Gerry Hassan: Current state of Britain is elephant in the room

THE Great Debate has begun, and already tanks and troops are being mobilised on both sides.

There is an elephant in the room which nearly always goes 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. In a piece this week for the Bella Caledonia website, Irvine Welsh, 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.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

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 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, killed off by the end of Empire, decline of religion, economic decline, Thatcherism, and, maybe for Irvine Welsh, 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 that all the main parties 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 co 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.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Their Britain is in one part in 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 embraced monetarism, thus beginning the age of Thatcherism.

Thirty years of post-war Labour government 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 with the Tory grandee class, and thus incorporate them in the British establishment.

British government and the state are in crisis. From the micro-dramas where it can’t even properly investigate Andrew Mitchell’s “Plebgate” properly, to the more serious corrosion of the traditions of the civil service, and corporatisation of large parts of public life.

Then there are the watershed changes. This is the week where the welfare state became one which is not only mean and parsimonious, but even more judgmental and intent on punishing large sections of the British populace. Hundreds of thousands of disabled people are to lose out and a social cleansing is to take place in affluent cities because of 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 West, where the poorest 40 per cent of citizens own 14.6 per cent of national wealth, lower than any other Western country, and only marginally better than Putin’s Russia. 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 more complex than that. But perhaps the biggest contribution would be if pro-Union forces could, instead of living in a land of make believe, deal with the realities of a land increasingly turning its back on the poor and people struggling to keep their heads above water, and instead lauding the rich, the self-promoting and self-obsessed.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

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.