Brown and the Importance of Being British
Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy Winter 2008
There is a golden thread which runs through British history, of the individual standing firm against tyranny and then of the individual participating in their society. It is a thread that runs from that long-ago day in Runnymede in 1215, on to the Bill of Rights in 1689 to not just one, but four great Reform Acts within less than a hundred years.
Gordon Brown, Hugo Young Memorial Lecture, December 2005
‘Come on,’ he said.’ ‘It’s not a trick question. Just name me one thing he did that Washington wouldn’t have approved of. Let’s think.’ He held up his thumb. ‘One: deployment of British troops to the Middle East, against the advice of just about every senior commander in our armed forces and all of our ambassadors who know the region. Two’ – up went his right index finger – ‘complete failure to demand any kind of quid pro quo from the White House in terms of reconstruction contracts for British firms, or anything else. Three: unwavering support for US foreign policy in the Middle East, even when it’s patently crazy for us to set ourselves against the entire Arab world.’
Robert Harris, The Ghost
Gordon Brown has for the last few years made one of his defining mantras along with ‘prudence’ and ‘responsibility’ an attempt to articulate and construct a progressive sense of Britishness ranging from attempting to define its key values to promoting a ‘National Day’ and ‘Veterans’ Day’. This essay attempts to look at this project – if this word can be used – examining the historical background briefly, before assessing the contemporary context and future prospects. In so doing this essay should be seen as a complimentary piece to an earlier essay I wrote in Renewal on Blair and Britishness (Hassan 1995). This essay will address the notion of the UK as a state, Britishness and national identities, and the British political system and constitution, and the manner each influences and shapes the others.
Does ‘Brownism’ Exist?
We know there are such people as ‘Brownites’ – people in politics who see their mission on earth to advance, advise and protect our dear leader. These people display the distinct behaviour of a clique. However, can we talk about ‘Brownism’ as a distinct philosophy in the way we could with Thatcherism and Blairism? The latter two had the aspirations of revolutionary or counter-revolutionary movements with all the sense of history and messianic nature that flows from that.
If we can talk of such a force as ‘Brownism’ it is as a consolidation of the Blairite revolution – a project that would not have been possible without its Brownite elements such as redistribution and public sector investment. Now that ‘Brownism’ is no longer a sub-set of the Blairite agenda, it has come to be centred on the consolidation of the Blairite achievements and making the New Labour era permanent while showing a little more caution and acknowledgement of Labour Party sensibilities. This is a political perspective distinct from Blairite zealotry or more progressive Labour options such as Compass.
Blair and Brown have seen one of their central tasks, like Thatcher, as challenging ‘the decline debate’ which dominated post-war Britain (Brivati 2007). Thus, Brown speaks of a Britain freed from ‘managed decline’ and ‘looking backward with nostalgia because we could not look forward with hope’ (Brown 2004). This is a crucial pillar in the post-Thatcherite consensus whereby all the Westminster mainstream parties agree on the big issues; to the extent that we can now talk of a Blair, Brown and Cameron (with Clegg playing a supporting role) consensus. This could even be called given the unquestioning role of the media: the BBC consensus.
The Wider Context
Brown’s agenda has to be seen in the wider context of the Labour Party’s strange relationship, unease and silence across elements of debates on the nature of the UK and Britishness. For most of its existence, Labour has had a fundamentally uncritical view of the state, and this has continued under New Labour in a very different and radically altered politics (see historically Jones and Keating 1985). Previously, Labour saw the state as a force for good, for lifting up working people, redistributing between regions and groups, and acting to ensure fairness. New Labour has seen the state in a very different way: as a vehicle to pursue through similar means very different ends: re-ordering relationships in the public sector and realm which aid the markerisation of society. It has chosen to do so through talking the language of diversity and decentralism, while at the same time embracing even more fundamentally a mindset of authoritarianism and centralism which has built on and extended Thatcherism (Jenkins 2006).
