Modernising the unmodernisable : Cool Britannia and reality

John Davey argues that it's time for the English to take the initiative and put the democratically sclerotic British state to sleep.

John Davey
22 May 2012

Since as long as I can remember, and that's not that long, but certainly long enough, there has been an ongoing, serious and well-intentioned discussion about 'modernising Britain'. This has been coupled with repeated series of initiatives aimed at bringing Britain 'back to the people', making Britain a 'people's Britain', making Britain 'cool'.



The iconic 1997 cover

We all remember 1997 and 'Cool Britannia'. A few pop stars went to Downing Street, and Tony Blair announced his undying commitment to Eastenders. Union Jacks started appearing on risque music DVDs. The Spice Girls covered their spicy parts with the red, white and blue hotch-potch of the Union Flag. In the midst of all this pop-counter-revolution, the same Tony Blair – he of the guitar and pop-Britain - announced that there would be no change to the electoral system and that although hereditaries would be going from the House of Lords, there was to be no elected component. Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose.



Gearing up to 'greatness' in 2012

But the well-intentioned British elites can't help thinking something is still wrong, which is why the initiatives keep coming. After the riots of last year, there are worries about youth alienation from politics in particular, and constant concern about plummeting electoral turnouts.It's not exactly a new story. There has never been a point since 1707 – what might be termed the definitive birth date of Britain – where popular participation has characterised the Union enterprise. There was a brief point at the end of WWII where perhaps it looked like such a breakthrough might take place, but it was quickly strangled out of existence by the stagnation,post-war consumerism and (by contemporary standards) maniacal royalism of the fifties. 'Modernisation' – in a British context – means changing the marketing of the product, rather than the product itself. The product itself, the United Kingdom – its institutions, values – are assumed to be largely well-intentioned, largely beneficial, progressive and sufficiently democratic to require no alternative.

The recent council elections yielded turnouts of just 32%. It probably shouldn't be a surprise that people can't be bothered to vote for institutions that are so ineffectual, powerless and restricted to insignificance by the UK's ever centralizing laws. Why vote for something that will have no effect on you ? Nonetheless the elites would be happier if people would vote in larger numbers, even if it is of largely no consequence. I'm sure the Kremlin would have had a similar set of ideas in its one man elections during the Stalin era.

The latest marketing wheeze seems to be a plan to introduce an “elected component” to the House of Lords. All three parties seem committed to introduce 'elected components' with the alleged left-of-centre party – Labour – dragging its feet the most. It's all window-dressing of course : there are no new proposals to actually increase the power of the House of Lords, let alone it's name, so it won't make much difference. But it does look bad that a legislative assembly exists based no longer on heredity, but on the probably even worse criteria of political patronage. Best then to make a change, even it's cosmetic.

So what can a British democratic progressive do about Britain, about its ossification, its staleness, its lack of popular participation. What does a British progressive do about the fact that popular participation, as they might say, simply isn't British? Well – if it's broken, get rid of it. Get rid of Britain. Start again from scratch, from the ground up to create a British Isles free from the ossification, torpor, the modernisation-traditionalisation quandaries of the United Kingdom and its tedious schoolboy politics. And as the dominant country in terms of population by far, its up to the people of England to take that initiative.

England needs a sister party to the Scottish, Welsh, and Irish nationalists. That might seem odd, but the English are the victims of Britain too. In terms of identity, England's great cities and regions – Bristol, Manchester, Birmingham, Newcastle – have been reduced to vassal communities of the metropolis under the great, heaving weight of UK centralization. Manufacturing has been reduced to an economic sideshow to the main priority of the elites, which is to keep the City hoarding profits – with taxpayer subsidy – and thus keep those same elites in healthy lifestyles.

The regional accent and dialect has disappeared altogether from the UK's serious imagery, to be replaced by a variation of what might be 'South East neutral' – definitely South East, but with no hint of cockney, you understand. That might be too human. Regional accents appear on Radio One, soap operas, places where “pop-Britain” matters but no authority is on display.

“British” isn't a bona-fide ethnicity, of course. It was a deliberate synthetic identity designed to cover the fact that the English and Scots were different people. Inevitably it owes a large part of it's identity to a certain view of English identity, but its essence is that British identity isn't tied to particular part of Britain. The 'British' accent is spoken by public schoolboys all over the world, and almost never by the people of England.

English ethnicity is heteregenous but no less authentic for all that than Scots or Irish ethnicity. Ethnicity – I stress to point – excludes race. Its simply a matter of where you're brought up. And the starting building block of New English Republic (I think we can safely assume that if there's no Britain, there's no monarchy) has to be those very people who live, work and die on English soil.

Think about it. If there's no Britain, there's no need to worry about modernising. You can just do it. Britain is a huge weight around the necks of the English people. Britain is an idea and an identity that 'has serious issues', as the psychologists might say. It is concerned – nay, obsessed – with the past, and worse with the bogus identification of a nation with its institutions, rather than the matters of the soil that characterise genuine ethnicities.

Its time for a change and a time to give Britain to a well deserved sleep.

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