'The Long Now: Empire State Britain' - part I of The Last Utopia paper

Part one 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.
Gerry Hassan
25 February 2011

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

Part I: Introduction and 'The Long Now: Empire State Britain'.

Part II: The Neo-Liberal State and its Context published here

Part III: Territorial Politics and British Futures published here

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

"The question that hovers above the Iraq inquiry is – since the evidence on Saddam Hussein’s weaponry was so flaky and the post-war planning so atrocious – why on earth Tony Blair did it. One theory, albeit not the one likely to be offered by Mr Blair himself, is that his militarism and messianism, the mix of responsibility and entitlement that he evinced, are part of the inheritance of all post-imperial British leaders ….

If Empire is the backdrop of Britain’s foreign entanglements, it is also implicated in the country’s exposure to another great debacle, the financial crash. The City and the Empire grew up symbiotically. Imperial trade and investment made London a world financial centre; the City became vital to the British economy, while at the same time, preoccupied as it was with foreign deals, largely separated from the rest of it. The Empire thus bequeathed commercial habits, and an overmighty financial sector, which British taxpayers now have cause to regret."

 - Bagehot, The Economist, December 3rd 2009.

"On the domestic front Mr Blair still holds extraordinary sway. His public service reforms, which sometimes had a chaotic quality in their more limited manifestations, are now being fully realised by David Cameron. Senior Tory ministers idolise Mr Blair. But in terms of the calculations that led to the nightmare of Iraq, he is a ghostly figure from another age."

 - Steve Richards, The Independent, January 20th 2011.


The British state is currently in flux: one of crisis, challenge and doubt. Concerns abound about British economic decline, social malaise and ‘Broken Britain’. The end of declinism trumpeted by Thatcherism and Blairism has proven illusory.

In many respects this is part of a general Western and European sentiment: of declinology books such as ‘Germany Does Away with Itself’ (Sarrazin, 2010) and ‘French Melancholy’ (Zemmour, 2010). Forthcoming is Jean-Pierre Chevènement's ‘Is France Finished?’. Even before the crash book shelves were crammed with titles such as ‘Can Germany Be Saved?’ (Sinn, 2007) and ‘The Last Days of Europe’ (Laqueur, 2007). At the same time British writers were producing books with a sense of self-belief titled ‘The End of Decline’ (Brivati, 2007).

Where does the British story fit into this picture: this seemingly remorseless journey of anxiety, fear and uncertainty about economic power and globalisation, the future of Europe, and of power shifting eastwards and southwards?

There is a very British experience which this paper will attempt to address. It will locate recent British history in a longer timeframe and address three core concepts:

  • Addressing the character of the UK – and its state, economy and culture - in a longer-time frame;
  • Analysing the neo-liberal nature of the British state;
  • And addressing the intertwining of this with the territorial dimensions of the British state.

The Long Now: Empire State Britain

The current state of Britain needs to be explained in a long view – which goes beyond Thatcher, the 1960s, the post-war settlement or the cost of the Second World War: the usual culprits trotted out to explain away decline.

Instead, I am going to look briefly at the legacy of Empire and the influence of the City, the anti-industrial ethos of establishment Britain, and the nature of the UK state, at home and in its global influence.

First, Empire has left a significant influence and shadow across Britain domestically to this day which is seldom understood. What people often ignore or fail to grasp is that Empire remade large swathes of British life – economically, socially and culturally.

Empire and the financial nexus of the City of London grew up hand in hand, one supporting and defining the other. This can be seen in the patterns of imperial trade, investment, preferment and protection which made London into the first world city: the centre of ‘the world system’ of Empire (Darwin, 2009). This process resulted in the City becoming the cornerstone of the British economy; yet at the same time as it looked abroad it became separated from the rest of the economy. The City ‘crowded out’ the prospect for the UK to become an economy shaped by industry or having a developmental state.

Instead, the City became a pillar of the Empire State – and in its evolution and success it sprang from and gave sustenance to the anti-industry ethos of the British ruling class. Industry was just not the sort of appropriate livelihood for a gentleman who instead had the elite playground of the Empire or City to choose from. These values persist to this day – aided by Thatcher’s ‘Big Bang’ and New Labour’s collusion with the City, the burgeoning size of Britain’s financial industries pre-crash, and the culture it has spawned (Bagehot, 2009).

Britain as a ‘World Island’

Britain has to be understood geo-politically and an appropriate place to start is Churchill’s 1946 speech which put Britain at the centre of three circles: Empire, Anglo-America and Europe. Today as Andrew Gamble has set out there are four circles: British Union, Commonwealth, Anglo-America and Europe (Gamble, 2003).