New Labour’s language under Blair and Brown has been filled with paradoxes and talking one kind of language and doing the exact opposite (Fairclough 2000). This has been a government shaped by command and control, from the approach to the public sector, to the dual monarchy of Blair and Brown, to the rival power centre under Brown of the Treasury, previously an institution Labour politicians looked to curb the power of. This was partly the result of personalities, but much more was due to an ideological disposition to enforce a political order which did not command widespread support in Labour, the trade unions or public sector. It would be interesting to ask whom apart from corporate accounting firms, consultancies and a few think tanks actively advocated such an agenda when New Labour was elected and a more progressive approach was possible?
It is in this context of the last ten years that Brown’s agenda of Britishness has to be seen. The relationship of the citizen to the state has been fundamentally altered by a welter of initiatives, the use of PFI/PPP, marketisation and privatisation. Add to this the government’s programme of constitutional reform – clearly unloved and little understood – and in particular the dynamics unleashed by devolution – and Brown has begun, from 1999 onwards and much more comprehensively in the last few years, to develop a credo of a progressive Britishness. This has been given added impetus by the anxieties and fears around asylum, immigration and race which have reached epidemic proportions in recent years. Brown has viewed supporting integration, a British statement of values and talk of a written constitution as the answer to this.
First, before we further explore the terrain of Britishness we need to address briefly the nature and character of the UK. For the UK is not an ordinary state; instead it is a hybrid bringing together four nations: Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland (1). Its founding dates from the 1603 Union of the Crowns and 1707 Treaty of Union between Scotland and England. For all the Whig pageantry propaganda of 1,000 years of liberty from Magna Carta which has been bought equally by Tory and Labour (remember Gaitskell’s anti-EEC speech in 1962 pledging to defend ‘1000 years of history’), the reality is rather different. Brown has talked of ‘2000 years’ which make up ‘a characteristically British set of qualities’ (Brown 1997).
The name of the space we live in – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – was established in 1922 and the current governmental framework dates back only to 1948 when the Republic of Ireland fully established itself as independent: a mere sixty years ago. More profoundly, the UK is not actually a nation, instead being a state. There is a whole school of academia studying places like Scotland and Catalonia, which go by the name of ‘stateless nations’. Funnily enough, the UK is the exact opposite phenomenon: a ‘nationless state’: a strange entity whose only precedents have all bitten the dust: Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.
What is the Labour Story of Britain?
It is possible despite the omissions to delineate a Labour story of Britain. Firstly, there is the Labour nation. There are differing notions of the British nation which have been able to co-exist with each other (Aughey 2001). There is the story of the Tory nation of Empire and reactionarism which for most of the 20th century has been the dominant account. However, there is also a Labour story of the nation which has seen itself as a peoples’ story and been centred on the advance of social democratic, enlightened values. This story connected the progressivisation of Britain to the forward march of Labour seen in the works of G.D.H. Cole and A.J.P. Taylor, each one influencing and justifying the other (Cole and Postgate 1946; Taylor 1965; Williams 1949).
Secondly, part of this perspective can be found in Labour’s view of the British state. This state has for most of the history of these isles seen itself as unproblematic, the Irish question apart. This history is one which sees a seamless advance of political, economic and social progress slowly being accumulated by the people via the action of the state. Progressive opinion has been hugely influenced by this and the view that state power is something which is ‘neutral’ and can be used for benign and centre-left aims. The Labour tradition thus bought into the dominant Whig establishment view of British history; Labour politicians as eminent and radical as Michael Foot and Tony Benn are good examples of the persuasiveness of this view.
Thirdly, is the issue of territorial politics. The UK is a space and place and not the homogeneous entity it would appear from reading some of the ‘high politics’ accounts of Westminster. The British political establishment have long understood the UK as a unitary state: a place with one centre of power and authority. However, the UK has never been a unitary state which implies a significant scale of centralising standardisation, and instead is a union state, which has a complex set of different local, regional and national diverse arrangements: hence the Scottish, Northern Irish and to a lesser extent, Welsh experience in the union. This misunderstanding of the basis of the union has had huge consequences for how the political centre perceive and rule the UK and has contributed to the over-reach of Thatcherism and Blairism, and the character of Brownism.
What happened to the Labour Story?
