This timely new book expertly charts the endurance of the British state and how elites have sought to ‘repurpose’ it. Whether this can be achieved again after Brexit is highly uncertain
In the eleven months since the EU referendum, there has been a daily flood of Brexit-related news, analysis and polemic. Legal wrangling between parliament and executive, party political manoeuvrings and the possible economic impact of leaving the EU on trade and investment all occupy the minds of policymakers, commentators and the general public alike. Amidst the noise, there is a danger that the deeper origins of the UK’s present crisis are overlooked.
In this regard, the publication of Mick Moran’s book The End of British Politics? could not have been timelier. Moran’s essay places Britain’s contemporary period of constitutional upheaval into its historical context. It traces, through a series of concise but illuminating chapters, the evolution of the British state from its origins in the 18th century through to the current Brexit conjuncture. The result is a masterly account of British political history which is attentive both to the peculiarities of British economic development and to the key role that statecraft has played in re-shaping the British state and civil society at key historical moments.
The origins of the modern British state lie in the 18th Century when the Act of Union in 1707 joined Scotland with England and Wales in a political union on the basis of a (broadly) shared Protestantism. With the formation of the Union, Moran argues that a ‘providential’ myth was born – the conception that the British were ordained with an ‘elect’ global historic mission. Internally, elites were unified against the enduring threat of Jacobitism and in their preference for parliamentary supremacy. Externally, the nation was mobilised against a Catholic ‘other’ – namely pre- and post-Napoleonic France – on the continent. This early state form was underpinned by distinctly metropolitan political and economic institutions, exemplified by elites concentrated in London who were committed to expanding trade and bolstering the state’s growing military prowess.
After the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 (and, it should be added, the massacre at Culloden in 1746), the perceived Catholic ‘threat’ receded. Protestantism lost some of its potency as the central mobilising force in British politics. But ‘providentialism’ did not. Instead, British state purpose was re-fashioned throughout the 19th century and projected outwards in support of the great project of Empire. Provincial port cities such as Liverpool, Glasgow and Bristol were incorporated into the imperial project through commercial ties. Imperial adventurism centralised and (partially) rationalised the civil service and state machinery. The experience of empire reinforced the providentialist myth, placing the British state as the lynchpin of an emergent liberal order with a world ‘civilising’ role.
Moran deftly charts the decomposition of this imperial state form throughout the 20th century, from the threat of Irish ‘home rule’, to the rise of the Labour Party to the carnage of the two world wars. By the 1950s, Britain’s post-imperial status was confirmed. In its place, a new mobilising ‘myth’ was forged. Driven initially by the labour movement and the Labour Party and eventually consolidated in the bi-partisan ‘post-war consensus’, Britishness assumed a new social democratic guise. Social entitlements, such as a commitment to full employment, rising living standards and (limited) welfare provision, effectively tied citizens to the ‘products of the central policy making machine in the metropolis’. Britishness had been radically reconfigured. The state expanded its social and economic competences, facilitated rising profitability and commanded cross-societal support from executive boardrooms to the shop floor.
The stagflationary crisis of the 1970s tore this settlement asunder. In its place, a radical project of social and economic restructuring emerged in the form of the ‘New Right’, pursued first by the Thatcher and then (in qualified form) by the Blair and Brown governments. By the advent of the 21st century, state-civil society relations had been fundamentally reconfigured. The UK became a service sector-led economy, shaped by a centralised ‘regulatory state’. The devolution ‘settlement’ – which Moran ironically points out has proven to be anything but – reconfigured territorial politics and centre-periphery relations. As Moran notes, today the traditional bulwarks of Britishness, ‘religious providence, naval superiority, industrial might – [have] vanished or corroded. Yet the British state endures.’ Adaptation has facilitated continuity. The periodic ‘repurposing’ of the British state by metropolitan elite actors has ensured its resilience over time.
Today, the British state once again faces a number of formidable challenges. The upheaval of Brexit and resurgent territorial politics in Scotland and Northern Ireland together suggest that a new wave of state-society restructuring is all but inevitable. But Moran cautions against fatalistic readings of the Brexit conjuncture. Effective statecraft – the capacity of elites to win and then effectively exercise power in pursuit of specific strategic objectives – has revitalised the British state before. It could well do so again.
In this vein, the May government’s emergent programme could be read as an attempt to ‘repurpose’ and reconfigure the British state and civil society in line with a revitalised providentialism. Talk of ‘Empire 2.0’, ‘Global Britain’ and ‘taking back control’ all suggest that ideological resources are available to the May government which, if deployed effectively, could be used to reshape British state and society in the image of a new Conservative hegemony.
But there are also profound barriers to successful state ‘repurposing’ under present conditions. As The End of British Politics? convincingly shows, the British state has always deployed ideological resources in order to shore up its support, whether in the form of militaristic jingoism or orchestrated public displays honouring the monarchy. Crucially, however, popular support for state repurposing has also involved channelling material concessions to strategically significant social groups. Sustaining economic growth and (selectively) redistributing the social surplus have been at the heart of democratic politics and statecraft in modern Britain.
It is in this context that the May programme looks particularly vulnerable, at least in the medium term. Earlier examples of British state ‘repurposing’ have been embedded within a relatively favourable international economic context. The rise of ‘social citizenship’ in the 1950s took place at a time of unparalleled economic expansion across Western capitalist states. This allowed high levels of wealth redistribution and job creation which in turn secured support amongst the working class for parliamentary democracy. The Thatcher programme was embedded within – and decisively contributed to – a huge wave of global financialisation. Although Thatcher vilified trade unions and the public sector bureaucracy, she also ensured that sufficient concessions were channelled to strategically significant sections of the working class – for example through the ‘right to buy’ scheme, lowering the cost of credit and selective tax cuts – to shore-up her base of support.
These external international economic supports are in short supply today. The threat of rising protectionism indicates that a contraction rather than an expansion in global trade is likely. Domestically, real wages have fallen by 10 per cent since 2008 in Britain – the second largest fall of any country in Europe – and unsecured household debt as a result is rising fast. Household savings have collapsed, productivity growth remains totally stagnant and sterling devaluation is likely to hit living standards in the coming months and years. Simultaneously, Brexit ensures that the UK is in the process of decoupling from its largest trading partner, worsening the terms of trade whilst further eroding the UK’s export base.
In her first speech as prime minister in July 2016, May indicated that her government’s defining purpose would be to aid those who had been ‘left behind’ by globalisation and by a remote political class. In the medium term, the key political test for May’s state repurposing programme will ultimately be whether she delivers on this promise. The early signs are not promising.
The key calculation of the May government thus far has been that political imperatives – in particular the perceived need to bring immigration figures down – trump economic considerations. For now, this strategy is working. But as the negative economic effects of Brexit begin to bite, the capacity of the May government to retain a broad base of popular support will be tested. The imminent squeeze on the public finances and on living standards as trade and investment contract will impact hardest on workers and regions most reliant on trade with the Single Market.
Repurposing the state is always possible, but it is incredibly difficult to sustain politically under hostile economic conditions. As Moran perceptively notes in his text, ‘all statecraft is a mix of calculation and mystification’. If – when – May’s Brexit calculations backfire, we can expect to see a revival of the British elite’s peculiarly post-imperial brand of globalist mystification.