Gerry Hassan: Britain may not be worth repairing

Prime Minister David Cameron
Prime Minister David Cameron
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The UK’s political legacy and crises of establishment show it is a state in moral decline. Scots must be bold in choosing to help it or ditch it, writes Gerry Hassan

Today is the 70th anniversary of the final surrender of the last German forces at Stalingrad, the battle that militarily and psychologically dealt an irreversible blow to Hitler’s plans for world domination.

Last week, I was in Rome on holiday and went to commemorate the 69th anniversary of the British-American landings at Anzio, just south of the capital, which occurred a year and a half after Stalingrad.

This was the week of David Cameron’s big European intervention, and I experienced the sensation of being on the European continent and feeling the UK geo-politically move further away from Europe, or more accurately the European project.

Many years ago, Jonathan Raban had a similar experience when he decided to sail round the coast of Britain as the Falklands War erupted. As he reflected in his subsequent book, Coasting, he felt that the UK had slipped its moorings and set sail as a nation for the South Atlantic.

Britain has been at it since and it was a strange experience to watch Cameron’s speech live in Rome, and then to try to explain Britain’s continual Euro equivocations to incredulous Europeans.

The day before his speech, I had taken the one-hour ten-minute train journey to the coastal town of Anzio on the anniversary of the invasion. It is a small, respectable fishing port, and each year, like numerous places across the continent, it marks its part in the history of the Second World War. It does so, if this year is a guide, quietly, respectfully and with little pomp or pageantry.

My personal connection with Anzio is that my 88-year-old father-in-law Cyril Ilett, who was part of the British invasion forces, was badly injured that day.

I have known Cyril for 23 years and a more charming, understated and generous man it would be impossible to imagine. Despite his disability, Cyril worked all his life, brought up three children, follows politics and popular culture, and still has a curiosity about life and people, as well as an abiding passion for football, including an enduring faith in Brentford FC.

Cyril’s story is part of a wider, popular one of Britain; that we as a nation state stood up to Hitler, Nazism and its evil, and contributed to its defeat. And from the lessons of that “people’s war”, we vowed to create a decent, fairer society, which turned its back on the poverty and injustices of the past.

Now for all the sound and fury of Scotland’s debate, what it and Cameron’s European’s manoeuvring illustrate is that the popular account of Britain that was anchored in that wartime experience is no more. It is broken, over, and showing no realistic sign of being revived.

Just recap what has happened in recent times. We have had multiple crises of the British establishment, from its political classes to media elites, senior police, and banking and financial institutions.

There were promises of reform and lessons learned from Labour and Conservatives and the respective sectors. Yet all we have seen is watered-down proposals, delay and procrastination when it comes to the vested interests, and, more seriously, restoration and the entrenchment of the self-regulation state. The UK as a body politic is in moral crisis and decline, and Scots need to decide whether it can be realistically reformed or whether we should morally reconstitute ourselves as a self-governing political community.

Whatever we choose to do, central to our considerations is recognising the nature of the UK. It has always been, as The Economist recently observed, a “warrior state”. Since 1945, the number of years British armed forces have not been deployed in active combat has been a mere one, 1968, the gap between the Aden military adventure and the onset of the Northern Ireland “Troubles”.

Britain promised men like Cyril Ilett a better Britain than this, and we have let him and countless others like him down badly, as well as subsequent generations. Now we face a Westminster government under Cameron that is tearing down the last vestiges of the social contract and common bonds which mark us out as a civilised society.

Some say in response to this that we cannot make a Scottish decision solely based on detesting the current incumbents, and that a more realistic answer is to elect a Labour Westminster government. What this deliberately misses is the cumulative impact of Margaret Thatcher and her heirs, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, in building this grotesque political state of affairs. And that is not some swivel-eyed raving left-wing argument, but one shared across the political spectrum, including voices such as Peter Oborne and Simon Jenkins on the right.

We cannot trust the Westminster system, its political classes and culture to remake the UK, tackle the huge corporate elites and insiders, and begin any programme of meaningful, substantial reform.

That throws a bigger responsibility onto the unfolding Scottish debate. It has to rise above the catcalls of unionist versus nationalist, Labour versus SNP, everybody against the Tories, and other bitter divisions. Instead, Scots political opinion has to recognise the moral impasse and decrepitude that Britain is in and, for all its capacity to still engage in statecraft and cultural and sporting achievements, that the popular account of Britain is exhausted.

It is time that we Scots had the confidence to believe in ourselves and realise that this is a moment for change beyond politics and politicians which is about our long-term maturing and changing our collective psychology, challenging ourselves to do better, be bolder and braver.

That entails a debate which transcends the safety-first continuity independence of the SNP, and the damaging dependency culture of Alistair Darling, Brown and others that says we have to cling to the wreckage of the sinking ship Britannia. A radically different course is on offer and possible.