Recapturing liberal Britain

David Marquand
7 August 2008

David Marquand (Oxford, oD author): I notice some respondents to my comment on Glasgow East have queried my statement that the UK was the first modern state. On reflection, I think I was wrong. The Netherlands was the first, I now believe.

As to when the UK achieved that status, I think you can make a good case for saying England and Scotland both became modern states in 1688/9 when they drove the Stuart dynasty from the throne. But I still think the United Kingdom as such, rather than Scotland and England separately, really became modern at the time of the Hanoverian succession - a succession determined by Parliament, remember, not by descent. Perhaps the best date would be 1715, when the first Jacobite rebellion was defeated. Or perhaps you might prefer 1746 when Bonnie Prince Charlie was finally routed. Of course another possible line of argument is that the UK is still not a modern state, since sovereignty is still not firmly located in the people.

This may seem hopelessly antiquarian and trivial, but I think it is, in fact, highly relevant to the interlinked debates on the state of the Labour Party, the relationship between Scotland (and Wales and Northern Ireland) to the British state and the evolution of the EU. The point about the Labour Party is surely this. In its early years there was quite a lot of party debate about the British constitution, some of it quite radical (e.g. support for PR and a wish to get rid of the prevailing norms of Cabinet Government). But after the party became the main anti-Conservative Party it made a Faustian bargain with the British state tradition and its defenders. In return for a chance to win power within the structure of Westminster absolutism, Labour stopped talking about the constitution and became - if anything - slightly more orthodox constitutionally than the Conservatives.

Early on in the history of 'New' Labour it looked as if this was changing, what with the devolution statutes, the Human Rights Act and the appointment of the Jenkins Commission on electoral reform. But after 9/11 Blair and his colleagues reverted to a peculiarly authoritarian and illiberal version of constitutional orthodoxy, more reminiscent of the anti-Jacobin panic of the 1790s than of anything else. That's where we are now, despite Brown's early (and I think sincere) overtures towards constitutional reformers and what might be called 'liberal Britain'. This is why 42 days is to important, as Anthony Barnett rightly keeps saying. You can't talk the talk about the British tradition of freedom while walking the walk of Blairite illiberalism.

The only hope for Labour now is to re-create the tacit liberal-social democratic coalition that put Blair into Downing Street in 1997. But to do that it has to recapture and (equally important) re-invigorate liberal Britain; and at present it is not only not doing so: it seems wilfully blind to the whole liberal tradition, except as a source of winsome sound-bites.

Much as I admire him, I'm afraid David Miliband hasn't even begun to do what's needed. So we are left with the astonishing paradox that the right-wing Conservative, David Davis, has done more to defend and inspire British liberalism than any member of the Labour Party! What the hell is happening to us as a nation and a people? This is what we ought to be talking about, not the credit crunch, the state of the housing market, the slippage in Brown's ratings, David Miliband's contorted manifesto or even the inner meaning of Glasgow East!

David writes "As always, I can't seem to send comments to OD via your system.'' We apologise to David and to any other readers who are having difficulty commenting. We are aware of the problem and are working to resolve it as soon as possible.

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