The high point of the Labour story of Britain is the period of 1940-45 and immediately after. Anthony Barnett wrote a wonderful polemic about the strands of British nationalism which coalesced around the Falklands War and found a common thread going back to the creation of ‘Churchillism’ in those crucial months of 1940 (Barnett 1982). Since that point Labour’s relationship to the British state and polity has become more and more one of incorporation. This has become from the 1960s onwards increasingly problematic, as the state has had to try to respond to a series of internal pressures and external challenges.
Briefly, it is no accident that the challenges the Wilson Government faced in the mid-1960s about the competitiveness of the British economy which manifested itself in Balance of Payments problems and pressure on the pound, occurred at exactly the same time Scottish and Welsh nationalism began to emerge as serious political forces (Hassan 2007). These very movements were a product of the Scottish and Welsh beginning to lose faith in the ability of the British state to provide economic and social benefits. This process reached its crescendo in November 1967 with the humiliating devaluation of the pound and the abandonment by the government of its economic growth plans, a move which effectively signalled the end of the dreams of Croslandite social democracy.
This interaction of internal and external factors continued into the 1970s with the OPEC oil price hike coming at the point where North Sea Oil was just about to come on stream, thus, contributing to the next wave of Scottish nationalism. Moreover, the crises of the 1960s and 1970s challenged the authority of the British state to believe it had the competence to navigate difficult economic waters, contributing to the demise of social democracy (which was formally pronounced dead by its leading thinker Tony Crosland after the IMF crisis of December 1976), and led ultimately to Thatcherism. This story of the politics of retreat thus directly leads from Wilsonite modernisation and the first ‘New Britain’ to Blairism and the second ‘New Britain’.
Therefore, where once there was a potent, powerful Labour story which ran down through the years, now there is merely a void, which is filled by retorts to Labour loyalism and tribalism, playing to diminishing audiences, and over the course of the last decade, an explicit account that there is no alternative to New Labour. This has ended up as being part of the new consensus of which Brown and Brownism is a key pillar. There has consistently been a degree of self-deception and denial by Brown about the nature of the politics he has advocated over the last decade. He has stated that neither ‘state power’ nor ‘crude individualism’ (Brown 2005) have taken root in the UK unlike elsewhere, which shows little understanding of the character of New Labour or Thatcherism.
Brown’s updating of the Labour Story
In the years running up to becoming Labour leader and Prime Minister, Brown made a number of keynote addresses on the subject of Britishness (Brown 2006c). These are fascinating and revealing texts. Firstly, they are motivated by and clearly a response to the challenge of Scottish and Welsh nationalism – forces which so shook the house of British Labour in the 1960s and 1970s (Brown and Alexander 1999). He has attempted to find a way of articulating a new British narrative which includes and makes sense of Scottish and Welsh devolution. This has to be profoundly ‘new’, acknowledging that the ‘old’ story was insensitive and undemocratic.
Secondly, there is a conscious attempt to cut the ground from under the English Question before it becomes too powerful. Labour is more than a little unsure here, Scottish and Welsh devolution having begun as answers to the particulars of each nation with no thought put into how it all fits together (Jeffery 2007). At the 2005 general election the Tories won narrowly more votes than Labour in England, but were rewarded by the electoral system with 92 less seats. There is a deep anxiety within Labour circles that a future Labour Government elected on Scottish and Welsh votes could be seen as illegitimate in England, particularly if led by a Scotsman. This is related to the ‘West Lothian Question’ – whereby Scottish MPs can vote on English health and education, but neither they nor any other MPs can vote in such Scottish issues (2).
Thirdly, Brown is looking to find a new language for a new kind of progressive unionism at a UK level which gels and binds the country together. There was once a plausible British centre-left unionism: it could be clearly seen in the élan and purpose of the Attlee Government; this slowly began to wither in the Wilson and Callaghan era. Then disaster struck under Thatcherism – in Scotland at least – as unionism became synonymous with a right-wing sentiment and an intransigent defence of the status quo. The long decline of unionism, and progressive unionism has been a longer story than Thatcherism, but it has not recovered from that era.
Fourthly, this new unionism would reflect the changing nature of society. Whereas the old unionism was about the deferential, stuffy ancient regime, the new unionism would reflect the dynamism and sheer buzz, energy and unpredictability of contemporary Britain. The old view was about institutions, the new about values; the old was shaped by Empire and Protestantism; the new by the values of institutions such as the BBC and NHS (Brown 2004).
