The strange death of liberal England continued

Could the referendum prove a transformative moment for liberal England's understanding of British politics?

Gerry Hassan
4 August 2014

Liberal England is in a state of confusion. There is the challenge of the Scottish independence referendum, the continued right wing drift of UK politics, and the slow detachment of the UK from the European Union.

All of the above cause apoplexy and dismay to the thinking elements of the English left. One response to this from people such as Labour MP John Cruddas and Billy Bragg is to try to re-ignite the English radical imagination and challenge the increasingly English nationalist overtones of Nigel Farage’s UKIP. A second response from the likes of Ken Loach and Owen Jones believe in the ‘Spirit of 45’ being invoked shaped by romanticism and simplistic, wishful thinking.

However, the largest group by far on the English left in intellectual circles is in denial about the state of Britain. This is not a happy or confident time to be a progressive in England, and despite the actions of thirty years of post-war Labour Governments (thirteen of them under the recent auspices of New Labour), it cannot be claimed seriously that Britain is becoming a better, fairer place. Progressive politics has given up believing that it can create the future, instead pessimistically sensing that the right have the best tunes to fit our times and laid claim to tomorrow.

This is not a positive or secure time for the liberal left English intelligentsia. This was a point underlined by a recent gathering of over two dozen of the most influential and respected voices of this group who came together on a non-attributable basis to discuss the implications of the independence referendum.

Scottish independence was seen by nearly every participant (with one or two exceptions) as a complete negative. The language used was filled with condescension, incredulity and a refusal to believe it was a serious threat. One senior commentator warned that while they did not necessarily think it would happen, the possibility of ‘violence’ in Scotland after a close vote could not be ignored, adding helpfully, that he was not saying there would be such a thing as ‘a Scottish IRA’.

The same person expressed the thought that a ‘Yes vote could be reversed after the referendum’. They floated the scenario that ‘Scottish Labour could campaign to reverse the vote in 2016 after negotiations stall or produce an unattractive deal’, and that this could feed into an overwhelming Scottish sense post-vote of ‘Buyer’s remorse’, if the Scots somehow mistakenly voted for independence.

There were more sympathetic and informed perspectives put forward. One contribution from an economic analyst observed that ‘Scotland and London had been the great economic successes of the last 10-15 years’ and that much of the success of both had been due to ‘government intervention’. ‘Take both of them out of the UK’, he added, ‘and the rest of the country would be struggling significantly’.

There was a major focus on British politics and the consequences for it which flow from Scottish independence. This included what would happen to British Labour, how would its party conference adapt opening two days after the vote, would Parliament be recalled in the result of a Yes vote, and what would happen when there were the inevitable calls for David Cameron to resign?

The previous week one senior Westminster correspondent told me in all seriousness that ‘this was a golden era of British politics’. His rationale included the premises that ‘there were more people now involved in politics than there have been for years’, ‘that Westminster was working better than for years due to the work of select committees’ and that ‘there were more think tanks than ever before’. When I showed my scepticism, he backtracked a little, stating that it was at least worthy of consideration.

This is the voice of the liberal elite English establishment. It can be heard in the likes of Vernon Bogdanor, Anthony Seldon and many others. They don’t believe Britain is broken, facing multiple, serious, long term crises, and in Bogdanor’s case, does not even believe that Prince Charles ‘parallel state’ activities and constant letters and advocacy to ministers counts as ‘lobbying’ or raises any constitutional issues.

The discussion on independence nearly entirely focused on Scotland and England, to the marginalisation of Wales and Northern Ireland. The only time the other nations were cited was to reference threats from independence. Thus, Wales would find its voice diminished in a union without Scotland, while the fears of Northern Irish Unionists of a resurgent Sinn Fein pressing for another ballot on reunification (the first being 1973) were raised.

Missing in this was any sense of the positivity which is inherent in the fluidity which the independence decision brings up which has the potential to shake the current political order to its roots. Scottish independence has been seen by voices such as the Irish writer Fintan O’Toole as having all sorts of positive ramifications, such as challenging the reactionary, bunkerist Northern Irish Unionist idea of Britishness. Similarly, the Irish Government at its highest levels is sanguine about independence, and much more worried about the impact of the UK leaving the EU.

There was a dismissal of the qualities of ‘smallness’ in the world and attachment to ‘bigness’. The Nordics were summarily dismissed by several contributions – while others used the terms Nordic and Scandinavia interchangeably.

One person opined that ‘we should not romanticise the Nordics’ which is hardly controversial, but then went on to say that they faced ‘the prospect of economic atrophy’. Another commented that the world is filled with ‘people who come from small places, and people move from small towns to big towns’. There was little awareness of the many positives of ‘small’ when combined with stability and prosperity, or the numerous small nation models across Europe (Nordics, Baltics, Ireland). Instead, there was a general belief that ‘bigness’ was a virtue: whether it is the size of the UK or the power of London as ‘a progressive beacon’.

What the above comments and more indicate is the strange place that English elite opinion finds itself in. There is a powerful tinge of nostalgia in their views – of a belief in a better, progressive past, and that the country is slowly becoming somewhere they don’t recognise or feel connected too. This produces in some a sort of radical nostalgia: for 1945, a Labour Britain, or the period of social democratic influence in the post-war era, and a yearning to return to it.

There is also a deep-seated attitude of not taking the whole Scottish debate too seriously: that this is just the ‘restless natives’ huffing and puffing, and that the threat will just blow over, with ‘normal service’ and politics continuing shortly.

There was little recognition that we are now living in what is an existential crisis of the UK, or that the Scottish debate, crisis of Westminster and British politics, and the European question are all interlinked. They point to a fundamental question: what is Britain for, whose interests does the British state look after, and what kind of future is it trying to advance? If Britain truly is this unique, precious entity – a land of multi-national co-operation and redistribution – then who exactly is Britain great for?

There was no real understanding (again with one or two exceptions) that the Scottish debate is a huge opportunity, an opening and chance for democratic change across these isles. Instead, we had numerous contributions filled with incomprehension, fear and talking of a world beyond London with little real knowledge.

This does raise the question: what kind of United Kingdom is such a perspective trying to support? And why does Scotland matter to it beyond a sort of residual loyalty or attachment to the status quo?

There is a persuasive liberal case for the union, but it would have to start by recognising the state of modern Britain – how unequal, unfair and broken it is, the failure of British elites to meaningfully reform its broken institutions such as banking, politics and media, and the power and pull of crony capitalism, and how it has corrupted politics, public life and society. From this it would then develop a critique and counter-story of challenging the new class vision of the United Kingdom.

Sadly this does not seem to have much traction. What our discussions illustrated was the strange death of liberal England to use George Dangerfield’s phrase which he originally used about the Lloyd George-House of Lords constitutional crisis of 1909-11 which began the break-up of the Liberal Party and threw it out of Westminster office (wartime coalitions apart) for most of a century.

This is now an equally pivotal moment. Irrespective of a Yes/No result, liberal England is going to have to find its voice and its radicalism. Does it really want to acquiesce in what the British state has become – an advocate for the corporate class and its self-interests? And is it prepared to see England become synonymous with the English nationalism and populism of UKIP? The current configuration of the UK – the economic, social and cultural make-up of the country – is not sustainable; the future on offer is either of far-reaching marketisation, greater inequality and insecurity, or fundamentally challenging the entrenched power of the new elites and vested interests.

On the evidence so far, liberal England does not know which way to turn, and just hopes that this entire debate goes away. It could be that the Scottish vote forces them to finally act and come to their senses about the state of British politics.

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