After Britain: Tom Nairn's view of Blair and Brown eleven years and five years ago

Tom Nairn
2 June 2012

Tom Nairn is 80 today. His influential contributions to OurKingdom and openDemocracy are the icing on a cake of Scottish, European and global arguments that have shaped thinking in a rare, profound and witty fashion. Here, as a present to new readers, we republish how Tom saw New Labour: in May 2001 as Tony Blair won his second election, and in May 2007 as Gordon Brown prepared to become leader.   

Pariah Kingdom

25 May 2001

 When Tony Blair was elected Britain’s Prime Minister in May 1997, the world’s media fêted the re-branding of Britain he claimed to represent: the birth of cool Britannia, the announcement of the Millennium Dome and the proclamation of the Third Way. Within weeks a young man who had never held office was taking the lead in international seminars about the future of the centre-left, and consulting with Clinton and Yeltsin as an equal.

As the 2001 election approached, the enthusiasm had given way internationally to disdain and domestically to widespread apathy and foreboding. When, finally, after its foot and mouth postponement, Blair launched the campaign on 8 May in an evangelical visit to a south London high school, the public’s worst suspicions were confirmed. He seemed certain to win, but the aura of sanctimony was dreadful to behold.

The world now looks differently at the United Kingdom. Tourists are warned away from its countryside, no one wants to eat its meat, its railways shatter under the impact of passing trains, its press and politicians (but not most people) seem to be in the grip of asylum-seeking xenophobia and its constitutional system has locked it into a descending spiral, with potentially dire consequences. The press in its nearest neighbours, Ireland and France, view Britain as a “pariah state” while that in its closest ally, the United States, perceives “decline and fall”. The German magazine, Stern, has just published a sober ten-page analysis of our miseries (part-translated in The Scotsman).

The perplexing unreality of the election campaign is not explained by William Hague’s inability to mount a convincing offensive. The ideological disintegration of Conservatism can be seen as another component of the crumbling infrastructure. Like getting on a British train, many will vote Labour because they feel they have to, dreading for their lives because there is no other vehicle available.

The strange character of the election needs to be understood as the result of a deeper change: a mutation of the British state that has taken place over the near-generation between 1979 and 2001. It is the failure to escape from this that is the source of the unreality.

Thatcher’s rupture

Up to 1979 the United Kingdom was an ex-imperial state “in decline”. Neither Left nor Right had succeeded in turning round (or even arresting) this process by policy means alone. Margaret Thatcher emerged from the wreckage. She had declared that anyone who believed in the then-prevailing norms of consensus politics was a “traitor”. Her conviction-Conservatism rejected the idea that decline was something to be accepted.

Instead she looked for a spiritual and economic restoration. The luck of her victory in the 1982 Falklands war gave her an inner sense that she had been chosen by destiny, a belief echoed by an increasingly overblown press. Together, the diva and her tabloid and broadsheet chorus embraced a comprehensive and “radical” redemptionism.

Since then the terminology of “revolution” has regularly figured in British political rhetoric. Putting the “Great” back into Britain ceased to be a figure of speech. It was embodied in a new mixture of violent economic de-regulation and cultural crusade — a re-shaping of society by the combined shock-tactics of privatisation and think-tank.

This was a genuine rupture — most of Thatcherism had been unthinkable in the previous mentality of British rule. Also, it was successful — or at least, successful enough on the socio-economic plane for her breakthrough to be non-reversible. Her “entrepreneurial” modernisation even coincided with a climatic change in Atlantic capitalism, which made it look far-sighted. But it should not be simply merged into that broader framework. The UK state had its own motives and trajectory and British grandeur eluded Thatcher as much as it had her post-Churchill predecessors. She embraced President Reagan and used the USA to prop up Britain’s “world role” to no avail. After her overthrow in 1990, the Kingdom lapsed into the pothole of Black Wednesday (the currency collapse of 1992) and then John Major’s half-decade of miasmic torpor. After which a further “revolution” was plainly required.