This is the idea of Britain – or more accurately at points England as ‘a world island’ – a place at the centre of a series of complex inter-relationships. It also locates Britain in the context of ‘the Anglo-sphere’ – by which I mean the six countries of the English speaking democracies of advanced capitalism. These are as well as the UK: the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland.

Each of the six has had very distinct neo-liberal experiments unleashed in them not found anywhere else in the Western world. The specific values and policies of ‘the Anglo-sphere’ can be summarised as having:

  • A pronounced culture of individualism;
  • Liberty seen as first and foremost as an economic idea, before it is viewed in a social or political context;
  • A concept of political economy based upon a distinctive idea of the free market;
  • A narrow model of corporate governance, responsibility and finance;
  • A specific way in which the role and place of the state is understood.

Many of the pronounced neo-liberal actions were undertaken by supposedly centre-left parties. In this New Labour is part of an international phenomenon found at its most pronounced in ‘the Anglo-sphere’. As well as Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s embrace of market fundamentalism, there has been Bill Clinton’s New Democrats, Bob Hawke’s and Paul Keating’s Australian Labor, ‘the Rogernomics’ of New Zealand Labour, and the Canadian Liberal administration of Jean Chretien.

It would seem that ‘the Anglo-sphere’ model of capitalism is one whose origins and roots can be traced back to the UK; the distinctive economic, social and political sphere that formed around the Enlightenment. This is sometimes called ‘the Scottish Enlightenment’ of Adam Smith, David Hume and William Robertson. In recent years, some writers have tried to claim that ‘the Scots invented the modern world’, and even that the Declaration of Arbroath led to the US Declaration of Independence (Herman, 2002). It would instead be more accurate to say that in ideas and people the UK had a defining role in the creation of ‘the Anglo-sphere’.

Empire also matters in the retreat from imperial citizenship to a Commonwealth, the path from the Nationality Act 1948 to the Nationality Act 1981. This 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 the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey to the fourteen British Overseas Territories (BOT). This latter group have a colonial relationship with the mother country while none have direct representation in the British Parliament (Mycock, 2010).

It is not an accident that some of the territories of Britain beyond the UK are among the top tax havens of the world. Places such as the Isle of Man, Jersey, Guernsey, the Cayman Islands and Bermuda have become key financial and business centres for the liquid modern capital world. These black holes in the global economy have an enormous distortive effect – and the UK’s collusion and encouragement of this has aided US debates on deregulation, tax avoidance and capital flight (Shaxson, 2011).

Then there is the nature of the UK internally: the notion of the British state as a unitary state – which happens to be completely inaccurate.

Unitary state Britain is a powerful, potent version of history which has been told and retold through the ages and which plays on British exceptionalism. Once upon a time it carried widespread popular support – the long march of parliamentary sovereignty and liberty and the story of Britain standing alone in World War Two. This later period – 1940-41 and ‘our finest hour’ - has become a crucial part of the British popular imagination and what Jonathan Freedland has called ‘our founding story’ (2011).

The UK is a ‘union state’ or even as James Mitchell has advocated ‘a state of unions’ (Mitchell, 2009). The former is now institutionalised in the multi-layered governance and devolution of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And yet as the UK has fragmented and the post-war settlement collapsed our political classes have grown more and more dogmatic in their narrow interpretation of unitary state Britain.

The Tory and Labour stories of Britain once carried significant popular acclaim, and the Tory one at least – in the times of Baldwin, Churchill and Macmillan – had an implicit understanding of Britain as a union state (Hassan, 2008b).

No more is this the case. There is a direct link between the reaffirmation of the unitary state, the omnipotence of the political centre and Empire State Britain, and the neo-liberal revolution of the last thirty years.

It is only in this context that you can explain the strange state of the centre-left and social democracy in Britain. The terrain, culture and soil of the UK were never conducive to an enduring social democratic settlement, despite all the years of left hope and Labour Party chauvinism.

Britain has become a symbol and outrider for post-democratic politics – a new alignment of the elites and powerful which has aided a deep erosion and dilution of what passes for the centre-left internationally. This is part of Zygmunt Bauman’s observation – when he asks, ‘do indeed social democrats hold a utopia of their own? I doubt it.’

And goes on: ‘social democracy has lost its own separate constituency – its social fortresses and ramparts’ (Hassan and Bauman, 2011). It has been humiliated and defeated by neo-liberalism – the last modernist utopia left standing in the Western world.

It is to the consequences of this in Britain which I will turn to in part two:

click here for Part II: The neo-liberal state and its context


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