For a moment during the summer of 2012 it seemed that Britain had at last left behind its lingering post-imperial neuroses. Comfortable in their multi-shaded skin, a people who had once ruled nearly a third of the world had found a new role as welcoming host. The London Olympics were a celebration of a new Britishness: diverse, outward looking, mindful of tradition but eager to embrace the future. True, post-crash austerity had dented morale, but the medals collected by Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and their fellow athletes in “Team GB” illuminated the road ahead.
The moment passed. The Britain of 2015 feels a fractious and fractured place. Pride in diversity has made way for the rise of the anti-immigrant populism of the UK Independence party. The economy is growing again — a lot faster than in the rest of Europe — but so too, it seems, is a yawning gulf between the prosperous and the disadvantaged. Below the surface, the pillars of the old English establishment have cracked.
In spite of last year’s vote to remain within the four-nation union, Scotland could yet decide to strike out on its own. A political and cultural chasm has opened up between London, still the global hub of 2012, and a less prosperous English hinterland. The two parties that have dominated postwar politics — David Cameron’s Conservatives and Ed Miliband’s Labour— are retreating into regional redoubts. The United Kingdom has rarely been so disunited.
Britain has lost its international moorings. The Iraq and Afghanistan wars took a heavy toll on national self-confidence. A swing towards introversion has been reinforced by the economic imperative to cut deficits and debt. The armed forces have returned from defeats in Basra and Helmand to the prospect of sweeping reductions in military budgets. Facing rising euroscepticism at home Mr Cameron flirts with the idea of withdrawal from the EU, much to the puzzlement of friends and allies abroad. Mr Miliband is but silent on global affairs. The British, says a report from the think-tank Chatham House, still want to hold their heads up in the world but they doubt they can make a decisive difference.
Sir John Sawers, the diplomat-turned spymaster who until recently led the Secret Intelligence Service, speaks of a nation stepping back from the world in much the way the US withdrew into itself after the Vietnam war. As Vladimir Putin’s Russia marches into Ukraine, a senior figure in the US Administration wonders aloud if the fabled “special relationship” between Washington and London is being hollowed out. There is real doubt, he says, “about the commitment and credibility of the UK as a partner in preserving international peace”.
In other circumstances, the general election set for May 7 might have galvanised the nation in a vigorous debate not just about the domestic economy and the shape of government but also about how best to adjust to a tougher, more precarious world.
Elections should promise competing visions, alternative futures. Instead the campaigns thus far have exposed a profound disconnect between an outdated politics and the concerns and aspirations of the voters. Society and politics have fallen out of step. Vernon Bogdanor, professor of government at King’s College London, who once tutored the young Mr Cameron at Oxford, talks of “a growing divergence between the constitutional and political forms of an earlier age and the social and economic realities of today”.
Labour has lost the recruits once provided by the smokestack industries and a Conservative membership card no longer bestows social cachet on the upwardly mobile middle classes.
Stranded by modernity
This year marks the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta, the bargain struck between England’s King John and the medieval barons that is often seen as the foundation stone of British democracy. In moments of hubris, the English will tell you that the rule of law was the charter’s gift not just to Shakespeare’s Sceptered Isle but to the democratic world. The commemorative events were supposed to mark the constancy and stability of the habits and institutions of the nation’s unwritten constitution.
Yet the contemporary picture is one of a political system and set of constitutional rules that have been left stranded by modernity. Britain has outgrown its politics. For most of the postwar era the two-party (sometimes a two-and-a-half party) system delivered stable, single-party government. When Mr Cameron was obliged to go into formal coalition with Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats after the 2010 election, it was seen as a temporary excursion into European-style, multi-party politics. The familiar, bipolar system would soon enough reassert itself. The prospect now, however, is for another inconclusive election outcome and, further ahead, for the permanent politics of minority administrations or coalitions.
The temptation is to treat this fragmentation — the Scottish Nationalist party and the Greens have joined Ukip in challenging the traditional order — as a fleeting phenomenon. Old political hands at Westminster talk about a natural reaction to hard economic times and to a peculiarly lacklustre generation of political leaders.
They have half a point. Living standards have fallen. Mr Cameron is a prime minister aiming for a place in history’s footnotes. Mr Miliband yearns for a mythical age when politicians of the left had no need to compromise with grubby capitalism. Their platforms lack ambition and optimism. For its part, Mr Clegg’s party is consumed by a fight for survival. The junior partners in coalitions rarely fare well.
Alongside the cyclical trends, however, there are deeper currents at work. The two-party system is falling victim to social and economic upheaval. As Mr Bogdanor writes in an essay for the UK Constitution Society, Britain is in transition from “the société bloquée of the 1950s, dominated by large socio-economic blocs based on occupation and class, to a more socially and geographically fragmented society”.