Finally, Brown’s exploration of these issues has increasingly had to address anxieties and fears about asylum, immigration and the issue of ‘race’. In particular since the 9/11 attacks, launch of ‘the war on terror’ and curtailment of civil liberties, there has been close to a moral panic in the political class on multi-culturalism and the need for integration. Brown has set out to encourage and support integration, challenge segregation and advance a debate on citizenship and Britishness (Brown 2006b).
The Limitations of Brownism
There are problems with Gordon Brown’s attempts to develop a modern credo for progressive Britishness. These fall into two main areas, firstly, issues related to Labour culture, ethos and history, and secondly, the record of Labour under Blair and Brown.
To take Labour issues first, the party has consistently had a lack of understanding of the nature of the UK, the importance of structural change in the form of constitutional reform, and has never recognised the importance of pluralism as a political principle. Brown here is not just the control freak of legend; more importantly he is a deeply committed Labour tribalist who is still informed by a sense of Labour chauvinism and a belief in the power of the centre.
Then there are the more contemporary areas. Brown has had an almost Thatcherite sense of mission about the scale of the transformation of Britain in the last decade which has produced ‘a new British optimism, a rising British confidence’ (Brown 2004). Brown’s version of Britain is in reality a bit of a Ladybird book of history which is surprisingly simple, naïve and almost childlike. In many places, this is not a complex argument being put forward, but one breathtakingly the opposite. This is a history of good people toiling to do the right thing with the downside omitted. This is not a peoples’ history where people and groups campaign against exploitative business, the feudal classes, or those who profited from slavery. The values that Brown exhorts us to believe are central to ‘the British way’ are banal in the extreme, and also ever present in a variety of countries across the world. The endless mantra of Britishness meaning ‘being creative, adaptable and outward looking, or believing in liberty, duty and fair play’ and a free health service, could describe large parts of Europe, Canada and Australasia (Brown 1997).
There is the problem with England and Britain. Brown, strangely for a Scot, takes a number of seminal English dates and episodes and has repeatedly repackaged them as British: Magna Carta, the Peasants’ Revolt, the Bill of Rights and Orwell’s ‘English genius’ are all part of the British tradition (Lee 2006). This is something that has consistently happened throughout Labour’s history and can be observed in Tony Benn’s romantic evocation of the Levellers, Diggers, the English Civil War and so on in a predominantly English account which ignores the Scots, Welsh and Irish until they become part of the union (Benn 1979).
Brown’s construction of Britishness is an internal, insular one: a Britain that sits in a vacuum not shaped or influenced by the external environment and the relationships and alliances it enters into. Two areas never receive very much attention in his speeches on Britishness: the European Union and ‘the special relationship’ with America, and this despite the fact that Brown’s worldview is defined by how he sees these two factors. There is a revealing silence here when contemporary Britishness has been shaped by the political classes nervousness with the European project and commitment to a dogmatic Atlanticism; the latter has advanced to such an extent that the American national interest has become a part of the extended British state.
These silences point to a deeper problem. What is Gordon Brown about after over a decade of New Labour? One of his motivations seems to be to call a halt to the Blairite revolution while leaving its fundamentals in place and at the same time not changing anything too much. This can be noted in his view of the British state, and our relationships with Europe and Atlanticism. The basic parameters of the state, how it sees and uses power and sees other institutions in the UK, and the wider nexus of relationships it sees globally are to Brown broadly correct and not requiring far-reaching change.
This is a deeply entrenched conservative with a small ‘c’ view of the world. Brown sees the British state and all its workings as broadly working smoothly: the civil service, the mindset of the unitary state, the awkward distance in our relations with Europe, and our perpetual post-war advocacy for the United States. This despite everything: the centralisation and authoritarianism under Blair, the government’s own vandalising of some of its own constitutional reforms such as the Human Rights Act, and the slavish pro-Americanism from Iraq to Lebanon to the missile defence system.
Can Britishness Provide the Brown Big Vision?
