Confidence in the UK’s future at home and abroad is undoubtedly at an all-time low – but how did we get here? Two Scottish academics have spent years uncovering the forces which have taken us to this point. This week, they reveal the results of their research to our Writer at Large
HOW did Britain get into this state? Why is a nation which was once the most powerful on Earth falling apart? Two respected Scottish academics have been worrying away at those questions since 2013 as the Scottish independence referendum approached.
Come Brexit, their search for answers became more pressing. Why had nationalism taken hold in England and Scotland? What’s going on? Where will it lead?
Next week, Satnam Virdee, professor of sociology at Glasgow University, and Brendan McGeever, a Scottish sociologist at Birkbeck University, present their answers in a landmark new book, Britain In Fragments.
Ahead of publication, The Herald on Sunday sat down with the pair for an exclusive discussion about their findings.
Britain, they say, is being wrenched apart by historical forces which have been building for centuries.
Those factors are: the toxic legacy of empire and the racism inherent in colonialism; the rise of Thatcherism and neoliberal capitalism; the defeat of socialism and the coming of New Labour; and austerity and the political failure to tackle the inequality it created.
These ingredients combusted into two forms of nationalism: English and Scottish, one going towards Brexit, the other towards independence.
The same forces are now tearing the SNP apart – as the bitter leadership contest shows – just as Conservativism tore itself apart post-Brexit.
“Contemporary political machinations” don’t sufficiently explain why a nation that was once “one of the most stable, powerful states in history seems to be on the verge of breaking up”.
So the pair used “an historical lens” to uncover “the processes cracking the durable structures that prevailed within Britain”.
The roots of the answer lie in the late 1700s, when there was an “insurgent revolutionary class” in Britain, culminating in the 1830s with the Chartists, an early working-class movement demanding political reform.
Amid the industrial revolution, a moment emerged when there “was a possibility that capitalism may not consolidate itself. That was the fear of the ruling elites”.
Both Liberals and Conservatives set out to “integrate the ‘respectable working class’ – male and skilled – into the British state to prevent the working class combining against other classes”.
Reforms extended voting rights to “part of the working class deemed respectable”. But by the late 1800s, many men, and all women, remained unable to vote. Employment practices, education, health and housing all improved. Skilled craftsmen were made to feel part and parcel of the nation. Consequently, they were “much less militant … much more interested in securing their position and occupational standing”.
THESE reforms “tamed” the working class. Psychologically, however, the key to bringing the nation together across the classes was empire. Britain reached “peak” empire at the same time reforms occurred, with the nation at the pinnacle of “global capitalism”.
The profits of empire “appropriated from the colonies” were “redeployed” to “integrate” this newly-tamed working class. There was money to be made from empire for ordinary people. However, as Virdee and McGeever say: “Empire worked through racism.” It was made clear to British workers that “they were of more value and moral worth” than other imperial “subjects”.
However, imperial racism wasn’t strictly about colour. The Irish and Jews were also “racialised”. The “integration” of the working class – the taming of the working class – “was mediated through empire and race”.
Britain’s elites were effectively saying to the working class: “We’re bringing you into our ruling house.” In return, workers psychologically “feel they belong to the British nation; they’ve an attachment to Britain”. So threats of rebellion, which terrorised the ruling class after the French Revolution, were quashed. Clearly, however, millions of poor Victorian Britons remained at a “subsistence standard of living”.
THIS “racialising nationalism had a profound impact on working-class consciousness, its sense of belonging and politics, and we can feel that even today in 2023”. The pair call these Victorian reforms “the Democratic settlement”, adding: “What we’re seeing today is the beginning of the unravelling of that settlement.”
Come the early-20th century, the Labour Party appears. Labour seeks to expand rights and broaden the “Democratic Settlement”. However, the “tragedy” of Labour is that it’s “also stained with the legacy of empire and racism”. Labour’s first leaders like Keir Hardie were “authentically working class”, but by the 1920s strong “middle-class currents” were taking hold. It was an early form of “Blairism”, and Labour “entangles working-class upliftment with Britain’s imperial project”.
“That continues across the 20th century. Labour has a consensus with Conservatives on the nature of the British empire.”
The much-lauded 1945 Labour government which introduced the welfare state was committed to “maintaining Britain’s colonies”.
LABOUR believed that “empire was the indispensable cushion, the economic cornerstone, of the democratic settlement. The extraction and appropriation of economic resources from the colonies into Britain was part of the way [the state] secured the acquiescence of the British working class mediated through the Labour Party”.
So, the bottom line was: come 1945, stability within the British political union was fundamentally based on the financial dividend of “racialised empire”.
“The material upliftment of the working class was made possible through imperial conquest.”
Psychologically, “the working class saw themselves occupying a particular place in a hierarchical order”. In other words, the British working class could look down on those in the colonies.
Clearly, though, not all the working class “uncritically imbibed” notions of empire, race and hierarchy. It’s the “leadership” of the working class – the Labour Party – which “embraced empire and its accompanying racism” in this period.
