Recently I took the time to read Tom Nairn’s 1977 essay ‘Twilight of the British State’. Doing so, the one thing that struck me most forcefully was how contemporary it felt. Despite writing in 1977, so before even Thatcherism became a thing, there’s still much of what he says that feels very relevant to today, in relation to Brexit. So, I figured it was worth digging into it and setting out what I think is useful from his piece.
The overall thrust of Nairn’s argument is fairly simple, and I will sketch it out here. The gist is that Britain, far from being a modern state, is in fact a transitional one and has been permanently so since the industrial revolution. Essentially, by virtue of being the ‘first’ state to modernize, however that is understood, it actually has various features that are not ‘modern’, in the sense of how we understand modern states today. Consequently, the British state has retained certain archaic institutions and practices (see for instance the formidable grip much of the upper class still have on the key institutions), coupled with an industrialized society, rather than a fully modernized society on the level of France or Japan, which both came later.
So, for Britain there has been a need for a second revolution, to initiate full modernization, but that has been consistently staved off. Even in the aftermath of the slow whittling away of the industrial base there have not been major reforms: there has been instead a shift towards financialization and exploitation of world markets through the use of the pound as a more central currency – something that continued even as the dollar took over due to the higher value rate of the pound. Britain’s status as an imperial state, founding itself on looting colonies, continues.
As Nairn has it “this hegemony provided the material basis of the state’s ‘backwardness’. It was a ‘backwardness’ perfectly congruent with the demands of the controlling elements in British capitalism – elements which enjoyed the conservative societal hierarchy of ‘traditional England’ and which, if they did not actually approve of industrial degeneration, had no urgent reasons for redressing it.”
This transitory state persisted, but not for want of trying. The post-war anguish ignited the rise of the Labour party and the hope for the welfare state. However, it did not take long for Labourism to be stymied by the fact of its more liberal bent and concessionary nature, rather than any radical intent. Although the welfare state brought many benefits, the failure to alter the economy structurally meant that it rested on a declining industrial base.
Another attempt was made in the 1970s with Britain, finally, joining the EEC after years of being distant, attempting to find its own, cooler club (the EFTA), before giving in and submitting applications that were rejected until De Gaulle died. This, obviously, is an area of interest for this discussion, that I will return to shortly. It is worth noting, however, that Nairn points out that joining the EEC did not work either:
“British entry can therefore be described by the two words which apply to almost everything in post-Second World War history: ‘too late’…the long developmental period of the EEC was nearly over, and world depression was looming – so that the British entered a community itself falling into stalemate and self-doubt.”
In short, then, Britain is a transitory state that has been in search of a revolution, any revolution, to jump start it out of its moribund position in order to finally complete the modernization process.
This was the urge behind Thatcherism, something that was likely to be on the way in any case. As Larry Elliott points out, many of the features of transformation that Thatcher brought in were already being established, and probably would have occurred had Callaghan won in 1979, with the acceleration away from the industrial base. It may not have happened in the same way or with the same force, but some kind of change was on the way. It is often said to have brought dynamism back to the UK economy, but did this have the transformational power? A recent work by Kevin Albertson and Paul Stepney suggest not. Average growth rates were stagnant and declined in the Thatcher years
That trend carried on with New Labour, which never really intended to be a revolution but rather to be continuous with what came before. Whilst New Labour undoubtedly did some good, most of the internal reforms were sticking plasters rather than meaningful structural reform. The hollowed out industrial towns were essentially allowed to stay that way, with the assumption that the continued growth of the financial sector meant that some of the proceeds could be redistributed. This was ‘the end of history’ in Fukuyama’s terms: a time of stasis as the new normal.
Then the 2008 financial crash happened and the whole thing blew apart.
This is where, I think, the points Nairn makes still have relevance and a contemporary feel. In many ways the transitional state, despite all the efforts, is still with us and the stagnation that characterises the British state is also still there. It’s worth noting, for instance, that austerity was initially pitched as being expansionary with the moribund state being cut and got out of the way of the dynamic private sector (and, sotto voce, forcing the ‘skivers’ to go out and work). We know now that this has now been soundly debunked and found to be based on an Excel spreadsheet error. But after ten years of austerity, further stagnation and decline on top of what already existed, Brexit hove over the horizon on the wings and melodious harps of angels.
We know that the reasons for Brexit are complex and way beyond what this piece has the time to get into. What is interesting, though, is how the Leavers, in general, perceived Brexit as a solution to Britain’s troubles in the way that Nairn talks about: the way of revolutionising Britain and jumpstarting the economy. ‘Take back control’ being the obvious slogan to pick, on how the draconian control of Brussels prevents Britain from working its own laws, having its own regulations on imports and exports and signing its own trade deals. Michael Gove claimed that the EU prevented Britain from lowering VAT, an odd thing to claim seeing as his government had raised it from 17.5% to 20% and so could lower it if they wished. As seen in the various suggestions that the desire of the Leavers is to transform Britain into a Singapore style economy: business friendly and with very low tax rates.
This is what makes Nairn’s essay feel so contemporary in many ways. The stagnation has continued to persist since 1977 and all of the same problems that existed back then are still present now, with no clear sense of things are going. Joining the EEC was supposed to “force the fabled ‘regeneration’ of British industry” through the “stimulus of entering a vigorous, competitive capitalist area” (Nairn, 1977). Now though, it appears that leaving that area will have the same effect: bereft of the EU Britain will be forced to finally, finally, undergo the revolution that will strip away the last archaic elements and modernize the state completely.
Will it work? That is the question. Nairn’s own solution to the problem was for the constituent nations of Britain to all shake hands and go their own way. This would, supposedly, free Scotland and Wales from the patrician nature of the British state and allow them to develop fully; meanwhile the act may finally force England to sober up and get itself in order. Given the Brexit situation and, in particular, the dramatic split between Scotland and England on the Brexit question this may well happen and is certainly what the SNP are angling for. I’m somewhat less persuaded of this and suspect that a Scotland freed of Britain would soon rediscover the joys of ethnic nationalism just as England would plunge itself further into the abyss.
There is, nevertheless, an irony in that joining the EEC in the 1970s was supposed to be the thing that broke Britain out of its stagnation and brought on the revolutionising, through the increased competition in the internal market. Now breaking free of the EU and trading with the commonwealth and the rest of the world is apparently what will bring about the transformation.
As Hegel remarked somewhere, but forgot to add, “all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice…the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
William Kerr is a lecturer in Criminology and Sociology at the University of Derby. The main interests in his work revolve around using Darwinian ideas to understand social, cultural and institutional change, postcolonialism in social theory, nationalism and climate change. He can be found on Twitter at @WKerr110 and blogs here
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