Blair takes the baton

The revolution duly came in 1997. The “Blairism” that followed sought to benefit from Thatcherism’s economic convulsion, while orchestrating a further shift of mentalités under the assorted banners of the Third Way, which intended to reconcile the Enterprise Culture with the remains of Welfarism. This nebulous concoction was seen as a growth-pod through which the essence of “A British way” might be more soundly renewed. The fundaments of the once enviable Westminster Monarchy and State would now experience giddy regrowth under a second magician’s spell.

A loathing refusal of overt constitutional change accompanied Margaret Thatcher’s economic radicalism. Certainly she preserved the unique powers of sovereignty enjoyed by British Prime Ministers. But at the same time she liquidated the informal system of checks and balances, from parliamentary conventions to a sense of “fair play”, constructed over the centuries to prevent parliamentary despotism.

The consequence can now be perceived as a new kind of régime. Thatcher’s was not just a government in the sense of an administration like its predecessors. It was a populist semi-autocracy, in which the Premier sought to mobilise the people in a national crusade.

If we are to speak of it as a ‘régime’, rather than an exception, Thatcherism needed to spawn a recognisable successor. It has done so. Her “radical” Britain is being carried forward by Blair’s “project” Britain. New Labour’s turn at redemption confirms that the UK is effectively in the grip of a new state-system.


We can call this “After-Britain”. It has quite distinctive rules and tendencies of its own. Blairism, too, asserts its essential continuity with the 1688-1979 United Kingdom. The claim is all too easily justified in terms of heritage displays at Buckingham Palace and Westminster. Britain goes on asserting its “presence” in the skies of the Balkans and the Middle East, and retains both a Nuclear Deterrent and a seat on the UN Security Council.

But this impersonation of old Britain should not be confused with real continuity. The country’s rulers have now become a parody of themselves. “After-Britain” is simultaneously the heir to, and the absolute betrayer of, its past and traditions. Its real meaning is a “soft totalitarianism” under which society is ceaselessly convoked into whatever redemptive dream is projected by the governing elite and its media. The “revolutions” of 1979 and 1997 have continued to nourish the Unwritten Constitution, and to revere its retrospect of glamour and untouchable stability — a paralysing façade of reassurance, behind which a deeply divergent country has in truth emerged.

That country is the changeling Kingdom of Thatcher, Major and Blair — a parody of Britain which strives to rejuvenate itself by will-power, charisma, histrionics, cascades of “new ideas” and ingenious policies from cones to domes — anything except a new political constitution. Within this non-stop, non-revolution from above, what we see are features of revered tradition reinvented as farce, and sometimes transformed into their opposites.

The tacit authority of a once hereditary caste has lapsed into regimentation by parvenus, spin-doctors and “control-freaks”. Deference has been replaced by tabloid news-management. Most recently, the vicious populism of The Weakest Link has turned the culture of the winner-takes-all electoral system into a TV game show in which the best are eliminated. In effect, the old ruling class of the 18th century constitution and Empire has made way for a simulacrum of itself: an élite of consiglieri (those who are “One of Us” or “invited to the party”). A synthetic extended family branches out into a burgeoning apparatus of quangos, Task Forces, and other unaccountable agencies, and is allied to a squared or supine business class.

Just as Thatcherism made a difference, so Labour will leave its own mark, with its fiscal prudence, its effort to reverse the creation of an underclass, and — as we saw on 8 May — to teach the young to read and write. It is not merely a repeat of the Wilson-Callaghan years. But this should no more blind us to the regime reality than Thatcher’s reforms and her popularity. In both cases, “democracy” is permitted to prevail only in the sense of alternating dictatorships.

The slough of redemption

Edmund Burke’s parliamentary representation has turned into a periodic vomit-politics, where one or other of the only two “possible” parties is ejected in disgrace — so that a newer “redemption formula” is given its chance. Westminster simple-majority voting is now needed to keep this parodic system in existence. Thatcher refused any proportionalism here, and Blair has hypocritically withdrawn from vague promises about it. In fact, “huge majorities” are required to nourish the myths of Sovereignty, British exceptionalism, and its obligatory “radicalism”.