In 1951 the House of Commons counted six MPs who stood outside the two main parties. The number now is 85. Class-based ties have weakened and new lines have been drawn between Scotland and England, between young and old, and between north and south.
There was a time when a large slice of the population was “born” Tory or Labour. The Hansard Society, which carries out a regular audit of political engagement, says only 30 per cent of voters will now admit a firm party allegiance. Some 67 per cent cent say that the politicians “don’t understand the daily lives of people like us”.
The Conservatives are now a party of the prosperous south. Tory MPs are nowhere to be found in Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham or Newcastle. Outside London — the capital defies most of the trends elsewhere — Labour struggles to win more than a handful of seats in England’s southern regions. The Conservatives have struggled in Scotland for over a generation. Now, having lost September’s referendum on independence, the nationalists threaten to trounce Labour in the contest for seats at Westminster.
Not so long ago the winning party at a general election would command the support of more than 40 per cent of the electorate. Messrs Cameron and Miliband, each now fighting to lose less badly than the other, struggle to reach much above 30 per cent.
Loss of authority
The challenge is not just to the familiar hierarchy at Westminster. Henry Fairlie, a journalist who plied his trade during the 1950s, coined the phrase “The Establishment” to describe the nexus of traditions, institutions and powerful individuals at the apex of British society. Power still belonged to the landed, the Treasury and the Foreign Office, the bankers and brokers of City of London, the BBC and the press barons, the bishops and judges. Decisions were taken in the oak-panelled drawing rooms of the gentlemen’s clubs in St James’s.
There are still corners where the ancien regime thrives. For all the well-publicised troubles of some of her immediate family, the steadying figure of Queen Elizabeth has kept the affection of her people and sustained the monarchy as the guardian of national unity. To adapt the 19th century essayist Walter Bagehot, she has not allowed the daylight to tarnish the magic.
There are other pockets of privilege: the aides charged with writing the Tory election manifesto are almost all, like Mr Cameron, alumni of Eton, one of Britain’s expensive public schools. Yet, as Britain’s power has waned so too has the authority of the establishment networks. Mr Cameron’s inner circle of well-heeled chums grates with much of the electorate. One of his own MPs casts him a “Tory posh boy” out of touch with the kitchen table preoccupations of the nation. The City has fallen into disgrace as a consequence of the financial crash and a succession of money-laundering and mis-selling scandals. Only this month HSBC has been found colluding in tax evasion. The British Social Attitudes Survey records that in 1983 some 90 per cent of voters thought banks were well-run institutions. By 2012 the level of trust had fallen to 19 per cent.
As for parliament, the British have always shown a healthy scepticism towards politicians but this has curdled into deep cynicism in the wake of a series of expenses scandals. This week two former foreign secretaries, Jack Straw and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, were caught up in the furore about MPs’ business interests. Sir Malcolm said he would stand down at the election.
In the Church of England, bishops are sermonising to dwindling flocks. The press — the 18th century constitutionalist Edmund Burke called it the fourth estate — has been badly tarnished by the phone-tapping revelations. After myriad economic crises, the Treasury more closely resembles a spluttering East German Trabant than the Rolls-Royce of folklore. And Foreign Office diplomats, once at the very top of the Whitehall establishment and powerful emissaries of Britain’s international influence, have been told by their political masters to reinvent themselves as travelling salespeople for Britain plc.
Prisoner of the past
Many will bid a fond goodbye to the egregious bastions of self-perpetuating privilege. The age of unthinking deference has passed. Yet the more general corrosion of trust in the nation’s politicians and institutions has had unhappier consequences. As elsewhere in Europe, it leaves a vacuum of legitimacy, one being filled by the “antis”: the anti-elite, the anti-European, the anti-immigrant and the anti-capitalist. The populists have caught the temper of the times in offering disenchanted voters enemies rather than answers. Messrs Cameron and Miliband are chasing them to right and left.
The rise of nationalism in Scotland and Ukip’s success in promoting English identity politics speak to a union of nations that is losing the glue of Britishness. Some, such as the historian Linda Colley, suggest that this was always going to be so. Britain, after all, is an invented state, forged since the 18th century through imperial adventures, shared Protestantism and common enemies. Mr Bogdanor’s answer is a new constitutional settlement — a redistribution of power between, and within, the four nations of the union to match the social, economic and cultural realities of the times.
He is right. Britain needs a new way of governing itself and a new story — a binding narrative that affords due respect to the past but is no longer imprisoned by it. London 2012 pointed the way.
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