these issues; yet the silence – not just in political elites – is deafening.
The failure of an English counter-story has had numerous consequences (Hassan and Ilett, 2011). First, the British political classes belief that the British constitution remains fundamentally unaltered and untouched by constitutional change and devolution has to be recognised. They remain committed to the unitary state story of Britain, and seem to have no interest in rethinking and radically changing the British state.
Second, the continuation of this approach is likely to eventually encourage massive change in the form of the more overt assertion of a unitary state England that will lead inexorably to a new set of relationships across the UK. There has long been an assumption north of the border that the future of the UK will be decided by the Scottish dimension, but it is more than likely any decisive shift could occur in England.
Third, there is the European dimension and the Tory Eurosceptic mindset of trying to entrench British parliamentary sovereignty and the belief amongst many of this persuasion that continued EU membership is ultimately incompatible with the British constitution. Then there is the current Euro crisis, institutional sclerosis, democratic deficit, and lack of progress in the Europe of the Regions.
It is too late for a political project of nation-building built around Britishness. Instead, all of the rhetoric expended by Gordon Brown (2006), David Cameron (2011) and other politicians on this subject is manifest of the problems and crisis; and is not the solution (Nairn, 2006; Hassan 2009).
The late British project is an attempt to address multi-national, multi-cultural concerns in a modernist narrative which is focused on universal values: fair play and democracy, along with institutions such as the NHS.
David Cameron’s recent excursion into this terrain drew together an analysis of the end of multiculturalism, the security agenda and need for British values in an agenda which mixed Blair and Brown’s concerns on Britishness (2011). It was as empty and threadbare as their interventions – with no evidential foundations for most of its assertions and containing few real policy proposals. Even less was there any sign of new thinking at the heart of British Government.
The underlying sentiment of the British debate is that British national identity is superior: pluralist, proper and legal, whereas other identities are mono-cultural, less meaningful and not legal. The UK Government’s ‘The Governance of Britain’ Green Paper published in 2007 makes no apologies about this:
"There is room to celebrate multiple different identities, but none of these identities should take precedence over the core democratic values that define what it means to be British." (Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, 2007, 57)
This brings us back to the English dimension, the British state and neo-liberalism. England is the territory and space for the neo-liberal experiment moving on to its next stage.
The Cameron Conservatives are now implementing the next stage of extending neo-liberalism in Britain: opening up the NHS to private health companies, handing of state schools and colleges to the private sector through ‘free schools’ and ‘academies’, and privatising the forests. All of this is a very English revolution with several other sales planned for the future.
What is fascinating in this is the juxtaposition of the messianic management triumphalism of remaking institutions, and the hesitant, deliberate silence on territoriality; when Cameron talks of ‘this country’ with ‘European levels of health spending’ without ‘European levels of success in our health service’ - he means without ever saying it - England (Beckford, 2011).
This conundrum can be seen across all British politics. For example, Lord Goldsmith’s Report ‘Our Common Bond’ – a government report on citizenship – talks about ‘citizenship education’ but does so nearly exclusively in relation to English education. It recommended an Oath of Allegiance to the Head of State with only the most token acknowledgement how this might fare in Scotland and Northern Ireland (Goldsmith, 2008).
Previously the British governing classes would have known better than this kind of ‘collective amnesia’ about what the United Kingdom is. No longer can that be said and that carries huge consequences.
The character and nature of Britain is going to increasingly come to the fore: the union state realities of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; the unitary state politics of the British political establishment; and the English dimension.
This will find form and expression across politics, about policy, institutions and values. Pivotal to this is the English issue. Can England become a completely Thatcherised–Murdochised playground for neo-liberalism? Or can England save itself from the forward march of neo-liberalism?
Is it possible for England to shift from a unitary state mentality? And if not - will Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – slowly detach themselves from the centre?
I want to conclude with three plausible British futures which could emerge from this:
- A politics of the imperial centre: the Thatcherite and Blairite revolutions are consolidated and extended by the Cameron Conservatives;
- The entrenchment of the English unitary state: with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland slowly beginning to detach themselves from the centre;
- The emergence of an English national voice and notion of union politics leading to a fundamental reconfiguration of the UK.
The most likely future over the next 20-30 years lies probably between the second and third options. And indeed that we could probably pass from the first to the second and eventually the third.
In this the inter-relationship between the constitutional make-up of the UK, territorial politics and political institutions and values is crucial. Post-social democracy – the form of neo-liberalism – its advance by the British state in England – and its lack of advocates at a Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish level – will be one of the key determinants of how the future maps out.
One of the biggest weaknesses in addressing these issues – along with the concentration of power and influence in a new establishment – is the British left and its inability to think about the nature of the British state, the nations and relations of the UK, and issues of nationalism. This is true of most of the British left – including some of its most enlightened parts such as the Compass group and the ‘London Review of Books’.
Sadly the British left seems to have a complete disconnection from these issues. A recent Compass piece by Neal Lawson and John Harris had only a cursory mention of politics outside Westminster (Lawson and Harris, 2010). A ‘London Review of Books’ by Peter Mair went even further dismissing concerns for the state of the British body politic (Mair, 2010).
After declaring that, ‘The UK has generously provisioned local parliaments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland’, he goes on to dismiss concerns about corruption in British politics writing that, ‘By most standards the levels of corruption exposed by the expenses scandal in the UK are relatively modest’.
He then writes of MPs that, ‘Nor is the job very well paid’, before putting the plight of the British parliamentarian in its full context:
…"since they spend most of their time mixing with the great and the good, and with ministers, financiers, journalists and TV personalities, all of whom earn substantially more than they do, it is easy to understand their sense of relative deprivation." (Mair, 2010)
This is the voice of the thoughtful, intelligent, international minded British left: one that is making excuses for the debasement of our politics, the interweaving of politics in a post-democratic order, that is silent on England, complacent on the nature of the British state, and nervous about the European dimension and its challenge to the British political system.
The British left in this is just part of a wider predicament about politics, the nature of our elites, the scale of change we have experienced in recent decades, and the character of the state. Our political class – of left, centre, and right - still has the self-importance to usher some of us to be grateful for our ‘generously provisioned’ Parliaments. And its heart beat races in the belief that the British constitution is the envy of the world, a body politic held in reverence and deference the world over; that may seem a risible outlook to anyone outside the British political classes, but that is how out of touch, insular, arrogant and lacking in radical imagination they are.
This is the state we are in. The future of the UK is inextricably linked to the future of the neo-liberal state; neither is likely to continue in their current form for that long. But to begin with we have to stop making excuses for this state of affairs.
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