Talking about the Elephant in the Room: The British State


By Gerry Hassan, The Scotsman, January 12th 2012

‘The Great Debate’ is away to begin. More than a year and a half of sound and fury and already tanks and troops are being mobilised and on maneouvres on both sides.

There is one massive elephant in the room which nearly always goes unstated and unacknowledged, namely, the reality of the British state. For different reasons, both pro-independence and anti-independence supporters refuse to engage with the complexities and challenges of this.

Pro-independence supporters do this continuously. Irvine Welsh in a piece this week in ‘Bella Caledonia’ mixing personal and political reflections, admitted, as many of us have that, ‘I grew up saturated in something I assumed to be Britishness and I loved it’, ranging from ‘Steptoe and Son’ to ‘The Likely Lads’ and ‘Play for Today’.

This was a cultural renaissance compared to BBC Scotland Hogmanay specials. Welsh confesses that he became increasingly irritated by the juxtaposition of Britishness as another term of Englishness, and their interchangeability to today.

As he reaches for his conclusion, Welsh writes off the UK, stating, ‘As an imperialist, class-based state, the UK is poorly equipped to meet the divergent needs of its constituent nations’.

This is the commonsense assumption of modern Scottish nationalism. The Radical Independence Conference in all its many gatherings and deliberations, for example, started from the assumption that the British state is the problem, in decline and cannot be reformed. Nicola Sturgeon in her important speech on independence last month stated, ‘the UK’s ability to reinvent itself is spent’.

This perspective sees the British state as already dead and moribund, killed off by many factors: the end of Empire, decline of religion, economic decline, Thatcherism, and maybe for Irvine Welsh, the important subject of the demise of the British soap on TV.

What this doesn’t concede is the adaptability and ingenuity of the British state for all its undoubted problems. We can leave aside the hype and froth about the Jubilee and Olympics, but it is worth noting that the ‘Team GB’ which took part in the games, as well as including members from Northern Ireland (who could choose between GB and Ireland), also had participants from the Isle of Man and Channel Isles. This made it a Team UK and Beyond UK.

This tells us something about the UK. For one there is no legal definition of what it is, what constitutes it and what doesn’t, and how it can and cannot do things. This gives the UK in its characteristics and boundaries, an almost porous, fluid sense of itself which has allowed the country to adapt to significant waves of immigration through the ages.

A more central point about the flexibility of the UK is the ease with which Scotland got its Parliament when we eventually decisively voted for it. This is why we are having an independence referendum which all the main parties to agree is legal and binding, unlike the situation in Catalonia and the Basque Country.

Pro-union forces also have a problem. They don’t deal with the reality of problems of British government and the state. In Scotland, Alistair Darling and company are still trying to sell a vision of 1945-75 union Britain, as if it were a nirvana and we can just turn the clock back.

Their Britain is in one part of their heads, the Britain of the post-war society, just before the 1976 IMF crisis, when the Labour Government abandoned that consensus, instituted massive public spending cuts, and in the words of then Prime Minister James Callaghan said ‘the party’s over’ and embraced monetarism, thus beginning the age of Thatcherism before Thatcher’s 1979 election victory.

Thirty years of post-war Labour Goverrnment amounting to nine popular mandates have not reduced inequality, challenged ‘the Conservative nation’, the British establishment, or the unbalanced nature of economic and political power in London and the South East.

A progressive British social democracy did over the post-war era change things for the better, but it itself was transformed by its engagement with the institutions of the British state, reaching its apotheosis with Blair’s political cross-dressing. There is however a long-story to that nadir, with the British state acquiring Chequers and using it from 1921 as the official residence of the Prime Minister,. This was to allow the then emerging Labour leadership to not feel out of sorts when in government compared to the Tory grandee class and thus incorporate them in the British establishment.

British government and the state are in significant crisis. From the micro-dramas where it cant even properly investigate Andrew Mitchell’s ‘Plebgate’ properly, to the more serious corrosion of the traditions of the British civil service, and corporatisation of large parts of public life.

Tnen there are the watershed changes. This is the week where the British welfare state became one which is not only mean and parsimonious, but even more judgemental and intent on punishing large sections of the British populace. Hundreds of thousands of disabled people are away to lose out and a whole social cleansing is away to take place in affluent cities because of the decisions of the Westminster class.

It is not surprising then that this week saw the UK become according to the UN, the most unequal country in the entire West, a place where the poorest 40% of citizens only own 14.6% of national wealth, lower than any other Western country, and only marginally better than Putin’s plutocratic Russia. That’s the sort of company the modern day UK keeps!

These two developments are not just down to the actions of the current Cameron Government, they are a product of long-term political and economic factors, from the actions of successive Labour and Tory administrations, to the power of the City and market fundamentalism.

This is a challenge for all our political debate. Pro-independence forces cannot just imagine as Welsh and Sturgeon did that Britain is dead or beyond reinvention and that we can seamlessly move on.

It is both more serious and complex than that. But perhaps the biggest contribution would be if pro-union forces could, instead of living in a land of make believe, fantasyland Britain, deal with the realities of a land increasingly turning its back on the poor, those in need, and people struggling to keep their heads above water, and instead lauding the rich, the self-promoting and self-obsessed.

That after all is the Britain that Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair and Alistair Darling built in their years in office. Most Scots don’t want to live in it. We want something better but that involves engaging with the elephant in the room that is the British state.

Courtesy of Gerry Hassan –