Gordon Brown has shown in his first six months as Prime Minister a number of symbolic breaks with Blairism, while retaining the substance. Thus, the Brown Government has been characterised by a lack of over-arching purpose or vision, which some think could be found by focusing on a new sense of Britishness and using this as a thread to weave together government policies.
There has also been the problem of style and persona with Brown seen as less of a powerful communicator than Blair or Bill Clinton. This chimes with recent research on US Presidential elections by Drew Westen (2007) which shows that the public relate to politicians who can tap emotions, draw analogies and imagery, and create stories, and that emotion trumps reason and logic. This explains in the US the success of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush with their folksy charm, and in the UK of Blair. Such an observation is bad news for stiff, more emotionally closed politicians like Brown and Hillary Clinton. Could Britishness provide the emotional connect that Brown so lacks in other areas?
In one of his most important speeches on the subject Brown gave a Fabian Society lecture on Britishness in 2006 in which he said:
I believe that out of a debate, hopefully leading to a broad consensus about what Britishness means, flows a rich agenda for change: a new constitutional settlement, an explicit definition of citizenship, a renewal of civil society, a rebuilding of our local government and a better balance between diversity and integration ….
He went on to outline that ‘a modern view of Britishness founded on responsibility, liberty and fairness’ requires that we:
• Demand a new constitutional settlement
• Take citizenship seriously
• Rebuild civil society
• Renew local government
• Work for integration of minorities into a modern Britain
• Be internationalist at all times. (Brown 2006a)
These sound like fine aspirations, although the Blair Government and Brown so far would clearly fail a test based on them. The powerful rhetoric above, if it were to be enacted upon would have to be combined with a critique of the power of centralisation in post-war Britain, and the mistakes which New Labour has made; no such reflection has been made. It would have to follow this up with detailed plans for a written constitution, a Bill of Rights that curtailed parliamentary sovereignty, a codified set of relationships which limit the centre and begin to reverse the onslaught on local government of the last thirty years. It is not enough to change the mood music a little and talk of the importance of ‘localism’ after a thirty-year assault on the autonomy and standing of local government; power has to shift fundamentally and permanently from the centre to local government, and there is not the slightest chance of that happening.
Instead, of radical change what is offered is a mixture of some welcome constitutional change, with an attempt to shift perceptions, while resorting to a degree of populism and punitiveness. Thus, we get proposals for a constitutional reform bill which will formalise Parliament’s right to vote before the country goes to war: a purely symbolic act given Parliament did vote before the disastrous Iraq excursion. There will also be a Bill of Rights, but not one which will undermine parliamentary sovereignty.
Great store has been put in the ‘Statement of British Values’ which had not yet been published when this was written, which is intended to include a definition of Britishness and include such words as ‘decency’, ‘fairness’ and ‘opportunity’. It has been floated that it will include a list of ‘great British books’ and historical documents which ‘constitute the essence of our Britishness.’ (Daily Telegraph, October 29th 2007) Maybe in the latter section they could include a selection from the numerous UK public inquiries set up to address the major scandals of the day which never get anywhere: Hutton and Butler on Iraq only being the most recent examples.
Then of course there was the infamous Brown quote about ‘British workers for British jobs’, which while about retraining and reskilling the unemployed was in its language deliberately shocking. The government have already introduced British citizenship tests for new immigrants. In typical New Labour style there have been numerous briefings about people applying for citizenship being required to win citizenship points, earning credits for voluntary work and losing them if they broke the law, and immigrants having to sign ‘good neighbour contracts’ setting out rights and duties (Daily Telegraph, June 7th 2007).
While the government is thinking on the above we still have the steady advance of authoritarianism seen in the dogged attempt to extend detention without trial from 28 to 42 days. Then there is the manner of policing of ethnic minorities, and in particular Muslim communities, and the breakdown of trust after the killing of Jean Charles Menezes in London for which not one person in the Metropolitan Police took responsibility. Lurking in the near-future are ID cards, which if we are talking about redrawing the relationship between citizen and state certainly do that offering the biggest shift in power to the state known in peacetime Britain.
If we are being generous the Brown approach on Britishness and reform is an attempt to do the best in the mindset of the centralising state, but it is a politics incapable of breaking out of its own logic, of remorselessly centralising and becoming more and more authoritarian to increasingly diminishing returns.
Can the Future be Brown?
Is it possible that the agenda which Gordon Brown has been attempting to set out on Britishness, with all its limitations and flaws, could be the future? We have travelled a good deal of distance in relation to the UK and Britishness in what has been a relatively short time. In 1953 the American sociologist Edwards Shils said that he was surprised when he heard ‘an eminent man of the left say … that the British constitution was “as nearly perfect as any human institution could be.”’ (Bogdanor 2003, 689) At the same time the Westminster system of government was revered the world over, particularly in the aftermath of the Second World War and exported to numerous colonies as they became independent. Britishness was seen across the world, particularly in Anglophile elites, as being wonderful, full of civilisation, culture and cricket.
In the immediate post-war period and for a long time after, the British state was viewed by generations of working class people as representing progress and the future. I just remember growing up in the 1970s in Dundee and both my parents, who were fairly left-wing, being against the EEC in the 1975 referendum and the 1979 Scottish devolution referendum because they believed in Britain and not in Scotland (the past) or Europe (too capitalist). It was a commonly held position and like many, my parents reversed their views completely with the onset of Thatcherism.
Few would now claim that the British system of government was the envy of the world (Foster 2005; Oborne 2007). After Iraq, the failure of the Hutton and Butler enquiries, cash for honours, and the loss of first, 25 million peoples’ details relating to child benefit, then, the loss of three million DVLA records in the middle of America, who could claim it was ‘perfect’?
Strangely enough, at the heart of the British system a group of zealous ideologues can be found who still think the system is ‘perfect’ because they have been reshaping and reconfigurating it. These strange, unrepresentative groups are the Thatcherites, Blairites and Brownites.
Such naked self-justification of the uses and abuses of power make it very difficult to see how Brown with his present views can make a cogent, convincing case for Britishness, map it out, and then adapt and weave a path of government policy which links to it. All the factors point to this being impossible. Brown’s views on Britishness and the UK state over the last thirty years strengthen this assessment (Nairn 2006). He has never since he began serious writing in the mid-1970s contributed any thought advocating a complete, comprehensive overhaul of the British state (Hassan 2008); so there is little hope to imagine he begin embarking on such a course now. And then there is the record of Labour on such issues and New Labour in power.
The arc we have undertaken in the last decade has been one of advances and retreats, but overall something has been lost. Eleven years ago the mood of 1997 was one of optimism and the possibilities of a new kind of Britishness, inclusive, open, welcome, shorn of bigotry and racism. While progress has been made in some of these areas the shift from the ‘Britain TM’ and ‘Cool Britannia’ to the debates inspired by David Goodhart’s so-called ‘Progressive Nationalism’ is a dispiriting one. While the earlier perspectives were made up of hyperbole and branding, Goodhart’s prospectus is one of fatalism and fear, and the perils of diversity and how it will undermine the solidarity of the welfare state (Goodhart 2006). This is the environment Brown has inherited and contributed to creating.
The Four Britains of the Future
If the above is the case, is a different progressive course possible? Firstly, we need to acknowledge the grotesque shortcomings of the British state and the crucial inter-relationship between it and the neo-liberal polity of Thatcher and Blair (Nairn 2003). Secondly, what is the expression of Britishness and how and where does it see itself? Where is its location and position in a geo-political sense (see Aughey 2007)? Thirdly, there is at the moment no feasible, radical democratising project at a British level in the way that Scottish home rule found voice north of the border, and to which Charter 88 aspired. Finally, following on from this we need to question how the conditions are going to be created which aid a democratic transformation across the UK? These questions lead us to some difficult conclusions for British progressives and big state nationalists (as well as for small nation ones too).
Four possible futures can be identified for the UK:
• Fantasy Island Britain:
This is the status quo. In this Britain, the current constitutional arrangements reflect the political classes myopic view that the union is in the words of George Foulkes ‘the most successful union in history, both in political and economic terms’ (2008). Such a mindset really does tell a lot about the deformed state of the British state, but as importantly, the inter-relationship between the form of the state and the nature of the polity.
