The Battle of Britain 2010 Edition and Living in the Shadow of Empire

Underlying the 2010 British general election is a wider set of questions and issues: who are we, what do we want to be, what kind of country and society do we aspire to be, and where and how do we see our collective futures.
Gerry Hassan
6 April 2010

After a seemingly never-ending period the ‘official’ election campaign has finally begun. The 2010 British general election will be about many things: thirteen years of New Labour, Cameroon’s Conservatives, the state of the economy, public services and public spending, and the condition and character of our politics, political system and democracy.

Underlying all of this is a wider set of questions and issues which can be summarised as: who are we, what do we want to be, what kind of country and society do we aspire to be, and where and how do we see our collective futures. This finds voice and form in debates around Britishness, which connect to these areas and how we see our country, its different nations, politics and democracy.

Last week at the Political Science Association Annual Conference I took part in a panel discussion on this question to mark a special issue of ‘Parliamentary Affairs’ alongside Andy Mycock of the University of Huddersfield, Ben Wellings of the Australian National University, Bhikhu Parekh, writer and academic, and Michael Hechter of Arizona State University.

This debate touches on a whole host of issues and concerns about the UK’s past, present and future, and goes way beyond the ‘banal nationalism’ of Gordon Brown and David Cameron, and even the areas explored in the special issue of ‘Parliamentary Affairs’ this year or the ‘Political Quarterly’ special the year previous.

While the whiff and air of nostalgia builds and grows with the awaited 70th anniversary of the Battle of Britain and a whole industry around Churchill as a leader and wartime figure and Empire, a host of more pressing concerns are shaping much of this debate. These include concerns and anxieties about identity, immigration and fears of terrorism, along with worries about what glues us together as a society and community, which link to the decline of socialism and progressive values on the one hand, and traditional Toryism on the other.

This is a distinctly British story and also a particular version of how we fit into the dominant account of globalisation we have been sold. What is it that makes Britain special anymore? A ‘golden thread of liberty’ anyone, even one significantly diminished and tarnished by ‘the war on terror’? A bit more localism, even if it is from the Westminster classes who gave us unprecedented centralism?

Andy Mycock, co-editor of the special issue of ‘Parliamentary Affairs’ (along with Catherine McGlynn), framed some of the issues posed in the publication, but even more interestingly examined some of the areas he addressed in his essay which explores the issue of British citizenship, nationality, identity and boundaries after Empire (Parliamentary Affairs Special Issue, forthcoming).

In so doing he looked at the slow retreat from imperial citizenship to a Commonwealth, the path from the Nationality Act 1948 onwards, and what repercussions this has had for what the UK is. For one it has left the Queen head of sixteen independent states around the world, while retaining a Britain outside the UK which is seldom explored: ranging from those top tax havens in the world, the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey, to the fourteen British Overseas Territories (BOTs).

Ben Wellings complemented this focus, looking at the non-inclusive nature of Australian identity, and looking at the impact ‘Britishness outside Britain’ had in Australia, and in particular during the crucial years, when the UK opened its first discussions with the then EEC on membership in 1961-63, and when the UK Government made an ‘official attempt’ to stop talking of itself as ‘the UK’ and instead – in the days before branding – repositioned itself as ‘Britain’.

Much more disappointing, but as revealing were the contributions from Parekh and Hechter. Bhikhu Parekh’s contribution emphasised the dynamics of belonging, borders and relevance of Britishness, along with its numerous blind spots. He then developed a half-focused argument about the nature of British-ness and whether it allowed for hyphenation, and the issue of the ‘ness’, ruminating on the impossibility of talking or imagining an American-ness or Australian-ness. This seemed to me a set of ill-finished thoughts which were looking for a direction, let alone a destination.

Much worse was Michael Hechter, who was in many respects even more revealing. He talked of Britishness being like having your cake and being able to eat it, gently chided the rest of us for our lack of talk of measurement, and then went on to talk about regional difference within the US and the UK.

Here he stumbled, talking about the continuation of the South’s distinctiveness in the States and the continued influence of the civil war, commenting that the UK had lots of differences despite ‘the lack of a civil war’. He seemed to have forgotten that there had been an English Civil War, and that the Scots and English had fought dozens of conflicts, pivotal of which had been the Wars of Independence, which seems to some in Scotland at least, as myth and folklore, to be increasingly important in how some people define themselves.

This was a fascinating set of comments, and reminded me that Hechter’s major contribution on ‘Celtic nationalism’ – ‘Internal Colonialism’ – published in 1975 – and an attempt to explain Scots, Welsh and Irish nationalism by the theory of uneven development, does not really work as history, economics or by evidence.

In the debate which ensued, Wellings asked ‘what brought the flags out in different nations?’, and noted that America post-9/11 had an explosion of flags and patriotism, whereas in England, people in recent years gathered around football and rugby. Another theme discussed was changing representations of the Second World War, with the crucial period of the 1970s seen as a change between the war as recent history and the war as caricature; it was thought that some of this change had been aided by Britain’s entry into the EEC in 1973.

Putting the Story of Modern Britain In Context

Britishness needs to be looked at both geo-politically, and its current manifestations and expressions, understood historically. Churchill’s famous 1946 speech put Britain at the centre of three circles, Empire, Anglo-America, Europe. Today as Andrew Gamble has argued there would be four: British Union, Commonwealth, Anglo-America, Europe (Andrew Gamble, 2003).