Demonstrators take part in a TUC march in protest against the government’s austerity measures on October 20, 2012 in London, England. Thousands of people are taking part in the Trades Union Congress (TUC) organised
THE founding of the welfare state in 1945 was “the crescendo of the democratic settlement”. This was the period of Britain’s greatest unity. The Second World War also cemented this “togetherness”. Evidently, however, this wasn’t some “golden age”, as is often imagined. Beneath unity and growing prosperity, there was “uninterrupted racism” towards people of colour from the colonies.
However, “just as the finishing touches are put in place for this democratic settlement the ground beneath begins to shudder, key pillars start to break away, and empire is the first and most significant of those”.
“It’s difficult to comprehend how important empire was financially. Extraction of resources over three centuries was vital to the industrial revolution. It couldn’t have happened without that.”
Unquestionably, the improvement of life for British workers through empire was balanced by “catastrophe” for the colonised.
Loss of empire changed Britain forever. In 1945, “Britain was in charge of 700 million people. By 1965, that figure was five million. The scale of the defeat is an extraordinary collapse”. The loss of empire “destroyed” the notion that Britons had “the natural born right to rule the world … There’s a psychic and economic shock”.
Virdee and McGeever deliberately avoid the phrase “white supremacy” as Britain’s sense of “racial nationalism” was also turned on the Irish, Germans or Jews in this period.
Loss of empire “presents a problem for the British ruling class that to this day it’s failed to find an answer to: how does Britain maintain its standing, and the uninterrupted accumulation of capital, to provide the kind of psychic, and social, security for its domestic working class to maintain social order at home?”
Ironically, joining the European Union was an attempt to do just that.
AS empire faded, “state racism against those of Caribbean and Asian descent” intensified, culminating in the rhetoric of Enoch Powell and the National Front on the streets in the 1970s. Simultaneously, there was a war against trade unions which led to Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. She ushered in neoliberalism: free market capitalism typified by privatisation, deregulation, globalisation, reduced public spending, welfare restrictions, and “trickle-down” economics.
So, 1979 becomes one of the most crucial moments in Britain’s fragmentation.
Thatcherism “crushed” the progressive movements of the 1960s and 70s. Her administration “crushed the politics of hope”. Unions, anti-racists, feminists, and gay rights campaigners had coalesced prior to Thatcher, offering an alternative vision for Britain. Thatcherism squashed those voices, causing the “fundamental defeat of class” as a political vehicle.
“We’ve been living through the consequences of that defeat ever since.” Working-class communities were gutted, and towns like Ravenscraig ruined. The Labour Party was poleaxed.
MONEY and power – “class and rising household income inequalities” – are key to understanding Britain’s fragmentation. Fundamentally, inequality raises the question: why should people feel attached to Britain if Britain does nothing for them?
Today, we see the consequences of 40 years of uninterrupted neoliberalism, with millennials the first generation worse off than previous generations. Their frustrations intensify as they are often highly educated but in dead-end, precarious jobs. A fairer society isn’t utopian in a country as rich as Britain, Virdee and McGeever say, despite our economic decline. “What’s happened in the last 40 years is the working class has disproportionately borne the brunt of the restructuring of [British society] since neoliberalism unfolded.”
“Tragically”, they say, Tony Blair “consolidated and deepened” neoliberalism, despite window dressing through social democratic policies aimed at reducing child poverty, or introducing the minimum wage. “This is the way to make sense of the fragmentation of the here and now, of Brexit and Scottish independence, of the sense many people have that things are falling apart.”
Essentially, Thatcherism was an acid bath for British unity. Blair’s New Labour simply tipped more acid into the bath. The pair note that “there’s no such thing as society” – one of Thatcher’s most infamous quotes. Thatcherism collapsed any “sense of community”, and carpet-bombed “the trenches in a capitalist society that protected working-class people”.
Trade unionists, anti-racists and other equality campaigners were demonised. “Politically correct” became an insult, foreshadowing today’s “war on woke2.
All the uplifting improvements for the working class which proceeded Thatcherism were “thrown into reverse
… What she doesn’t realise is what this does to wider feelings about Britishness and attachment to the ‘British idea’, which is what we’re living through now: the unravelling of that”.
BLAIR took power amid a “broken, defeated working class”. Rather than rebuild the working class, Blair chose to “defeat it further”. Blairism “accepted and deepened the neoliberal assault begun by Thatcherism”. The pair argue Blair effectively “erased the working class. The working class still exists, but the politics of class are erased”. Trade unions retreated, and are only now recovering amid strikes and the cost-of-living crisis.
Next comes the 2008 crash. While austerity is “chiefly associated” with the Conservative-LibDem government, Labour also played a “role”. In the 2010 election, Labour offered austerity-lite, with cuts to pensions, public-sector pay and social welfare.
Conservatives responded with full-blooded austerity. “Labour acquiesced with this project. Far from offering a robust challenge to these historic attacks on working-class livelihoods, Labour was an active participant … Any illusions about [Labour] remaining a vehicle for collective working-class upliftment were extinguished.”
Former PM Tony Blair
AUSTERITY was the “moment that the undoing of the Democratic Settlement reaches its culmination”. Labour’s retreat set the stage for Brexit and Scottish independence.
“In England, it leaves a space within the working class that’s seized by the hard right. Whereas in Scotland the loosening of attachment between nation and class gives rise to the mass appeal of independence, with the SNP moving into the space vacated by Labour.”
This “breakdown of legitimacy” leads to “deepening fragmentation”. Brexit became “an extraordinary carnival of racialised hostility to migration”. The only parties ready to fill the space vacated by Labour were Ukip in England and the SNP in Scotland. “Nationalism was able to have the field clear for itself.”
Brexit and Scottish nationalism are “visceral examples of real grievances, the lived experience of downward mobility. Both are different ways of responding to that. One is the Ukip response and the Brexit campaign saying ‘your working-class pain is the consequence of migrant labour undercutting you, making your lives and streets unsafe’.
Scottish independence says the downward mobility you’re experiencing is because Westminster is incapable of delivering social democracy anymore and securing the basic tenets of human flourishing”.
Counterintuitively, Scottish independence seeks to “restore Britishness, to hang on to the democratic settlement”. It can therefore be seen as a “movement for hope”. Neither wants to further “faux leftists accounts which condemn the working class as racist” because of Brexit.
“That doesn’t address the real injuries of class that have been neglected too long. The tragedy is the far right [in England] have provided a narrative that offers a way of understanding those injuries.”
Brexit represented a genuine “cry for help”.
Both are “deeply sceptical about the capacity for nationalism of any sort to produce the kind of human flourishing” Britain needs to arrest fragmentation. “Nationalism has become the avatar through which injuries of class are expressed. There’s no mechanism to articulate the concerns of class. Nationalism has filled that vacuum in Scotland and England.”
SO, is there any alternative to Britain’s eventually disintegration? The pair believe “hope lies in woke”. The same forces which took hold in the 1960s and early 1970s are now coalescing again. The left is reasserting itself through ongoing strikes by trade unions, and there are mass protest movements like Black Lives Matter, MeToo and the LGBT community.
“The tragedy” is that there is currently “no vehicle” for these disparate groups to unite politically and challenge a status quo that’s breaking Britain. “We could have turned a different corner in the 70s and 80s and gone towards a more progressive pathway.”
Young people are increasingly “at ease with difference”. Data shows 10% of relationships are “mixed” in terms of colour. The white population is “bifurcated” – split – when it comes to issues of race, migration, gender and identity. In urban areas especially there is “an indifference to difference”. White collar workers – from junior doctors to teachers – are increasingly finding themselves “proletarianised” as their living standards drop and they become more militant. Britain now has “an enlarged working class”, comprising swathes of what was once the middle class. These factors could lead to a “reawakening of 21st-century socialist politics”.
The pair say that “the children and grandchildren of the defeated working class are beginning to organise themselves”. Many trade union demonstrations of late have included significant numbers who “20 years ago would have been construed as middle class, but they certainly don’t lead middle-class lives anymore”.
Corbynism offered a left-wing alternative to neoliberalism but was “scuppered” by Labour MPs. Keir Starmer’s Labour simply offers “business as usual” and a continuation of neoliberal policies which fail the poor and further Britain’s disintegration. That could present an “opportunity” for the far right. In France, Marine Le Pen made most ground in areas where the Communist Party was once strongest. However, Britain has seen elements of the far right incorporated into the Conservative Party through Brexit and the anti-refugee rhetoric of Suella Braverman. So, “potential for growth” for the far right is “minimal”, although it will remain “a boil” on the body politic.
IF neoliberalism is the great acid bath corroding everything it touches, then it’s also having a disintegrating effect on Scottish nationalism. The SNP “has run its course to some extent. Its whole rationale was to position itself on the terrain of old Labour, to be left of Westminster. “In practice, it’s embraced the tenets of neoliberalism. We need only walk through the streets of Glasgow to look at how much working-class areas have suffered over the last 16 years.
“There’s a variance between the theoretical positioning of the SNP as centre left and what it’s doing in practice slightly less virulently than Westminster. People are now beginning to see through that, and that’s caused the crisis within the SNP. It’s been called out, and called out in part by the strikes that are happening under SNP governance. We’re seeing a dislocation between class and the SNP which had briefly converged in the run-up to the referendum.”
Sharp falls in SNP membership may be “the working class voting with their feet”. Nicola Sturgeon held the “ship steady”, but if the socially and financially conservative Kate Forbes took power “a significant portion of SNP membership could move back to Scottish Labour”.
Unless we want social and political fragmentation to continue, we need to “stretch the parameters of debate” politically. The bottom line for Virdee and McGeever is that there are more answers available than neoliberalism. It doesn’t need to be “democratic socialism”. Even the social democracy of Scandinavia “would represent a marked improvement in the fortunes of the working class” by creating a less unequal society. That may be the only hope of holding Britain together.