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The Fantasyland version of Britain is alive and kicking – and driving Brexit

For years even the left bought the idea that British democracy was the envy of the world. Overcoming the elite myth-making and cronyism is still the biggest challenge we face.

Image:  Sleeping Beauty Castle, Disneyland (Disneyland Britain is due to open in 2020). Wikipedia.

British democracy used to be presented as the envy of the world. We had the Whig version of history, the rule of law – and, above all, a sense of continuity which supposedly differentiated the UK from its European neighbours.

Such a view permeated British elites, institutions and public life - but also informed many left-wing radicals and dissenters. American writer Edward Shils, visiting the UK in 1953, was stunned to hear ‘an eminent man of the left, say, in utter seriousness … that the British constitution was “as nearly perfect as any human institution could be.”’ And Shils was even more surprised to find that ‘No one even thought it amusing.’

Sixty years on, after so much change, surely few if any sensible people hold such self-congratulatory views?

Yet these misplaced assumptions persist at the heart of the British political establishment – though they are usually a little more circumspect about saying it. A recent exception was Tory MP Charles Walker, Chair of the Commons Procedure Committee, reacting to criticism of Britain’s democratic arrangements from the Women’s Equality Party leader Sophie Walker on the BBC’s ‘Daily Politics.’

Walker raged ‘I always come on this programme and you have people who completely trash Parliament and our democracy’. He then launched into a glowing tribute of all things British constitutional.

“We have an outstanding Parliament, an outstanding democracy, high levels of accountability. Politicians travel from across the world to come to our House of Commons to understand how we do Parliament. They are amazed … that when a constituent writes to me I can pass that letter on to a Secretary of State and get a response. The constituent may not like the response, but they get a response from a minister in relation to their concern. That is an extraordinary level of accountability.” (BBC Daily Politics, October 17th 2017)

This is the unguarded perspective of part of the British establishment, and of a huge segment of the Tory parliamentary party. Occasionally examples of this belief in the good of all things British emerge elsewhere. Andrew Marr, concluding his upbeat ‘A History of Modern Britain’, published just before the banking crash, observed that ‘in the years since 1945 … we British have no reason to despair, or emigrate’, which isn’t how some remember the 1970s or 1980s, or indeed subsequently, Brexit Britain.

Others still defend the royal puff and pageantry as aiding the national spirit. On the birth of another royal baby a few years ago, Kirstie Allsopp asked: ‘What is wrong with Britain being a Disneyland?’ The obvious answer being that the UK isn’t a fantasy playground, and the Royal Family infantilises all of us.

The last 40 years in the UK has seen more wealth and income transferred to the already uber-rich and privileged. Public assets have been sold off, corrupted and outsourced - a UK ‘economic miracle’ proclaimed as the gospel by Thatcher believers both in the 1980s and again today.

This transformation has done nothing to address the fundamental weaknesses of the economy pre-Thatcher - the historic devaluing of manufacturing; the anti-business ethos at the heart of the Tory Party and the City of London; their greater interest in pseudo-enterprise and rentier capitalism. Research and development and long-term investment has never been at the core of British capitalism.

In the pre-EU 1970s the UK was seen as ‘the sick man of Europe’, and our membership of the Common Market was meant to address these woes. Yet, forty years in the EU combined with Thatcherism and Blairism haven’t addressed these problems. Britain’s productivity gap has become news again, but it is deep-seated and structural in its causes. Britain’s research and development rates are abysmal, coming in 159th out of 173 countries as a percentage of GDP, the Economist reported in 2013. Only fourteen nation-states were worse than Britain, seven of which were in sub-Saharan Africa.

The City has supposedly kept the UK afloat for decades - but last week it was revealed that UK is now £490 billion poorer than at the time of Brexit: going from a net surplus of £469 billion in overseas assets to a net deficit of £22 billion. The country does not have ‘any reserve of net foreign assets’ – a staggering statement compared to regular the hyperbole about British overseas investments (Daily Telegraph Business, October 18th 2017).

It isn’t an accident that more thoughtful British establishment voices such as Peter Hennessy believe that the best days of Britain are firmly in the past – located in his childhood circa 1953 with the Coronation and conquest of Everest, the same year as Edward Shils made his observations. Hennessy wrote a revealing vignette, ‘The Kingdom to Come’ in 2015, about the loss of the Britain of hope, optimism and openings for people from all walks of life, which centred on how Scotland’s referendum shook the whole house that is the union of the UK to its foundations.

He concluded that the certainties that once made the UK what it was, mostly no longer exist. As a consequence, by the time of our referendum and its aftermath, there was no agreed and popular map in the minds of citizens about what Britain was. This, Hennessy reflected, was bad news for its future.

Numerous left-wing accounts critique the direction of Britain over the last 40 years, and tend to see this leading inexorably to the twilight years of Britain as a nation-state. But as Cat Boyd wrote in ‘The National’ recently, the problem isn’t so much Britain, but British capitalism and neo-liberalism. This means that in the age of Corbyn, insurgency and populism, for many the answer to all this in Scotland isn’t automatically independence.

However, what Boyd’s take does not address is the problem within the corridors of power in British government and public life. The British state and the institutions which sit around it have been cheerleaders for a corrupt, crony, debased capitalism. How this is taken on, defeated and superseded is one of the great challenges of our age.

The British elite continue to believe in a mirage – that this nation is the one which has taught the world democracy, the rule of law and parliamentary accountability, and which was benign and enlightened in all it did globally including empire. It might be said less frequently now in the cold light of Brexit, but it is there and it is used to advance the Boris Johnson-Jacob Rees-Mogg vision of a new buccaneering Britain ruling the waves at least in trade and commerce.

A couple of years ago at a G20 summit the Russian Government called the UK ‘just a small island’. David Cameron replied ‘Britain is an island that helped to abolish slavery, that has invented most of the things worth inventing … We are proud of everything we do as a small island – a small island that has the sixth largest economy, the fourth best funded military, some of the most effective diplomats, the proudest history …’

He signed off what was called a ‘Hugh Grant moment’ with the words: ‘I’m thinking of setting this to music.’ Some may think there is no harm in the above romantic delusion - that all countries need their myths and even poetry in their statecraft.

But this fantasy Ladybird history version of Britain – waxing lyrically and selectively about the past – is used to justify the existing rotten order. It is used to maintain a state and politics which isn’t about the welfare of its people, which doesn’t actually care about the poorest and most vulnerable, and which actively wants to do financial and psychological harm to those who need help from the state most: witness the bedroom tax, rape clause, implementation of universal credit, and a host of other welfare ‘reforms’.

If the UK is to ever become a country which is at its centre to be about caring for its own citizens, the complacent spin of the Charles Walkers and David Camerons has to be superseded by a more humble and humane Britain. What chance any of this has given the folly of Brexit, hangs in the balance. But the future and continuation of the UK in any form, along with Scotland’s debate, depend on it being defeated. 

About the author
Gerry Hassan is an academic and commentator on Scottish and UK politics, power, democracy and social change. He has written or edited over two dozen books including Scotland the Bold and the newly published A Nation Changed? The SNP and Scotland Ten Years On (edited with Simon Barrow).

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