The British state reproduces and validates the neo-liberal polity: deregulation, inequality, an ‘over-class’ centred in the City of London and finance capital, and a public realm and service undermined by marketisation. This has been called a ‘fantasy island’ world (Elliott and Atkinson 2007), a dreamland shaped by debt and people living beyond their means. Its continuation might hurt large parts of British society and produce more losers than winners, but it has powerful advocates in the political classes, media and City. Its mindset has become the post-Thatcherite consensus.
• Federal Britain:
This is the dream of reformers such as Charter 88 and the Lib Dems. In it the United Kingdom becomes a federal state with self-governing nations and English regions, a written constitution, fundamental decentralism and a centre with clearly defined, limited powers.
However, there is wish-fulfilment and an element of confusion about what federalism constitutes. Thus, George Foulkes in a piece supporting a federal UK states: ‘We are already moving step by step towards that structure’ (2008). The federalism he invokes involves decentralism all-round between the Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish and English, but nothing more with no awareness that federalism remakes and codifies a whole host of relationships and how power is used.
This is a very common stance misunderstanding the recent changes in the British political system and believing that we are heading towards some federal or quasi-federal solution. A transformation of the UK from its current ad hoc, asymmetrical union to a planned, codified set of relationships would require a number of ingredients. Firstly, there would have to be popular will for such wholesale change, and secondly, there would have to be political will and elite support. For such a situation to come about would literally require the British state to enter what could be called a French Fourth Republic crisis, where the entire system is brought to its knees.
• Break-up/Nationalist Britain:
This scenario is advocated by the Scottish Nationalists and other forces in England, Wales and Northern Ireland who wish to dissolve the union. It involves the SNP making the case that an independent Scotland a priori is better and morally superior to Scotland in the union. It is a very conservative, conventional expression of nationalism. Scotland is a nation so it should be independent has a certain logic to it, but clearly there are other possible expressions of nationhood to one which seems to come down to ‘Scotland: Why Not?’
This is not a progressive case, but an essentialist and romanticising one more akin to the 19th than 21st century. Instead of focusing solely on nationhood and statehood, progressives need to examine the relationships and linkage between nation, state and polity. The British state now supports a profoundly reactionary, illiberal set of values and politics. What progressives need to ask is what kind of society and societies do we want to live in, and what form of state and nation can most give sustenance and support to it?
• Post-Ukania/Post-Nationalist Britain:
This takes us to the final possible future which attempts to answer the questions above. It believes that a systemic remaking of the British state is both unlikely and ahistorical. The Westminster tribe, Labour included, have shown little interest or understanding in going down such a route.
This perspective notes the similarities between the forces of British majority nationalism and large elements of the minority nationalism on these isles. For example, both the Westminster unionists and SNP have mirror image notions of sovereignty, nationhood and constructing a lexicon of identity around nationalism and unionism which is increasingly dogmatic and out of date. Both love talking about structures rather than values.
Instead of a politics being about the union forever or taking it apart no matter the content, progressives should look to a more ambitious politics. This should entail a politics conducive to radical thought asking the question: what kind of society do we want to live in? Then asks importantly: how do we get there from here? And what are the best structures of nation and state to support this?
This is a mindshift removed from the majority and minority nationalisms across these isles. It brings to the fore the issues of values and ideas, rather than the fixation these perspectives have with championing the supposed virtues of the British state or its break up. These accounts, like the British state itself have not served us well.
A State in Denial and the Prospects for Reform
From the four accounts above it should be clear that the first is a situation offering less and less return to progressives and the public. The second could on paper seem like an ideal type and the dream home for centre-left supporters of various hues; however it is not feasible or practical in any realistic timeframe. The third view is based on the break-up thesis and the rise of minority nationalism. This has some advantages as it is a serious challenge to the status quo, but ultimately it is a romanticising politics prioritising nation above economic and social values. This leaves us with the fourth road – which may or may not end up in break-up, but is about posing the central problem as the British state and its related polity, and advocates that any conversations about nation and statehood should put the question of society first, the problem of the neo-liberal consensus and the health of social democracy.
