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An open letter to Compass: the problem with the British state

Gerry Hassan furthers an exchange on the call for a New Socialism and the nature of the British state with Neal Lawson, chair of Compass.
Gerry Hassan
12 January 2011

After Neal Lawson and John Harris wrote a call for ‘New Socialism’ in the New Statesman I responded. Now Neal has posted a note about what I said. He feels that I am being uncomradely and this upsets him as I have long been complementary of Compass’ work and have collaborated with them in a number of ways.

I consider myself a friend and admirer of Compass and its work. In these challenging times they are one of the few bright spots on the left: attempting to revitalise a left project that is in serious trouble. Given this, we need – much more than we ever have done – honest, genuine debate and discussion amongst friends that includes criticism.

It was in that spirit that I offered my original contribution: as a friend and admirer, who is also at times frustrated at the continued omissions and silences from within so much of the British left, Compass included. I find it telling that the central questions that I pointed out were missing in John Harris and Neal Lawson’s original essay – and that I challenged them to address – are still not answered, indeed they are not even acknowledged in Neal’s reply.

It would be a valuable contribution to the debate on the British left, the work of Compass, and the health of democracy, if we could begin to have a genuine debate and discussion over the following points:

1. The nature, character and form of the British state – and in particular why our political establishment, political classes and institutional opinion, including the centre-left, don’t understand what Britain is.

Point here: Britain is not and never has been a ‘unitary state’. That is to say, it is not one thing. It is a ‘union state’ meaning, while it is not federal, nor is it singular and it must not be assumed that it is. Everything about our politics – Westminster, parliamentary sovereignty – is different from this perspective.

2. There has been a collapse of both the Tory and Labour accounts of Britain. This has left us with a vacuum; the Tory unionist account of Britain once had huge appeal across the UK, while Labour had a people’s story of Britain based on welfarism and state action. Both have bitten the dust and we are left with Tory and Labour stories which are barely plausible; localism anyone – New Labour or Cameroon Conservative? The UK no longer has a gut, emotional set of stories believed in by people from the centre-right or centre-left. That is serious and significant. No account of socialism, however attractive, addresses this. 

3. The nature of the British state has been fundamentally altered over these last few decades; it has become a neo-liberal state. Compass has done lots of good things here, but I think that they have largely ignored the link between this immense change and the territorial dimensions of power and politics in the British state. Especially the fact that most of the UK – most of Scotland, Wales and the North of England – just does not matter to the winners of Bankers Britain International.

4. In all this, there is the missing ingredient in our debates about democracy: the English dimension. There is Scottish Labour and Welsh Labour, but no English Labour. And not only that, but there is a deafening silence from most of the left where there should be noisy, informed, concerned debate and agitation: Jon Cruddas and John Denham being the significant exceptions in the Labour Party.

The left have always had problems with England – but this now matters more and more. It is no longer an option to remain silent and embarrassed when the subject of England is raised. The governance of England, the lack of democracy, the chasmic democratic deficit are increasingly issues. If the left does not speak on these areas they will leave them uncontested to the Tories, or worse, UKIP and the BNP.

Maybe Compass thinks these four issues are marginal. Maybe some people still think if you capture the central British state with the right programme – and bring in proportional representation and some constitutional reform from above – it will eventually turn out all right.

I suggest that avoiding these issues is the road to disaster. Believing in the Westminster model and the British state has paid less and less dividends to the centre-left. It led directly to New Labour’s embrace of Thatcherism. 

I would like to emphasise that I believe Compass have done much productive work on the centre-left of British politics. I have written and said so many times.

Yet we need to begin a debate and discussion about the nature of the British state, its atrophied and deformed nature, and how it has changed in recent decades, what it has allowed and what this means for our democracy. And there needs to be an urgent engagement with the English question.

I trust the above will be taken in the comradely and friendly spirit in which it is offered, and I am more than happy to play a small part in aiding and encouraging Compass work and debates in the above areas. I welcome any thoughts from Compass and others.

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