This means that governments can now only be “swept away” by febrile waves of mutiny, when popular sentiment veers from acquiescence into resentment at sleaze and ineptitude (as it showed signs of doing against New Labour during the fuel crisis of 2000). While in office, the ruling party identifies the Nation with itself. In the shadow of such omnipotence, the party out of power becomes nothing (Labour under Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, the Tories under William Hague). Instead of being Her Majesty’s loyal opposition, a once honourable role, it endures a wilderness of demoralization and feuding, until it has pasted together another redemption recipe and is prepared for the next nausea-spasm of “Get the rascals out!”. Meanwhile, voter-participation drops continuously and Parliament becomes a vaudeville show. It is quite likely that more people will have voted for Big Brother than for the government of 2001-2005.

This depraved system has matured enough to neutralize the internal factors that, in the transition from Thatcher to Blair, looked to systematic progressive change — like the Liberal Democrats, Charter 88, the Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru. The Lib-Dems have been co-opted, Charter 88 reduced to angry frustration and the nationalists subordinated (supposedly) by devolution. There is even talk of English regionalism as a farther safeguard. In this way “After-Britain” offers impotent “voice” as a way of avoiding not only “exit”, but central constitutional reform.

Neutering the constitution

The Blair government, of course, was committed to a significant programme of constitutional “modernisation”. In short order it managed to carry it out and at the same time confine it to the outer reaches. The Scottish parliament and Welsh assembly, a human rights act, a Mayor for London, the eradication of most hereditary peers, independence for the Bank of England — these could have led towards a genuinely contemporary state.

Instead, Labour successfully resisted the threat of reform of the centre. Its refusal of electoral reform is a key part of another, longer and more grievous list — such as the failure to modernise the Commons to make it effective, the embarrassing decision to preserve an undemocratic second chamber and the backtracking on a genuine freedom of information act. The result is that while central government is now actually responsible for less, thanks to devolution, it intends to carry on as it did before — if not more so.

To undertake such alterations of the periphery without deeper constitutional reform was folly — the folly of a British identity over-confident of its historic sovereign omnipotence. Eventually, redemptionism is likely to be the harbinger of the United Kingdom collapsing backwards into post-1989 modernity, breaking up as it does so over the coming decades. The main nerve of this disintegration lies less in the urges of peripheral nationalism than in Unionist (and above all English) incapacity over constitutional change, and obsession with a past identity.

The most striking oddity of “After-Britain” in this perspective is the silence of its dominant nationality, the English. The choking of Englishness is the tacit condition for British survival— and hence, for the whole post-1979 system. England represents about 85 per cent of the archipelago, as well as most of its wealth and new economy. Such dominance has been the excuse for the failure of genuine reform. As long as this situation persists, it remains hard to see a way forward from the contracting political universe due to be underwritten once more on the 7th of June.

One prospect presented by the 2001 election, therefore, is that this is and will continue. Prime Ministers will forever compensate for a sense of loss by evangelical declarations that the UK is once again about to become a site of greatness. After she won her third election, Thatcher was asked when she would retire and she replied that she might go “on and on”. She couldn’t and didn’t. But in another sense she has.

What comes after

Is there really “no alternative”? A number of forces in addition to the English need to remain confined if they are to fit into the narrowing space of “After-Britain”. Three might successfully resist.

First, and perhaps the most important, is the immigrant intelligentsias. A huge effort is being mounted to prevent them from participating in the re-shaping of “who we are”. When they show even modest and reasonable signs of not being grateful, hysteria ensures, as with the media reaction to the Parekh Report on The Future of Multi-ethnic Britain, and the Stephen Lawrence Enquiry’s condemnation of institutional racism in the police. If immigrant leaders manage to refuse what is becoming an ethos of “British correctness”, an important centre of resistance to “After-Britain” will form around them.

Second, and an ally in this counter-project, is the advance of civic nationalism in Wales and Scotland. There, movements are growing which, even with the prospect of independence, now demonstrate a strong interest in common institutions across the Isles. This has also been supported by Dublin, and given embryonic form in the British-Irish Council.

Finally, Europe seems set to develop a constitution. This will be a lengthy process which will present a constant challenge to Westminster’s claim to exceptionalism, and being “above that sort of thing”. It seems all too likely that the tensions thus generated will lead to indefinite postponement of a referendum on the Euro “until it can be won”. This must be deeply tempting to the Labour leadership, as it will allow them to preserve Tory divisions while stealing their clothes. But it may prove impossible to avoid a resolution one way or another.

