Michael Gardiner is Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at The University of Warwick and author of fiction and non-fiction, including short-story collective Escalator (2006) and critical work At the Edge of Empire: The Life of Thomas B. Glover (2008).
Self-determination campaigns will find easy pickings in post-2008 austerity policies and the long embrace of neoliberalism by the Labour Party since the early ’90s. Too easy, in a way, because there is another question here which is as old as Britain itself. This question’s modern and most successfully total expression comes in the 1940s settlement we still often see as a natural inheritance to be preserved, the tremendously perishable 1942 form of the welfare state. We are still living this moment, it has an emotional appeal which only partially still holds, and it is the most ‘sticky’ of the claims to British achievement. This is a moment which we should start to historicise.
It’s easy to feel anti-social complaining about British services. It’s also important to remember, though, that the British Union was has never been defined in terms of the participation of the people, but just the opposite, as the defence against popular sovereignty understood not formally but as a principle of timeless accretion and based on the adaptation of always already existing interests. If the British nationalism in today’s press and broadcast media seems transparent, it is because Britain is less a nation than a rationalisation of credit. In is governmental form it first arises from the time of the import of the Anglo-Dutch financial system after 1688, its guarantee in perpetuity by the Hanoverian crown, and central banks which support it from the 1690s. As Daniel Defoe was describing in 1706, its raison d’état is as an investment entity, which depended on avoiding, rather than promoting, shared action.
After the financial eighteenth century and after dealing with tricky rebels, John Locke’s and Daniel Defoe’s non-experiential citizenship as property would be reinvented as nature itself from the 1790s by Romantics reacting to the French Revolution, and would then be exported into empire as the timeless inheritance. But it took on its most durable form with the modernisation of the 1920s and ’30s with which it has to adapt parliamentary sovereignty to a straitened empire, in cultural forms which took in the 1920s and ’30s in figures including J.M. Keynes (economics), John Reith (broadcast), and F.R. Leavis (literature). In the modernising era fiat currency took much the place gold has during high empire as a unifying principle, official and examined models of civility took the place of inheritance, and the state broadcaster reached every home with its Commonwealth unionist message.
The impetus for the latest, modernising defence of Britain was a grave, and yet familiar, defence in the fact of a terrifying Europe. Avoiding the European excesses of fascism, Britain was able to create something much more permanent. So George Orwell described how fascism would be laughable to the Brits while outlining a totalised vision of the late 1940s, Karl Polanyi spoke of a Great Transformation linking the classic liberalism of anti-Napoleonic times to the era of modern consensus, and Antonio Negri described how Keynesian economics identified fascism as primitive and ineffective compared to a more resilient and totalising force for continuity. The welfare state delivered great material benefits, but only at the cost of more effectively shielding the state from popular participation.
This modernised constitutional conservatism found its moment in War Keynesianism, with the state’s involvement in massive ‘public’ investment, understood as the defence of an inherited and unwritten way of life from European systematic political thought (the 1940s connoting 1790s invasion fears). This political totality, rather than using overt or identifiable coercion, demanded perpetual self-creation, as the personal itself became the new ground of expropriation. Whole lives were defined in terms of the state’s franchise, and progressiveness can now only be described as a desire for British social justice.
The early welfare state’s assumption of perpetual improvement was both modern and familiar, and originated with eighteenth-century whigs for whom inheritance was always the most progressive form. The new wartime consensus updated and strengthened the old whig, monetary Union, by redefining the person as both labourer and consumer, granting immediate material benefit but giving away the possibility of challenge of the ideal time of the unwritten continuant constitution, modernising Britain’s refusal of present-tense action. With welfare consensus, modernised state-capitalism became a moral act which was harder than ever to question. An instinctual way of life was perpetually ‘preserved’ (that is, created), and the ideological springboard of defence and privation would line up the entire British press, and state TV, behind it. Its conservative defence of unwritten sovereignty, though, is its downfall as well as its strength.
In the long cycle which runs from the 1940s to the 2000s, that is, parliamentary sovereignty as the exclusion of decision-making was effectively adaptefd and retained. We were still living in an idealised time, and still had to disregard any experience contradicting it. Thus the odd doubled experience of the public under British state-capitalism, and its almost seamless conversion to neoliberalism – and the mileage on the British left of the 1940s to ’70s era as an ideal return. Post-war Britain, land of free milk and honey, is the Golden Country, defended by white cliffs, flotillas, and intuitive pluck, land of a shared public which is never vulgarly questioned, of an unplaced memory of an ideal future to be remade.
The Golden Country is the country of Orwell’s party members, but it is also the country of the anti-Jacobin Whigs and Romantics who presided over the creation of British liberal conservatism, honing an inherited ‘way of life’ in order to keep it away from popular determination. As a ‘long cycle’ it is bracketed by two moments of ‘war Keynesianism’ – one in 1940-42 as the state becomes enough of a player to reinvent citizenship, the other in 2008 when Alasdair Darling – later leader of the No campaign – ordered the renewal of Trident as a matter of public investment. The fact that Trident is a useless 70-year-old technology just underlines the problem: in the Golden Country, there is no creation, only perpetual reinvention. Like all cycles, though, it is prone to attrition and corruption.
So in the brief post-2008 moment when it still seemed oddly, uncannily, possible to present collapse as part of a normal cycle, the 1940s phrase ‘austerity’ was redrafted in a nostalgic and retro sense to suggest pulling together under straitened circumstances and under parliamentary sovereignty. Britain is only ever a perpetual reinvention of a credit phantom, but the post-1940 time frame is important: we often assume that Britain has been undergoing an unfortunate gullible turn since Thatcherism – but the British Union has always been made of and for capitalism., and it is most readily boosted by orderly violence. The post-1976 period certainly describes a reworking of the form of the state’s stake in markets, but is more an acceleration than a change of direction. Thatcherism is a rationalisation of sovereignty, as the state moves from manager to franchiser of managers, in what we now call neoliberalism, or what Colin Crouch has called ‘privatised Keynesianism’, in which we recreate ourselves as customers for services we are bound to keep describing as public, even as they serve an ever-narrower base.
But not only are we normally expected to behave as if the Golden Country is still creating an affective public in terms of common ownership, but also as if its modernisation in the sovereignty-hoarding British consensus is ‘ours’ to protect. Even as healthcare is reduced to surveillance and queuing, as universities move from education to social cleansing, and as the unemployed turn into a caste of unpaid workers, the 1942 state retains an extraordinary pull: Golden Country has slightly drifted off track, but its foundational ethical principle are sound.
The vested interests of British-left nostalgia will then always raise a nostalgic return to the Golden Country over a sovereignty challenge which threatens to fundamentally redefine the participants. The most obvious of course is the Ken Loach who has automatic wide exposure in British left blogs, and who will be parked in the Lifestyle pages of the Guardian for some time. The impulse towards equality of access is sound, the reversion to an older incarnation of parliamentary mischievous. for Golden Country nostalgia, the surveillant, managerial, and eventually privatised British welfare state remains the only possible mode of the commons: for the state left as much as for the Thatcherite right, There Is No Alternative. Of course, the opposite is true: to entrust ‘public’ services to the British state is to ensure their enclosure in ever more efficient forms. It is easy to overstate the ‘bravery’ needed for self-determination, when we already know the fate of ‘public services’ under progressive parliamentary sovereignty, which is ever more enclosure, ever narrowing access.
And this is not even primarily a Scottish problem, even though, for historical reasons, Scotland is fortunate enough to find itself the sovereignty trigger. Scotland happens to hold the constitutional lever which might help break up the totalising and global British imperium. This also means, though, that the point of the referendum is not just what is best ‘for us’, but is a wider question of democracy.
So it is not surprising that an extensive civil society relatively discrete from the state has made Scotland a location of post-British longing throughout the UK (as has been shown by Michael Keating and others). Scotland is in a position to understand that universal access to basic shared services is a staple of a sane society – but also that at the level of sovereignty that we can never arrive at this via a 70-year-old state-capitalism which preserves sovereignty in its inherited form.
There will always, of course, remain the nagging feeling that to question the NHS, ‘public education’, ‘public transport’, or whatever bureau is imputed to the people, is to be against equal access. It is not this simple, of course: this understanding of the public also returns us to a constitutional form based on debt and alienation. We might see that the public of the welfare state in fact struggles with equal access, and are easily managerialised, expropriated, and asset-stripped, in a way that we defend or modernise only at great cost. The present form of the welfare state has great emotional hooks, but may be reaching the end of its lifespan: there must be scope for refusal in the name of something more genuinely common.
It is not as simple, then, as saying that the NHS is ‘ours’ to defend. British public services are double-edged, and bolster an alienating sovereignty which protects itself in perpetuity and condemns the public to hollowing out and privatisation. We may as well protect ‘our’ financial services sector as revert to a defence of ‘our’ NHS. In other words, failing public services and failing sovereignty go together: as the long modernising cycle reaches its end, not only can we see that Westminster’s can only ever be a pale version of equal access, but that its main purpose it to prevent it. The Golden Country was once attractive and beneficial, at costs we couldn’t see. It is now an empire over which the sun is setting.
Author and Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies