Tom Nairn says we are living through a most peculiar constitutional revolution
And what the dead had no speech for, when living
They can tell you, being dead, the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
Here, the intersection of the timeless moment
Is England and nowhere. Never and always.
T.S. Eliot, ‘Little Gidding’, Four Quartets, 1944
The G-B Election
So the Great-British General Election took place, on the 6 May, 2010. And on 7 May the voters woke up in Alice’s Wonderland: “Down, down, down. Would the fall never come to an end! ‘I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time?’ she said aloud. ‘I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth.” She worries about arriving among the ‘Antipathies’ on the other side, but the White Rabbit keeps reappearing and, in between nervous glances at his watch, reassures her things will soon be sorted out.
Today the White Rabbit is Nick Clegg, Leader of Britain’s Liberal Democrats, summoned by ‘the Duchess’ (the Conservative Party’s David Cameron) for grotesquely unlikely talks about common policy over staging the Mad Tea Party: dealing with Britain’s gigantic deficit without turning the Pound Sterling into funny-money, being simultaneously for and against the European Union (and so on). Though uncomfortably like an accord between Albert Schweitzer and Genghis Khan, the deal does appear inevitable for the time being. The Conservative Party won most votes, and the Lib-Dems have advanced sufficiently to claim a place at the power-table — or at least, for as long as Labourism continues to sink in the choppy wake of the departing Gordon Brown. Most recent reports indicate water-level rising near deck-level, and threatening the Bridge. However, what choice have the living but to seek an exit from zombiedom, however difficult?
In most countries, another election would be the answer. But this is Wonderland. A second contest might push everything still closer to the centre of the earth. Isn’t the ancestor of democracy succumbing to advanced Alzheimer’s, and capable of results even worse than 7 May? Hence, the urgent task (‘national interest’, etc.) boils down to getting rid of a millenary tradition in a few days: time to at least consider disposing of the Mother of Parliaments and ‘first-past-the-post’. Reared to worship such timeless icons, today’s Royal Subjects find themselves placed under brisk orders to bin the lot, and re-equip themselves for boring modernity. Two-partyism has joined the Dodo and the ‘caucus race’ in Dodgson’s famous portrait of Englishness. As Iain Macwhirter concludes his ‘State of the Nation’ survey in Scotland’s Sunday Herald:
“This election was a kind of punishment for the UK political leadership, for the expenses scandal and the banking crisis. The people wanted a change — well, now they have it. The political system is broken, but we don’t yet know if anyone has the tools to fix it” (9 May).
That’s the job of the incoming coalition government, and we’re still finding out day by day just what the tools are, and how likely or unlikely will be the restoration of the historic United Kingdom.
The Missing Link
So far one thing has to be taken for granted: the absence of an English polity capable of asserting itself democratically, on behalf of its eighty-five per cent UK majority. No non-democratic or dictatorial alternative is yet presenting itself. Yet it should be more clearly recognised that what’s happening is an odd sort of dictatorial solution: a power-system imposed by absence. Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and other peripheral opinion (e.g. the Isle of Man) are bound to react, but with no real option except one or other version of actual nationalism. In that sense, the latter turns out to be founded less on swelling separatist tides than on the hopeless breakdown of the centre, Westminster Britishness.
Straightforward political reform, like proportional representation and federalism, has been put off too long. And today no time is left. That is, no time for anything but panic and hasty makeshifts, manifested in the notion of a gambling-table deal between Deep-South Toryism and ‘civic’ Liberal Democracy, to keep catastrophe at bay. This is break-up, nor are ye out of it. New Labour, 1997-2010, was the last chance saloon, and towards the end of it six-gun Brown couldn’t even draw his shooter. Today we find him retired, but still leaning on the old bar without so much as a decent wise-crack to amuse the remaining soaks and newshounds. Out on Main Street, the contest is on for a British equivalent to Australia’s premier Kevin Rudd.
Couldn’t Labourism vote in another less Party-bound leader, and set up a different bar-room deal with Lib-Dems and the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists on all-round constitutional change — in effect, move towards some kind of confederal replacement for the United Kingdom? Possibly — but how many years could it take? The Britannic ancièn regime is founded on the unthinkability of stuff like that. So it will have to emerge in fits and starts like those we’re going through — over the wreckage of Gordon Brown’s Britishness and David Cameron’s smart new ways to keep the old Union going.
The OpenDemocracy website and like-minded organs have been arguing in the general direction of confederalism for decades already, preaching to the largely unconverted. Now suddenly everybody has experienced a five-minute conversion — forced on them by the simple failure and incapacity of the traditional regime. The question has turned from whether or not to be ‘radical’, into just which version of radicalism will best fit the new times. Against the grain of Britishness and most of the secular odds it imposed, a stalled evolutionism has ended by setting the stage for political revolution.
Conscious of approaching doom, Cameron’s first move as Premier was to Scotland, where he commiserated with that country’s Conservatives on their single constituency victory, and held awkward talks with Liberal Democrats and Nationalists. It was as if Rudd had rushed to Perth immediately on assuming office in Canberra, and warned West Australians against relapse into 1930s separatism. Everyone is aware that the ruling Scottish Nationalists want a referendum on independence, and an end to the United Kingdom. He has repeatedly stated that he doesn’t want to go down in history as the last Prime Minister of Great Britain. But he also insists on a regime of ‘respect’ for the devolved governments.
To mean anything, ‘respect’ entails equality, or the pretence thereof. But there can of course be no such equality between Britain and its ‘component’ parts. Unequalness is written into any union between an 85 per cent majority and assorted minorities with varying ethnic, linguistic and societal natures and ambitions. Standard-issue international relations are founded upon formal respect among such unequal entities — which of course entails the common ground of independence, recognition and statehood.
In the British case, such mutuality is inconceivable in the absence of an English ‘component’. Regrettably, the Conservative-Lib-Dem regime is based mainly upon street-walker conservatism – the new vendor on the block, wearing a new-new brand to reassure everyone the essence of the ancient statehood is safe, with a bit of good will. Some minor reforms are suggested, like Australian-style Alternative Vote, an elected Second Chamber, and enhanced ‘local government’ to divert popular energies and attention. The ship was badly holed, admittedly, after 13 years of ‘New Labour’ mediocrity and Gordon Brown’s stalemate captaincy of 2008-2010. However, sales staff can still argue that it’s not yet doomed — provided that the new Cameron-Clegg administration shows itself to be one of adequate travelling repairs and replacement, guaranteed to restore seaworthiness without English nationalism.
The question is complicated by the odd location of English identity in the wider story of world nationalism. In her Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (1992), Liah Greenfeld insisted that England had been the prime mover in the formation of nationalist modernity. The original ‘-ism’ arose as a series of responses to English expansion and overseas threats, from both France and (later) trans-oceanic colonialism and empire. However, the originator of the process could never itself become simply another episode in its history. It was destined to remain the ‘first-born’ or model, a first ‘road’ unable to exemplify all the characteristics of the routes that came to compose ‘modernity’ over the 18th to the 20th Centuries. Primordiality in that sense was a fate that would last into successive presents, and could probably only have been effaced by military defeat and occupation — followed by more ‘typical’ rebirth and identification.
Liberation from Pomland
I returned quite recently from some years in Melbourne, and, oddly enough, the Cameron-Clegg programme may be more comprehensible from the Antipodean angle: what the ‘Antipathies’ have got round to perceiving is, approximately but rightly, the dying complex of attitudes identified in Australia as ‘Pom’ or ‘Pommy’. That is, ‘English’ not in the typically modern sense of ethnicity, language or genetic origins but in that of superiority, the inheritable (and probably eternal) distance of improved customs, outlook and exportability.
This was an ideology naturally borne and transmitted by United Kingdom Empire and population transfer, over more than two centuries. Though comparable to other exports by competing powers like Spain, France, the Netherlands and Portugal, one need only list these to see an important difference. The English version has lasted much longer, without the defeats and other set-backs that were to affect its North-Atlantic neighbours. ‘Anglo-Britishness’ (as it might be more accurately titled) has survived remarkably intact, and since World War II even been reinforced by a curious ‘special relationship’ with the ascendant power of the United States. The Cold War refrigerator preserved it until the 1990s, and finally a ‘New Labour’ movement has carried it forward into another century.
Australians are familiar from recent experience with dubious right-of-centre Coalitions. John Howard and the Liberal Party accomplished the trick over eleven years, via their alliance with the National Party (1996-2007). Yet that endured so long only because of a crucial factor that no longer applies, even in Great Britain. Wonderland characters like Cameron and Clegg may want it to be there at the end of Alice’s fall; actually (as I suggested earlier) it has become another bit of Dodo nonsense. I refer to the mystique of capitalist growth-fetish known as ‘Neo-Liberalism’, the supposedly permanent exorcism from history of left-wing philosophies like socialism and equality.
Howardite Liberalism flourished near the crest of the Neo-Liberal wave, in the ’90s of last century. But Cameron-Cleggism has arrived far too late, and can only scrabble along in the ebbing tide. The only reason they aren’t already washed into oblivion lies in the miserable oppositions they face: exhausted forms of post-Labour/Labour that spend decades over-ingratiating themselves into a supposed realism of pre-Crisis capitalist expansion. This is how the present battle of zombies was generated, claiming life-in-death in the name of one or other has-been creed.
A measure of nausea is surely in order here. England is failing to get its act together; but the resultant after-life of Britishness means all archipelago inhabitants are being sucked back into the graveyard, and (in effect) ordered to remain there. The peripheral populations mentioned above need the ‘autonomy’ (I would prefer to say, ‘independence’) to think differently, come to diverse conclusions, and invent a future going beyond the corsets of ‘devolution’.
Devolution was a recipe for forestalling and taming emergent political expression, by simultaneously conserving and re-imagining British-state traditions and culture. What it brought in the end was the present stalemate and incapacity. We’re supposed to stay ‘British’, and thus go on sparing the English majority from undue self-appraisal and renewal. The basic instinct is that under Westminster ‘democracy’ could itself accomplish rebirth without the painful parturition of reforged national identity and self-discovery. ‘Britain’ has by self-definition stood above ‘this sort of thing’: it inherits ‘bigger-than’ by transmitted ectoplasmic continuity, the underlying spirit of imperial outreach and its successor, North-Atlantic Special Relationism. We simply cannot break down into ‘little’ England, Scotland (and so forth) because the great-societal DNA rules it out: ‘globalisation’ has been turned into another form of such long-matured aspirations and delusions. Brit-chaps have to be dispensed from such backwardness (that is, from demeaning connection to the origin of homo sapiens diversity and inescapable peculiarity).
The customs of Pom-land are deeply entrenched, and the Cameron-Clegg regime will try to revive them with the famous strategy from Count Lampedusa’s extended-family novel Il Gattopardo (The Leopard), 1958: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”. The true Sicily will never change — although its leopards and lions may have gone, to be replaced by jackals and hyenas, who nonetheless think of themselves as the salt of the earth. An earlier Labour Premier, Harold Wilson, once declared that Britain had to remain great or else be…’nothing‘.
Cautious electoral reforms will probably be undertaken to make the system seem ‘fairer’ — an Australian Alternative Vote is more likely than outright all-round proportional representation. As for a Rudd-equivalent, the Labour Party will be hard at work for some time trying to find one. Bizarrely enough, two of the announced contenders are the brothers David and Edward Miliband, sons of the late Ralph Miliband, the author of Parliamentary Socialism: a Study of the Politics of Labour (1961). This was a corrosive and unsparing analysis of the Labour Party, arguing that it had turned into a vehicle for the dilution or even outright betrayal of socialism. Miliband was a premature revolutionary, he saw Parliamentarism as the formula that had changed the means into practically an end in itself: the corporate body of the Royal British state or ‘Establishment’, accepting both monarchy and the House of Lords as obligatory compromises along the road to power. Labourism had begun by colluding with Royal-British state-nationalism, and ended as another subject — even as its most enduring prop.
This is why I can’t avoid a pressure of the heart today, imagining how he might feel on seeing his sons competing in still another exhumation of the corpse. Will this never end? But of course the question in another sense suggests its own answer: it is only because the regime is ending that such spectacles are possible. How could the greatest of the later empires (and the closest to global authority) have gone quietly in the grey light of small-hour readjustment? The Ottomans and Austria-Hungary broke up into the Middle East and Balkan Europe, and the USSR into Russia and today’s Central Asia. The least (and last) that Great Britain can do is face re-configuration of its archipelago into viable entities like ‘Little England’ (and the others). Such readjustment is already under way, and speeding up — and the surfacing of assorted nostalgics and romantic left-overs from the great story is a symptom of progress, unlikely to achieve more than moments of wallowing and regret.
Yet the problem of post-British readjustment is not in fact too daunting, by comparison with those others. One of its odd features is relative modernity: it rests in practice upon a political accord of the early 18th Century, not a prehistoric popular fusion or conquest. Great Britain’s occupation of Ireland was certainly a specimen of the latter; but that was of course largely resolved in the 1920s, to leave behind only the somewhat distinct question of a partitioned, mainly Protestant Northern Ireland. The English conquest of Wales was also a ‘typical’ metropolitan takeover, or subjugation.
Nonetheless, the backbone of the United Kingdom has become the accord with the largest British-Isles minority, the Scots. And there was nothing typical about that. It was an early-modern political treaty between parliaments, confirming a joint monarchy and the prospective common endeavour of overseas expansion: the empire of the 18th to the 20th Century. Revocation of such an agreement had been impossible within the former Westminster system, based on 1707’s fusion of representative bodies; but of course this was replaced by the New Labour government’s devolution of parliaments after 1998.
These reforms didn’t shift the foundation of ‘sovereignty’. They were designed to forestall any such change, after the rise of peripheral nationalisms during the last third of the 20th Century. But such a reaffirmation of centrality could work only by acknowledging the emergent ground-plan. This was for a different kind of union, or association, among the various nations of ‘these islands’, naturally including England. Scale is secondary for such designs; but it was not allowed to appear so for a second by the unbending protagonists of ‘Britishness’. To the latter, scale remains all: the standing of the UK first and foremost, as a world player rather than a ‘nothing’; and after that (by implication) stress upon sufficient internal cohesion and assent, the social support-structure sustained by post-1707 over the mainland and as much as possible in post-1922 Ireland.
What such bombast both manifests and conceals is essentially the quandary of English national identity: compensation for occlusion by over-emphasis upon the most available ‘imagined community’ of the past, and dread of ‘little England’. Though exhibited in extreme ideological forms by the British National Party (BNP) and the anti-European United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), the emotional attitudes are widespread and comprehensible. Britishness was a strong drug, unavoidably fostered by many aspects of both the educational system and popular media culture, and also by today’s weird combination of pro- and anti-Americanism. Resentment of the Afghanistan involvement (for example) has become very widespread; but what Gordon Brown (and now his successors) count on is equally common acknowledgement of the special relationship, supposed to entail support of whatever they deem deeply significant.
What we find now is that servitude is still preferred by the political ruling class to contraction: the dwindling echo of Greatness appeals more than any sobering admission of ordinary nationhood, and redefinition of the accompanying collective identity. Iraq didn’t finish off the post-Great neurosis — will Afghanistan be more effective? Elections are due in Scotland and Wales in 2011, and for Alex Salmond’s SNP government this is an opportunity to attempt a referendum on independence. Recent poll surveys indicate a majority still clinging to the Union. However, the British parties will do all in their power to stop a referendum happening. They know that a principle is at stake — the right of the smaller nations to decide on their future… and of course, behind that, the spectre of ‘Little England’ coming, at last, to claim its separate (shrunken) future as well.
It can be argued that Scotland, Wales and the North of Ireland have a duty to assert nationhood, not only for their own sake but for that of the English majority and (by close implication) that of the post-United Kingdom. No comprehensible new deal will be possible without the all-round re-formation of nationality politics. And Scotland is the key to this shift.
David Cameron personally embodies deep-south Englishness, compelled to cover his restoration of Ukanian structures with an improbable alliance. Since Labourism has withdrawn from the scene, it can only be with what’s left, the Liberal-Democratic evocation of progressive Britannitude. The ‘Con-Dem’ coalition represents ‘Not with a bang but a whimper’, indeed, for what in Australia continues to be labelled the ‘Anglo-Celtic’ heritage. It is interesting to speculate on what difference the termination of this somewhat unnatural birthright could make. Though damaged, it weathered the 1920s loss of one part of Ireland. Is Anglo-Celticism long for this world; and what changes might its final collapse bring? Has Alice new, better discoveries to make down in the altered Wonderland where she’s bound to end up?
Cameron’s London coalition of ‘Con-Dems’ has given rise to a whole discourse of confidence-trickery and condemnation, the instinctive speech of zombieland. Aggravated by the analogy with ‘condoms’, it already makes it difficult to spell out the formula for post-2010 development in the post-United Kingdom. This can only be in the direction of confederation, and has been neatly expressed by Scottish commentator Gerry Hassan in a recent instalment of the OpenDemocracy web-site 10 May:
“The familiar templates and landscape of the British political system is cracking and falling apart; the world of … a two party adversarial system is no longer how our politics are shaped. In the last decade alone, the Conservative/Labour hold on our political system has vastly weakened and retreated, to a degree as yet not understood by the Westminster village. The 2010 election is further evidence of this, even if it is true the Lib Dems did not quite live up to the hype! Then there is also the evidence of the ‘four nations’ of the disunited kingdom, a state in the process of losing its over-arching United Kingdom politics, as we witness the emergence of four very different party systems across the UK”.
This is why some confederal solution is becoming inevitable. Cameron’s attempt to restore British unity is possible only via abandonment of two-party adversarial politics. Yet two-partyism was essential to the way the system worked — periods of consensus or ‘National’ government had always been temporary expedients intended to bring back normality. However, the 2010 crisis now looks like becoming permanent. The end of New Labour and the limits of Cameronian New Conservatism may at last usher in electoral and constitutional reform, going beyond the Alternative Vote. Unable to choose constitutional reform, the United Kingdom fallen backwards into it — and in this fall, one thing is bound to lead to another, with a more defined or ‘little’ England as one of the results. An Australian-style Federal answer is unlikely: the units are too unequal, and too socially distinct — as Labour’s survival in Scotland, alongside nationalism, has vividly demonstrated.
The new regime ‘Queen’s Speech’ has been broadcast while these last paragraphs were composed. This is the ritual whereby Her Majesty reads out the list of policy proposals given her by the Prime Minister she recently confirmed in office. The new forecast is for possible reforms of the voting system, most likely in two years time (once ‘thoroughly debated’ etc.). Given the sloth of Commons procedures, plus the opposition of many Conservatives to any change whatever, all one can say is that an ‘Australian’ order might then arise in the homeland. Alternative Vote could be chosen as a safer alternative to proportional representation, conserving two-partyism in a more presentable fashion and allowing a fairer system for any Second Chamber replacing the House of Lords.
But one may reasonably doubt whether it will be in time. In a world where at least 2,500 potential nationalities are waiting to stake their claim to full nationhood, it appears unlikely that the populations of Wales and Scotland will wait patiently for future reassignment. At this moment, 2011 looks the most likely date for serious commencement of the Scottish independence initiative, very likely to be followed by that of Wales. If the existing Westminster coalition government endures, and whether or not its half-hearted constitutional reforms reach the statute book, the breaking-up (or reconstitution) process will then take its course.