A number of propositions flow from this and affect the choices before us. Those who sit outside the Westminster village know that the British state is not conducive to progressive politics and embedding social democratic politics in state and society. Twice in the last two generations Labour has caught the wind of hope and the future, and developed a credo about modernisation and progress under Wilson in 1964 and Blair in 1997. Both of these attempts ended in defeat and disarray as they embraced the orthodoxies they had tried to supplant: in Wilson’s case Treasury influence and short termism, with Blair the Thatcherite consensus. These two cases have massive consequences for the centre-left. They tell us that the British centre-left does not at the moment have the resources to develop a serious politics which can challenge the current configuration of state and polity.
At the moment the British state sits in a state of denial. The UK political centre has engaged in little to no serious thinking about the potential consequences and different ways the break-up of the union could occur. One tangible example of this is that the fate of British nuclear weapons will be a thorny subject if Scotland were to become independent given that the weapons are based in Scotland. The British system – whether it be Whitehall or the armed forces top brass – has undertaken no serious examination or analysis of this situation, what could happen and different scenarios, because it is viewed as too politically sensitive (3). Thus, a governing and administrative class which used to pride itself on its élan and statecraft around the world, running an Empire with an effortless self-confidence, find itself slowly letting events slip out of their control. Only in the Northern Ireland peace process in the last decade has this class shown the sure-footedness which used to be one of its defining characteristics.
The state’s sense of denial is systemic and deep-seated – about its nature, past, present and future. This is a place that does not know it is not a unitary state, but a union state; it does not know it is not a nation, but a state. It has no grasp that the 1707 Treaty of Union is as close to fundamental law as the UK can clearly get, and that at the same time the current configuration of the state dates from 1922 in name and 1948 in structure. A state, which does not know its own history, identity and character, is to put it mildly on shaky foundations.
What does Gordon Brown have to say on these and related issues? He has spoken eloquently and at great length on numerous occasions about the mission, purpose and meaning of Britishness. Brown was of course one of the main architects of New Labour, its record in government and its embrace of neo-liberalism. His ambitions as Prime Minister, for all his reputation as a person of ideas and a thinker, seem to amount to little more than consolidating New Labour’s achievements while presenting them with a bit of a more human face towards Labour sensibilities and voters.
This is a politics of limited aspiration and retreat. Brown seems to be settled on a politics of engagement which is based on the tenets of the British state as it currently is: bastardised and falling apart at the centre, beholden to corporate interests, suspicious of Europe and beholden to the American imperialist project no matter how it expresses itself. It is a pretty unappetising recipe for progressives. It puts Brown’s reputation as a thinker into context. For in truth, Brown has always been a politician who has followed fashion, rather than being a trailblazer setting new directions. Thus, he was a student radical in the 1970s when it was the age of new left posturing; in the 1980s he became a supply side socialist and eager Kinnockite; and with Blair he became convinced of the need for a break from the past and for New Labour. Such a pattern offers an accurate predictor of the long awaited Brown premiership.
It is a sad story in many places, but there are glimpses of light and new possibilities. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are slowly making their own futures, leaving the question of England and the union. To our west, north and east, a variety of small independent states exist, which have all become self-governing in the last century, and which show that for the smaller nations of the isles there are different potential futures.
The old Labour story is dead. An intrinsic part of that was the traditional British story which is slowly withering and dying. It is not in the interests of progressives and radicals to try to stretch out its life while it sits on life-support approaching a terminal condition. Instead, we should have confidence to begin sketching out a new set of relationships between the Scots, Welsh, English and Irish. Such a project is going to require a lot more imagination, radicalism and risk than that shown by Gordon Brown in his political life and a set of timescales which stretch well beyond the Brown administration.
1. Technically speaking Northern Ireland is a province and not a nation.
2. The issue of England being governed by Scottish and Welsh Labour MPs has to be put in its proper context given that England contributes 85 percent of the population and parliamentary seats in the UK. Thus, on only two occasions has a very close English result been tipped over at UK level by the Scots and Welsh: 1964 and February 1974 with the two Parliaments lasting for a total of 26 months. On the other hand, Scotland has voted Labour and been rewarded with Conservative Governments on six occasions: 1959, 1970, 1979, 1983, 1987 and 1992: all full Parliaments lasting a cumulative 27 years. One anomaly does not excuse another.
3. Private information.
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