In 1977, New Left writer and theorist Tom Nairn published The Break-Up of Britain, an influential and prescient account of the contradictions of British nationalism, and the forces that would drive it apart. As Scottish independence moves ever closer, he casts an eye over the current poll for Crikey:
When the lights come on at four
At the end of another year?
Give me your arm, old toad;
Help me down Cemetery Road.
— Phillip Larkin, ‘Toads Revisited’ October 1962 (Collected Poems, 1988)
Not long before the announcement of the next British General Election (on May 6th) the Councillors of Hull, Yorkshire, decided that a pair of giant toad sculptures should be sited in front of the Town Hall: tributes to their great son Philip Larkin.
Nine years after ‘Toads‘ the great poet of Anglo-Britain had also published ‘Homage to a Government: ‘Next year we shall be living in a country/ That brought its soldiers home for lack of money…Our children will not know it’s a different country/ All we can hope to leave them now is money…”
And damned little of that, following the General Financial Crisis, as the leaders of the main parties never cease telling voters. Down Cemetery Road choices are limited, with no slip road in sight. Lest anyone thinks I’m exaggerating, the answer is straightforward: go to your nearest bookshop and look at the ‘Britain’ shelf.
The choice there is between Eamon Butler’s The Rotten State of Britain and John O’Farrell’s Utterly Exasperated History of Modern Britain (2009), possibly amplified by Christopher Harvie’s elegant Broonland (2009, an elegy for Gordon Brown) and Robert Peston’s Who Runs Britain, And Is To Blame? (2008). My own favorite is Quentin Letts’ 50 People Who Buggered Up Britain (2009), although Fantasy Island: Illusions of the Blair Legacy (2007) by Larry Elliott and Dan Atkinson, remains a close contender.
The intelligentsia has made its choice, clearly. But so have a great body of voters after the hugely publicized MP Expenses Scandal, perhaps best described by journalist Martin Bell in The Expenses Scandal and How to Save Our Democracy (2009).
Members from all parties were found guilty of ridiculous expenses claims relating to second homes, gardens and dubious assistants, which aggravated an already widespread scepticism about politicians, and even parliament itself. In such conditions, business-as-usual is out of the question, however hard the main party spokesmen struggle to pretend otherwise. Disenchantment and impatience have become general and unavoidable: the ground rule of this impending election — and quite possibly, others to follow.
If anyone doubted it, April 15th’s first open TV debate among Party leaders opened their eyes. Here Labour’s Prime Minister Brown confronted the aspiring Conservative David Cameron, and the relatively unknown Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal-Democrats.
The traditional two-party chieftains imagined the argument would be straightforward. As in Australia, only two sides are considered to ‘count’, and the third force is a half-presence — a token of minorities and democratic possibility, rather than a contender. The result turned out cruelly different.
Exposed in this way on formally equal ground, every single verdict the next day admitted the same truth: the Lib-Dems had not only won, but somehow triumphed. The new unknown swept the board, with his contention that two-partyism had become an archaic farce, so that a different voice and ‘new start’ are desperately needed for the U.K. In the course of a single hour, the token presence had turned into a contender.
On the other hand, the political fossils were condemned to exhibit their true misery, as moribund customs uncomfortably harking back to Margaret Thatcher’s Neoliberalism or pre-1989 Socialism — graveyards of a past century, scarcely known to the new generation of voters.
The fall of David Cameron was perhaps the worst: very recently he appeared as a new face, a ‘red Toryism’ openly embracing New Labour’s peculiar right-wing version of Social-Democracy. Yet the 2010 platform showed him groaning zomboid platitudes about an imagined ‘great society’ — a new libertarian order ready to advance from merely rolling back the State to discarding it altogether.
This, at a moment of persisting recession where, by fairly universal consent, only State economic power has prevented the complete collapse of ‘casino capitalism’.
For his part, Premier Brown assumed the self-satisfied demeanour of a chief executive who had indeed ‘saved the world’ — unfortunately, by giving up on popular hopes for greater equality in the new century. As Tony Judt points out in Ill Fares the Land (2010), the latter stages of the long economic boom led to incredible disparities of income and life-style, and have brought with them an angry rebirth of egalitarianism.