Can forces such as immigrant communities, civic nationalists, including eventually English civic nationalists, and those committed to a constitutional Europe, combine in some way? Unless they do, unless the real country makes a joint challenge to the unreal country, “After Britain” will continue. Both for the next four years, and, most probably, for years to come under a “new” Tory leadership.


Not on Your Life

15 May 2007

 It looks very much as if a new character will, in only a few weeks, be stage-centre in the United Kingdom: "New Britain". As chancellor Gordon Brown  prepares to move next door into the prime minister's house (it's called "flitting" in Scotland), a hurricane warning seems in order. All our nations should expect a storm of calls for renewal and appropriate constitutionalchange. Presaged by hints from Brown's cabinet colleague and campaign manager Jack Straw  , as well as assorted rumblings from Brown himself, the objective of such appeals is becoming reasonably clear.

The United Kingdom must be saved. This both is and isn't the debauched lout featured in Tony Blair's farewell address  at Sedgefield: "The British are special. The world knows it. In our hearts we know it. This is the greatest nation on earth." Our reformed character will remain the latter, naturally; yet in their hearts almost everyone now knows he needs substantial changes to keep going at all. Whatever the retreating premier was invoking, he could not help evoking the verminous rogue of buy-and-sell peerages, Iraqi destruction, side-winding Third Ways  , mounting inequality and Washington grovelling. A reformed image is desperately needed by Blair's pre-anointed successor. Is this not why constitutional change has suddenly reappeared on the Westminster agenda? An elected House of Lordship, tantalising talk of written constitutions and even of proportional representation - murmurs from Jack Straw added to Brown's own New-Brit rumblings?


A holy family

Modernising constitutional reform has long been a democratic demand. As we cross the present watershed it is, at least partially, being turned into a conservative one: Austria-Hungary must be preserved at all costs. And one objective conceals another. For ideally, the affordable costs should not include devolution to England.Britishness  could conceivably survive even much fuller Scottish and Welsh self-government; but what's left of it would evaporate in a flash with an English parliament  or assembly.

However, one way to hold back the latter might be via constitutional conventions and Fabian Society pamphlets. The pseudo-federal fog machine is already resuming full production, to be given weekly outlets at all-round, all-party confabulations. Here the Liberal Democratic Party  could play a key part. Unable to win power, the latter would confirm spiritual state office by propping up civic British nationalism - at the same time helping to counter accusations of a government fix. We have already seen the machinery at work since the Scottish National Party's victory  in the Scottish election: Lib-Dem refusal of "all cooperation" with nationalists means putting them beyond the pale - the Holy Family "union" within which alone reasonable deals can be made. More concretely, this means preservation of Great Britain's Security Council seat, and self-proclaimed world role - but a repolished halo and wardrobe for the old scoundrel are part of the act.

After Iraq such relegitimation will be even more necessary. And Brown's aim is a reconstitution of the "sacred" in this vital sense. Kirk, party and British nationhood could then come together in emotional rejection of the new "profane" - separatists bent on exit from the reconsecrated imagined community. This reimposition will also benefit from persistent confusion about "federation".

Federalism in modern history has not been an alternative to central state authority, but one way of enforcing it, and rendering it more tolerable. In the Soviet imperium , as in the post-civil war United States, it served great-power purposes by harnessing ethnic and regional diversities to a geopolitical strategy. Britain now possesses but a shadow of the latter; yet for that very reason, the political élite sees clinging to it as vital. For the true contrary of the central isn't the federal but theconfederal: an arrangement where sovereignty resides in the contributing parties, rather than the centre they support. As Allan Massie  puts it:

"A confederation... is a different matter, an agreement made between equals. It offers the Gaullist Europe des États, joined together to achieve common purposes but retaining the right to maintain differences from their partners, retaining the right to opt out of policies of which they do not approve... It alone offers the balance between the whole and its parts" (Scotsman  10 May 2007).

He is arguing mainly about European Union, and pointing out that confederation alone offers any hope of a workable constitution. But in the British-Irish archipelago this is surely no less true. Formally equal and independent partners alone could join together in any new way, retaining rights of opt-out and disagreement. Federation, by contrast, entails permanent cession of such rights, saccharined with magnanimous concession of cultural entitlements and secondary powers.

Devolution was an informal slide in the same direction, meant to exorcise nationalism in Wales and Scotland without too much fuss. There is still a huge gap between the nationalist advances of 3 May 2007 and anything like confederation: but no longer as huge as the grandeur-entranced élite would like. Devolution having failed to "kill nationalism stone dead" (as Scottish Labourites once loved to put it), isn't it reasonable to consider some more formal barrier to irresponsibility - even of a written-constitutional kind? Devolved government was something given; the recent advances of Plaid Cymru and the SNP represent something taken, programmes likely to breed growing self-confidence as they unfold. Sovereignties threatening the special nature of earth's greatest nation are at the end of such roads, best closed off. Being capable of constitutional thought, and hoping for enthronement as apostle of the greater nature, Brown  may try to redefine it more formally and irresistibly - even if it means the nuisance of an elected second chamber.


An unholy betrayal

As Guy Rundle  has written of the Sedgefield chosen-nation climax, in a scathing critique from Melbourne:

"What a thing for a social democrat to say. What a thing. Not an expression of left patriotism, of love of country and community, of a hope that its virtues had been strengthened, that it had contributed to the greater human good. Instead, a braying chauvinistic triumphalism, a mixture of Kipling and cod-Americanism" (see www.crikey.com.au  , 15 May 2007  ).

But Americanism and pseudo-federalism also mean that a democratic dimension will be part of any new deal. It simply has to be: as Jackie Ashley pointed out in a comment on the House of Lords debate, it would be impossible today to set up a new elected chamber using first-past-the-post - and unthinkable after that not to find a fairer electoral system for the House of Commons (see "Cash for honours is the fuse for a constitutional explosion", Guardian  , 12 March 2007). Does this mean democrats will have to support such changes, in spite of their overall reactionary direction?

It goes without saying that a more democratic United Kingdom should be welcomed, in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as England. However, constitutional reform should be distinguished much more emphatically from that direction. These stratagems are forced by the times upon a crumbling polity. New Britain must resort to them in order to prop up the old: the succession of Charles  and Camilla  , the two-party order at Westminster, and the dwindling zombiedom of Great-Britishness. No wonder returns from the grave feature so prominently in British cinematic culture: Brits don't just watch the House of Hammer, they live in it. In the arguments on and around 3 May, SNP and Plaid Cymru advances, it was always a curiously unqualified "union" that had to be saved. It felt like a form of religious faith, bordering on fundamentalism and unrelated to theWindsors  , grotesquely disproportional representation, Baghdad, Trident and most popular experience.

Brown was once a begetter of devolution. That failed to sustain Brit-House; so he thinks a new and more ambitious fix is required. Yet devolution  can't be undone - not even in Northern Ireland. And a dose of democracy has to be part of the prescription. All the more reason, surely, for tying additional changes down in less easily alterable ways. Which is likely to mean, in written, holy-script format. Then farther insubordination could be pre-empted more respectably.

Unholy betrayal is already in the air; all the more need for it to be fought via some constitutional, royally-blessed document. Though not of course centuries-old, a measure of fake immemoriality would be bestowed by claiming it as simply an evolution from 1688-89  (etc.) Measures once regarded as mob-rule would overnight become special-British wisdom of the ages. That's howBardic nationalism  functions, and should complete the Brown flitting. The 2008 applause from Washington can already be heard - whether Republican or Democrat.

The fact is that any such development will carry the same contradiction within it as devolution. Democracy is inherently stronger than those who would misuse it. And in this case, English democratic wishes would benefit most plainly from a shift towards renewed constitutionalism. The process would quickly acquire its own momentum, at variance with the motives of New Labour redemptionism. And naturally, it would also be a suggestive gift to David Cameron's novel form of English conservatism, already widely perceived as a veiled Anglo-nationalism  . That's why I think it's possible for citizens to discriminate among the features of any "Austro-Hungarian" package. Some bits of it could be greeted with relief, in Scotland and Wales too. Yet for much of the rest, it will really be important that Brown and Menzies Campbell hear the message: "Not on your life!"




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