Then there is how we make sense of what has happened to Britain, our society and lives these last few decades. What language, values and meanings do we draw from to make sense of it all? Some invoke a ‘broken Britain’; others a ‘broken politics’, while a small band believes the story at least of the last decade has been one of trying to make a ‘fairer Britain’ out of the post-Thatcher legacy.

The economic, social and political transformation of the UK and US in the last thirty years is usually explained by reference to the terms, ‘Thatcherism’ and ‘Reaganism’, but this does not explain why they found such fertile soil here and across the Atlantic, or the wider and longer-term picture.

It is no accident that five of the six countries of ‘the Anglo-sphere’, the English speaking democracies: the UK, US, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland, had very distinct neo-liberal experiments unleashed on them not found anywhere else in the West, from central Europe to the Nordic countries or Japan; the exception in the six was Canada.

Why this happened cannot be explained by the recent events of Thatcher and Reagan, but has deeper roots in the cultural values, politics and ideas of each of the above nations, which can be summarised as:

  • A powerful culture of individualism;
  • Liberty being seen first as an economic idea, and political and social second;
  • A notion of political economy about a distinctive version of the free market;
  • A distinct model of corporate governance and finance;
  • How the role and place of the state has been understood.

Many of the most pronounced neo-liberal actions were done by notionally centre-left parties in government. In this New Labour is part of an international phenomenon of the Anglo-sphere. As well as Blair and Brown’s embracing of market fundamentalism, there has been Clinton’s New Democrats, Bob Hawke’s and Paul Keating’s Australian Labor, and the ‘Rogernomics’ of New Zealand Labour.

It would seem that the ‘Anglo-sphere’ model of capitalism is one whose roots and origins can be traced back to the United Kingdom, and that the distinct economic, social and political sphere of influence these nations have created can all be traced back to the ideas of the Enlightenment, and such thinkers as Adam Smith, David Hume and William Robertson. In recent years, some writers have tried to claim ‘the Scottish Enlightenment’ as contributing to ‘the Scots’ invention of the modern world’, but a more relevant quote would be to acknowledge ‘Britain’s role in making the Anglo-sphere’.

The current political crises that the UK finds itself in is multiple and overlapping: economic, democratic and how we conduct our foreign affairs. They are about the place of the UK as a geo-political entity, and at root it is a crisis of the Anglo-sphere model.

Despite all of this, the mainstream political parties, media and institutional opinion, will not be addressing any of these big questions. Instead, there will be a huge supporting cast of commentators and experts, who will try to talk to us over the next few weeks about crisis, but choose a very narrow notion of crisis to suit themselves: the crisis of the £167b public spending deficit, the cumulative public debt, or the sustainability of public spending at 52% of GDP. This narrow conceit of our governing class and their hangers-on will talk about anything other than the deep, structural issues at the heart of this crisis: the overgovernability of the Westminster model, and the crisis of the ‘Fantasy Island Britain’, which all our main parties subscribe too.

People such as Anthony Seldon in ‘Trust’ have already argued that disillusionment and lack of trust is merely cyclical, and not irreversible. Peter Mair in a recent ‘London Review of Books’ compared the crisis of British democracy with the Italian debacle, and found favourably on the British side.

Underneath all of this lurks the nature of the UK and its state, still despite everything at its heart, an ‘Empire State’. This is a state which despite thirty years of Labour Government since 1945 and a decade of constitutional reform is more centralist, authoritarian and manipulative than it ever has been, has clearly overrode the old checks and balances it used to recognise, and has an insatiable appetite for taking more powers and liberties from civil society, public life and us.

We still live in a culture and a politics inhabited by what is an Imperial Parliament which was never fashioned to concern itself with the deeply complex acts of widening citizenship, life opportunities and the quality of life of the majority of these isles. This political culture have given support and sustenance to a view of Britain as a nation of trade, commerce, naval power and the role of the City as the premier financial location in the world at the height of Empire. Britain was a power, not just economically and militarily, but at the centre of a whole web of networks, which Churchill’s 1946 speech referred to.

The long story of the last thirty years is the continuation of the Empire mindset long after the Empire itself has disappeared off the face of the globe. Our political classes still see themselves at the heart of an imperial dispensation, the City and its grotesque distortions of the British economy, business and industry have come even more centrestage, and the strange obsession of our governing classes with Atlanticism has been more revealed as a fanaticism.

Britain is still living in the shadow of Empire, and strangely enough, this is something more acutely grasped by those doyens of the New Right and neo-conservatism, Niall Ferguson and Andrew Roberts, than anyone on the centre-left.

Indeed, it tells us something revealing about the state of centre-left thinking over the post-war era, that a whole host of thinkers and politicians, from Crosland to Tawney, Benn to Foot, thought it was possible to build what they called ‘democratic socialism’ in such terrain, but then, the Labour Party’s grasp of the state, democracy and the role of Empire and imperialism has always been a bit shaky.

The current election may seem one with little choice between the main alternatives, but at least that means we are shorn of illusion that socialism or progressive change can be built in the cradle of the Empire State.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData