Saturday, 18 November 2006

More stuff not good enough for the New Statesman

Go to your local library, magazine/bookstore or visit the NS website and say that the piece below is worse than a lot of the stuff published in the current "New Statesman"...

The Break-Up of Britain Revisited.

Next year will see the thirtieth anniversary of the publication of perhaps the most important study of “the national question” in British politics; Tom Nairn’s The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism. This Autumn is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of the Second Edition, which contained a Postscript called “Into Political Emergency.” (all page references are from the 1981 Verso Second Edition).

When the first edition of the book was published, the Break-Up of the United Kingdom seemed a plausible scenario in the near future. The Scottish National Party had up to 36% support in the opinion polls, bolstered by the existence of North Sea oil off the Scottish coast. Although by the Second Edition’s appearance in 1981 the SNP’s support had collapsed after the failure of the 1979 Referendum on devolution to reach the required threshold of the Scottish electorate to vote “Yes”, it seemed that events were vindicating Nairn’s gloomy prognosis for the UK. It was a country suffering the worst economic depression since the 1930s, three million unemployed, inner-city riots, de facto civil war in Ulster, a Labour Party with a programme epater le bourgeois and an unpopular, dogmatic Prime Minister. Seeing the unprecedented popularity of the newly-formed Social Democratic Party in the face of the “extremist” alternatives offered by the Conservative and Labour Parties at the time, Nairn argued that the post-Thatcher regime would be a de facto “National Government” centred around the SDP, its Liberal allies and those remaining in the two main parties hankering after “sensible” economic policies.

Nairn argued that a post-Thatcher ”National Government” regime would offer a programme which would offer stability- “a better yesterday”- while rejecting any attempt at “reindustrialising” Britain through using its North Sea oil revenues or forcing the City of London to invest in the domestic economy. Instead it would see foreign investment as the way to bring life back to Britain’s deindustrialised areas. At the level of foreign policy, the new regime would continue to be pro-EEC (as the European Union then was) and pro-US in its foreign policy, in contrast to the anti-nuclear, anti-Common Market postures of most of the Labour Party in the early 1980s. However, to show that it was offering a fresh beginning, in contrast to previous post-1945 “new starts” Nairn believed that the new order would offer constitutional reform, particularly political devolution and decentralisation: a “Revolution-From-Upon-High” that would appease all while simultaneously strengthening central power (pp.399-401).

Writing in the original edition of Break-Up Nairn said, “England needs another war” (p.274) to rally the populace in the face of relative national decline. Less than six months after Nairn wrote his “Postscript”, Argentina’s military junta gave “England” the war it needed. Victory combined with economic recovery helped to ensure Margaret Thatcher stayed in office until 1990, the SDP never took office and Nairn’s vision of a “National Government” offering constitutional reform to protect the status quo from “something worse” (whether it be “Celtic Nationalism”, Labour Left “Bennery” or an anti-EEC, anti-US populist of “the Right”, such as Enoch Powell) was forgotten. The Break-Up seemed to have been postponed, if not cancelled altogether.

However, although it came to office in a socio-economic and political climate much changed from that in which Nairn wrote, New Labour can be seen as offering most people the de facto “National Government” Nairn thought the SDP would offer in the early 1980s. New Labour took office in 1997 offering both (fundamental) stability and (superficial) change. To use Marxian terminology, Blair’s government offered no major change to Britain’s economic base, but it did offer major changes to its social, constitutional and cultural superstructure (anyone owning up to remembering the toe-curling awfulness of “Rebranding Britain” and “Cool Britannia”?).

State-led reindustrialisation (as opposed to bribing overseas corporations to set up branches in Britain’s ex-industrial heartlands) was dismissed as “old thinking”, while the City of London was left very much alone by the new regime. It hardly goes without saying that the Blair government continued to pursue what Nairn described contemptuously as Britain’s “good boy” function in the Atlantic Alliance. As for the European Union, there is no chance the current regime will ever withdraw, however much it may grumble about the effects of particular EU policies.

Of course, the main “innovations” of the Blair Government have come in the sphere of constitutional reform. There has been devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales. Many would see Government policy towards Northern Ireland since 1997 (if not before under Major) as fulfilling Nairn’s 1981 prediction that “it might even be contrived to get rid of Ulster.” (p.402) There has been a limited reform of the Lords (which by virtually eliminating the hereditary element without replacing it with a democratic one, has actually increased the power of the executive) while a referendum on Proportional Representation for General Elections is still theoretically possible. As Nairn predicted in 1981, however, these various moves towards changing Britain’s constitutional set-up have been very “Revolution-From-Upon-High”.

Are the spectres of a “Break-Up of Britain” and a “Political Emergency” that Nairn spotted over quarter of a century ago still to be feared? Well, there appears to be more pro-independence sentiment in Scotland than in the 1970s, although the Scottish Parliament so far has satiated most pangs for separation amongst Scots (and the only political “Break-Up” in Scotland at the moment seems to centre upon the unfortunate Scottish Socialist Party.) The same goes for Wales with its Assembly, while Northern Ireland appears more semi-detached from the rest of the United Kingdom than ever.

The biggest change seems to have come in England, where there seems to be increasing support for an English Parliament. The post-1997 constitutional arrangements are widely perceived as being unfair to the English compared to the rest of the UK (particularly Scotland). Perhaps “The English Enigma”, as Nairn called his chapter on England (pp.291-305), is about to stop puzzling curious observers. However, as Nairn wrote in his 1981 “Postscript”, “The revolution is longer, more precarious and more circuitous in operation than we could understand.” (p.393)

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