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As all that is solid melts to air and everything holy is profaned...

Thursday, November 03, 2016

No Future In The British Dream

We have fed the heart on fantasies, 
The heart's grown brutal from the fare 

Britishness/ British identity was originally a product of James VI and I attempt to unite the kingdoms of England, Ireland, Scotland and the principality of Wales after 1603. It was a form of cultural engineering, an imagined community. It was a way to manufacture consent to James and his successors’  rule. It did not work in Ireland where the Irish refused their consent and so had to be ruled by force.

Britishness in Ireland was therefore not ‘hegemonic’ in Gramsci-speak since it was imposed from above and grew from the barrel of a musket. In England ‘British’ was read and understood as equal to ‘English’. In Scotland, Britishness was given a coat of tartan paint. In Wales , the Welsh could see themselves as the surviving descendants of the original, pre- Anglo-Saxon, ancient Britons.

The global imperial/industrial success of nineteenth century Britain as England, Wales and  Scotland but not famine struck Ireland buttressed popular consent to Britishness in the island of Great(er) Britain. [Brittany in  France was the original ‘lesser Britain’]

Two world wars, but not Easter 1916 nor the 1966 World Cup, helped keep James VI and I primitive hegemony alive. However, following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922 and during the economic traumas of the 1920s and 1930s, Plaid Cymru was formed in 1925 and the Scottish National Party in 1934.

Electoral success was elusive for both parties until the 1970s. In the October 1974 UK general election, Plaid won 3 seats and the SNP 11. This was the same period renowned in accounts of popular culture as the point where the post-war social democratic consensus broke down and punk emerged spitting and screaming out of the ruins.

Punk is interesting not because it involved an actual breakdown of the reproduction of consent (Britishness as hegemony) but because it symbolised and acted out that breakdown, most obviously in the summer of 1977 when the Sex Pistol’s ‘God Save the Queen’ challenged the universality of QE2’s silver jubilee celebrations.

But as John Medhurst revealed in ‘That Option No Longer Exists: Britain 1974-76 (Zero Books, 2014), by 1977 a wave of left radicalism inspired by the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders 1971 work-in and encouraged by the Institute for Workers Control had been neutralised. Right-wing reaction to this socialist surge, which included feverish talk of a military coup, solidified around a push to get Margaret Thatcher elected.

Following Thatcher’s election, plans for Scottish and Welsh Assemblies were dropped, removing a perceived threat to the Britishness of the UK. However, to keep the UK safe for capitalism, the Thatcher regime chose to impose consent by coercion, unleashing a wave of political violence which culminated in a huge anti-poll tax riot in London in 1990.

In Scotland and Wales, the fallout from the Thatcher era forced Labour to revive plans for devolution in order to keep a lid on the nationalists. These plans reached fruition in 1999. In Northern Ireland an Assembly was created in 1998 as part of the Good Friday peace agreement. In England, the situation was more complicated. A proposed  north east England regional assembly was voted down in 2004 but the Greater London Council dissolved by Thatcher in 1986 was revived as the Greater London Authority in 2000.

During the seventeenth century, as the capital of three kingdoms and a principality, London grew rapidly. From 200 000 in 1600, London had doubled in size to 400 000 by 1650, By 1700, after recovering from plague and fire, it reached 575 000, overtaking Paris to become the largest city in Europe. Growth continued to the million mark by the beginning of the nineteenth century, making London the largest city in the world. Growth continued until 1914, when London reached 7.5 million, but then New York edged ahead to become the largest city in the world.

London’s growth stimulated the coal industry in north-east England in the seventeenth century. During the eighteenth century this domestic use of coal was matched by the industrial use of coal. During the nineteenth and into the twentieth century, the coal fields of south Wales, central Scotland, north-west England and the English Midlands as well as north-east England became an economic powerhouse which made Britain the ‘workshop of the world’. The combination of economic wealth and urban growth in these areas created a political and economic counterbalance to London.

The economic ability of the industrial regions to act as a counterbalance  to London as a financial centre broke down in the 1920s and 30s. Despite a return to importance in the 1940s, stimulated by war production, and the 1950s, stimulated by a post-war boom, by the 1960s cotton, shipbuilding, coal mining, steel making and locomotive making were once more struggling. The 1974-79 Labour government had a plan to re-vitalise manufacturing industry using tax revenue from the newly discovered North Sea oil reserves.

Tragically, by the time the oil revenues came on stream, the Conservative party were in power. In order to destroy organised labour and the Labour party, but disguised as anti-inflationary monetary policy, interest rates were raised and manufacturing industry was devastated, never to fully recover. At the same time,  constraints on London’s financial sector were removed.

The Labour party survived by re-inventing itself as ‘New and Improved’ under Tony Blair, moving its position to the right so it could become electable in 1997.

This move created a crisis for the concept of post-war Britishness as a form of social democratic consensus. In Scotland especially, the tension between new and old Labour made it increasingly difficult to sustain this form of Britishness. This allowed the SNP to start eating into the Labour vote in Scotland by presenting itself as a social democratic party committed to civic rather than ethnic nationalism. In 2015, after being Scotland’s largest single party for nearly 100 years, Labour were wiped out, returning only one MP.

In England the concept of Britishness had always been confused by its equation with ‘Englishness’.  But this Englishness itself was always fractured by regional and class divisions, reflected in a crude way by the strength of the Tory vote in most rural/agricultural areas and the Labour vote in most urban/ former manufacturing areas.

The 2016 EU referendum vote has created a further layer of confusion. Every local authority region in Scotland voted Remain. No such clear picture emerged in England. If the Leave vote was an expression of English nationalism/ identity, then England is a nation divided against itself.

If England is now a divided nation, where does that leave Britishness? If there is a British identity, where does it exist now? If the Leave vote in England was an expression of English nationalism as Anthony Barnett has suggested, was it therefore an ‘anti-British’ vote?  A vote to, effectively, dissolve the united kingdom first established in 1603 and the traditions of a British identity James VI and I invented?

Among the ideas being floated about a post-Brexit Britain is that somehow ‘free trade’ with the rest of the world will make up for the loss of trade with the EU. But even within England, the era of free trade -1840 to 1930- was one when economic and political power was more evenly distributed than it is now. It was also the age of empire, not an English empire, but a British one. The Irish were never reconciled to the British identity of this period, but the Scots and Welsh and even the English were.

The ‘loss’ of most of Ireland did not noticeably diminish Britishness, but the possibility of ‘losing’ Scotland was seen differently. Without Scotland England would have to confront the question- what does it mean to be English not British? To pick up the threads of an identity put on hold since Tudor times…

For a brief period between September 2014 and June 2016, it seemed that this confrontation had been avoided. Now it has returned. Or rather, it hasn’t.

One of the influential economic arguments against independence in the Scottish referendum campaign was that an independent Scotland would be outside the EU and have to negotiate its way back in. This argument equated Britishness with membership of the EU. There was a related currency argument. If Scotland left the UK, what currency would it use? Scots were told very firmly that they would not be allowed to use the British pound. But as we are now finding, the British pound was only strong because of EU membership.

Could the survival of Britishness over the past forty years therefore have become  entangled with membership of the EU? If so, then the Leave vote in England was a vote against Britishness. This creates a tidal wave of irony. While the BBC and other ’British’ institutions presented the Yes campaign in the Scottish referendum as an attempt to ‘break up Britain’, they did not  present the Leave campaign as working towards a similar outcome.

Yet if Scotland had voted Yes in 2014, it is highly unlikely that there would have been an EU referendum in 2016. England would have had to reflect on what English Britishness now meant in a smaller United Kingdom, but without having to go through the deeply divisive process of an EU referendum.

Now the question is- can a British identity survive Brexit? It is very difficult to see how it can, even if the result of a possible second Scottish independence referendum is uncertain. This is probably why there has been no great debate about the survival of Britishness. The ‘national’ institutions like the BBC, the newspapers, legal establishment, academics and political parties involved all see themselves as British not English institutions.

They are constitutionally incapable of thinking from an English rather than British perspective. On the other hand there are many in Scotland who would disagree, arguing that institutional disinterested Britishness is a cloak for English interestedness.

What this points towards is the fracturing of the UK along some pre-existing fault lines and some new ones. One old one runs along the Scotland/ England border, another between the institutions of the UK and the people of Wales, northern Ireland, Scotland and England, between the rulers and the ruled. A new fault line is opening up between people who voted Leave and those who voted Remain. Within Ireland, the  Brexit vote risk turning the open border between south and north back into a closed one.

As yet the actual economic impact of Brexit is unknown, although the fall in value of the pound is feeding through into higher inflation. Brexit was sold on the promise of a better life outside the EU. Several of the promises have already been revealed as lies. If Brexit has a negative economic impact, even in the short term, there will be political fall-out.

But if, as I have argued above, the UK’s Britishness is faltering, then the social cohesion British identity once provided cannot be relied on any more. To echo the title of John Medhurst’s book -that option no longer exists. In particular, if there is a connection between the current model of Britishness and membership of the EU, leaving the EU will explode that model.

It will not be possible to summon up the spirit of Britain as a defence against the break-up of the United Kingdom.

How will this affect England and Englishness? Can England dream itself a future?  There are traditions of English radicalism, of a historic culture which ran counter to British imperial delusions, a red and black thread which still Remains.

England already possesses a dream whose consciousness it must now express in order to actually live it; as both Karl Marx and Guy Debord once almost said.

But it is a dream which hovers even now on the edge of a nightmare, an abyss of fear and hate unleashed by the final failure of the  Britishness that was once at its centre to hold the UK together. We are entering a state of disorder in the absence and non-recognition of  what was once authority as the controlling systems of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland  collapse into Brexit as a black hole.

In 1976 the Sex Pistols sang about it. It was a bit of a joke back then. In 1919, reflecting on the carnage of a world war and as the brief war of Irish independence was beginning, William Yeats took a more serious view of ‘anarchy’.

 The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

By 1922 the fight for Irish independence had been won and the Free State created, but then a civil war broke out. In response Yeats wrote ‘Meditations In Time of Civil’, published in 1923.

During the Scottish independence referendum campaign I re-read it and noted these lines-

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare

In Scotland, the failure of the  2012-14 Yes campaign has led to a narrowing of debate. The optimistic, forward looking, vision of the radical, grassroots independence campaigners has struggled to survive a retreat into a reactionary nationalism promoted  by advocates of ‘Independence first’. The fantasy of freedom from English rule has returned to supplant the difficult reality of working out what independence would mean in practice.

This conflict between fantasies of freedom from foreign rule and the actuality of self-government faced the Irish in the 1920s and will- if Brexit happens - face the English in the 2020s, just as it will the Scots if they ever achieve independence.

By concluding with this section from Yeats ‘Mediations’ I am not anticipating an actual, physical, bloody civil war. Rather, I am anticipating a cultural and political, even ‘spiritual’ in William Blake’s  language, civil war. One which has the potential to become a democratic revolution completing the work of the seventeenth century ‘British’ revolutions.

The Road at My Door

An affable Irregular,
A heavily-built Falstaffian man,
Comes cracking jokes of civil war
As though to die by gunshot were
The finest play under the sun.
A brown Lieutenant and his men,
Half dressed in national uniform,
Stand at my door, and I complain
Of the foul weather, hail and rain,
A pear-tree broken by the storm.
I count those feathered balls of soot
The moor-hen guides upon the stream.
To silence the envy in my thought;
And turn towards my chamber, caught
In the cold snows of a dream.

The Stare's Nest by My Window [stare = starling]

The bees build in the crevices
Of loosening masonry, and there
The mother birds bring grubs and flies.
My wall is loosening; honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the state.
We are closed in, and the key is turned
On our uncertainty; somewhere
A man is killed, or a house burned,
Yet no clear fact to be discerned:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.
A barricade of stone or of wood;
Some fourteen days of civil war;
Last night they trundled down the road
That dead young soldier in his blood:
Come build in the empty house of the stare.

We had fed the heart on fantasies,
The heart's grown brutal from the fare;
More Substance in our enmities
Than in our love; O honey-bees,
Come build in the empty house of the stare.


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