However, Blair and Brown spent those years moving in exactly the opposite direction, constantly reassuring capitalists they would be permanently safe under British Labour. The system represented by London finance capital was unchallengeable, however much this or that excess might need more ‘regulation’.
Instinctive popular disbelief in the two-party ‘vision’ is probably deeper than that of the intellectuals. Inarticulate, perhaps, but may not that be the point of what was revealed by the April contestation? In part, the passion for change and innovation is so violent because no formula is available that looks like voicing it.
The existing structures are worse than out of date: their ‘archaism’ actually oppresses and distorts whatever is emerging from the ‘Great Financial Crisis’ — that is, from the end of an era, when another period ought to be in gestation. Both Socialism and Capitalist ‘Neo-liberalism’ have fallen flat on their faces…so, what can come next?
In his celebrated Monthly essay eighteen months ago, Kevin Rudd suggested that the sole remaining vision was ‘Social Democracy’. The latter’s common ground had become the inevitable terrain of confrontation and political battle, implying a need for new initiatives and departures, for philosophical and policy wars to replace the military ones of last century.
One can put the same point in another way: what the U.K. Election debate and its impact have pointed to is surely a need for revolution. Not for another 1917, or for more upheavals and national-liberation movements like those of 1914 to 1989. Rather, for a contemporary (and hence ‘globalised) return to something like the spirit of 1848 — the culmination of romanticism and the Idealist age, when it was still hoped that a universalising impulse and shared ideology might inspire a different political world, both through and beyond so many starting-points, and failures.
Doesn’t globalisation at least pose an equivalent question today? And the problem is likely to be particularly acute for a state resolutely attached to the customs of the previous age: for example, to the notion of absolute sovereignty, and of a two-party system with entrenched monopoly rights.
Back in the nineteen-forties English political philosopher Harold Laski pointed out in The Grammar of Politics that any two-party order must at another deeper level be a one-party system. The regular alternation of authority will only work where the contenders agree sufficiently on certain common factors — a structure capable of being handed back and forth between them. Such structures entail a similarly resistant identity, relatively changeless and distinct from most others.
In this case that relates to the British or ‘United Kingdom’ state founded on the 1688 Revolution and the subsequent 1707 Treaty of Union between the older English and Scottish states. But this is exactly what has fallen into disrepute, even ignominy, coinciding not only with the expenses scandal but the rise of globality’s novel conditions.
The question couldn’t be deeper; and one consequence is that Great-British identity may now be more shaky and imponderable than (say) that of Australia, or of the nation-states who have consciously sought redefinition within the emergent framework of European Union. Far too big an issue to resolve in one general election, it may be objected? True, but it can’t help weighing upon all U.K. elections from now onwards.
After all, ‘Britain’ has steadily become more indecipherable from the nineteen-seventies down to the present. The recurrence of Ireland’s troubles, and the rise of overt political nationalism in Scotland and Wales, have already posed unheard-of questions for the English majority of the archipelago. England stands for eighty-five per cent of the U.K., yet thus far possesses no political identity.
‘Devolution’ was that majority’s conservative answer to late-20th century unrest: ‘they’ (on the periphery) should be allowed limited powers, so that the heartland could stay the same. A multi-national country was conceded, in order to preserve the central architecture of Britishness intact.
The ‘Westminster’ polity plus greater London’s dominance of civil society: ‘Anglo-Britain’ means the entity that the demographic English majority naturally identifies with, and which has so far furnished the cohesion a declining great power continues to require — that is, a ‘bigger than’ mentality with credentials inherited from empire, and reinforced by an imagined ‘special relationship’ to the USA.
The campaigns for next May’s election suggest this structure is simply wearing out. Substantially different political battles are being conducted in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. The latter is especially significant. It is sometimes thought that Scottish subordination to Britain is ancient history, or related to colonialism and defeat.
In fact, it was a choice made by the landed élite in early-modern times, against the popular will, and embodied in an International Treaty: the 1707 Union. The present devolved government in Edinburgh wants to hold the first democratic vote on this arrangement, in a referendum — and naturally regards the all-Britain vote as a way towards this — or possibly as a manoeuvre to prevent it happening.
If successful the Treaty of Union would be repealed…and the ‘United Kingdom’ would cease to exist. It’s no exaggeration to say that a lot is at stake in the forthcoming vote.
The April TV debates have revealed voter disenchantment with credentials, parliamentary customs and Big Party leaderships alike. No amount of rhetoric from Prime Minister Brown and Tory leader Cameron is likely to have much effect.
After all, the electorate knows that both main parties have now have their chances at renewal, Thatcher’s Conservatives from 1985 to 1997 and the Blair-Brown Labourites from then until 2010. The result is what we have today: a nationalist government in Edinburgh determined to hold an independence referendum, and a Welsh Assembly pressing for increased powers ‘along Scottish lines’. Popular, passionate Unionism is now confined to Northern Ireland Protestants…who are today also part of a devolved administration linking them with Ulster Catholics, and strongly supported by the government in Dublin.
The world has changed, if the British Constitution hasn’t — and this disparity is now forcing itself upon the once-sacred U.K. Election process. Scottish commentator Iain Macwhirter put it very well in his column of April 25th in the Glasgow Sunday Herald: ”People are beginning to understand how our unfair electoral system perpetuates rule by the brain-dead ‘Labservative’ duopoly — how exceptional it is to live under an archaic electoral system rejected by the rest of Europe…Tony Blair won a 160-seat majority on only 43% of the vote. If we’d had P.R. we wouldn’t have had Iraq”…or of course, Afghanistan.
That’s what the election is really about. Couldn’t this have been avoided by political reform, straightforward constitutional changes like those most European states managed following the World Wars? Of course, but the key thing for Anglo-Britain has been avoidance of such reform.
This was an order deemed capable of any sensible, practical alteration without tiresome overhauls, confessions of failure, and resorts to theory and principle. It has taken a generation for such self-satisfaction to run down, and reveal its barrenness. Yet there it is — better late, inescapable, and messing up the Great-Brit General Election.
We find in 2010 a very weak version of reform being at last proposed by Brown’s Labour Party. Well, not actually proposed, but put forward for consideration by voters in a referendum, if Labour wins next month, and decides not to forget about the plan altogether.
They will then ask for popular assent to changing electoral law, replacing ‘First Past the Post’ (or simple majority) by ‘Alternative Vote’, and introducing democracy to the Second Chamber, or ‘House of Lords’ — actually having the latter elected, almost certainly by some proportional or ‘fairer’ system.
At this point, any Down Under reader is bound to be intrigued (or convulsed with laughter). For what they’re putting forward is of course the Australian method, seen as the best way of preserving two-partyism, while lending a stronger semblance of democracy and variety to the ancestral U.K. Kevin Rudd has led the way ideologically with his 2008 ‘Social Democracy’; now the whole system is liable to be invoked by what used to be called the ‘mother country’.
True Britons have always scorned the notion of a written constitution, under which head-counting might usurp the inherited wisdom of Edmund Burke’s instinct and custom. Yet now, in the wake of bankruptcies, and revelations of petty crookery and customary futility, they find themselves driven down this pretty ordinary road — made easier by a far-off model only just over a century old, in an English-speaking land with many shared cultural traits and personal connections.
Of course, even that may not happen. If David Cameron’s Conservatives win on May 6th, then all such bets will be off. He has so far outdone rivals in claims of allegiance, and determination to ‘Save the Union’ and breathe new life into the squalid old palace. We won’t know until the week after just how such notions and protestations are likely to work out (or disappear). I cited Larkin’s ‘Toads’ to begin with.
Listening to all these election speeches and disputes, I have been unable to keep another of the great man’s verses out of my mind, the more famous ‘Whitsun Weddings’.
In a 1950s train journey from his home town across England the poet found himself obsessed by what this ‘frail, travelling coincidence’ may hold in store: an eerie sense of something standing ready ‘to be loosed with all the power that being changed can give’.
Half a century later, has that moment of loosening come? Or is it at least on the way? As Larkin’s train slowed again, and he felt the ‘tightened brakes take hold’ —
There swelled a sense of falling, like an arrow-shower sent out of sight,
Somewhere becoming rain. (October 1958, Collected Poems, p.116)