X Close

How will Britain cope without empire? Our diminished nation needs a democratic refit as we leave imperial Europe

Credit: Jeff Overs/BBC/ Getty

January 28, 2020   5 mins

On Friday, we will leave the EU. For the first time in our modern history, the United Kingdom will exist as a union of nations outside of empire. Guy Verhofstadt, the EU Parliaments Brexit coordinator, warned against it. “The world of tomorrow,” he said, “is not a world order based on nation states or countries. It’s a world order based on empires.” Verhofstadt took the Napoleonic view. The modern European liberal state is only politically viable if it is part of an imperial union of nations.

The past flashes into view. It is 1956. Britain has led an Anglo-French expedition to retake the Suez Canal which has been nationalised by the Egyptian President Abdul Nasser. America has forced Britain to abandon its expedition. The humiliation exposes our faltering role in the world. The British empire has gone and our economy is failing.

The solution of the governing class is to join the EEC. But, in 1963, Charles de Gaulle refuses Britain’s entry and warns, “the nature, the structure, the conjuncture that are England’s differ profoundly from those of the continentals”. Once we finally join, this difference never substantially changes.

Now we are leaving. Brexit, the controversies of immigration, and the fraying of relations between the four countries of the United Kingdom, are symptoms of the long and chronic unwinding of Britain’s imperial role and identity. Just as the Union was constructed out of the growth of empire, so its post-Brexit reconstitution will need to evolve out of the making of the UK’s post-imperial role in the world.

We are in the early stage of a new political era. Boris Johnson exploited the opportunity of Brexit to realign British politics. In doing so, he inadvertently broke with its liberal consensus and changed its primary agents. Agents are those forces, groups or classes that play an active role in producing a political settlement. Over the past 40 years, four primary agents have determined British politics and reshaped the country: globalisation, the rise of the metropolitan middle class, social and market liberalism, and a top down managerialist approach to politics. 

These are now being superseded. The new agents of the coming political era are the antithesis of the liberal global settlement. They are the nation state, the working class, social conservatism, and unconstrained democracy. “What was previously secondary and subordinate, or even incidental, is now taken to be primary.”1 They were forged in the political battle around Brexit and they belong to the winning coalition of Tory provincials and working class.

This coalition promised a profound shift in the balance of political forces, but it found no representation in Westminster’s two-party political system. In 2019, the Conservatives succeeded in winning it over and took the wind out of the sails of nationalist populism. Victory however remains tentative.

The new political era begins with the estrangement of the governing class from the country. Neither a liberal progressive Labour Party, nor a Conservative Party dominated by market liberalism has the necessary politics to forge a new hegemony. Both parties are products of the liberal settlement which favoured state driven, technocratic and legalistic responses to political problems. Institution and nation building democratic politics is an alien concept. Neither has shown the capacity to think big and strategically about Britain’s future role in the world.

No 10 appears to understand the new political imperatives, the Conservative Party does not. Conservatives have put capital and the market before democracy and society. They have sold off key national strategic assets and favoured global trade over protecting the national economy.

Their treatment of the working class has been callous and destructive. George Osborne’s austerity was born of a deep class arrogance and indifference toward people in need. Their admirable conservative disposition — which valued country, the small platoons of society, and family relationships — was crushed beneath the Hayekian liberal juggernaut. The Conservatives have been a heartless party.

Corbynism, meanwhile, was supposed to be a decisive break from New Labour and the neo-liberal consensus, as embodied by those four primary agents, globalisation, the metropolitan middle class, social and market liberalism, and a top down managerialist approach to politics. In fact, it only succeeded in breaking with market liberalism, while reinforcing Labour’s drift toward a globally, socially liberal, progressive party of the middle class.

Corbynism with its focus on the individual and the state is the unruly offspring of New Labour and a product of the liberal political settlement. It misunderstands social conservativism and holds it in contempt, denouncing it in a litany of Maoist vitriol as racist, misogynist, fascist, imperialist, and white nationalist. Under Corbyn, Labour has been indifferent to England, hostile toward the idea of the nation, and believes patriotism is jingoism. Its claim to democracy has been compromised by the many in its ranks who spent three years undermining the Leave vote. It has now lost the majority of the working class.

And yet, the future of our country rests upon these two parties rising to the historic challenge of re-establishing the foundations of our nationhood and Union.

The first task is to restore a national economy that prioritises work and wages, families, and local place, with the purpose of correcting the class and regional inequalities of productivity, wealth and income. The kind of centrally imposed, city region devolution with limited powers, exemplified by the Conservative’s Northern Powerhouse, will have only a limited impact.

It will require a national economic development strategy which focuses on improving and modernising the everyday economy of child and elder care, health and wellbeing, education, utilities, and the low wage sectors of hospitality, retail, food processing and supermarkets which sustain daily life.

These are the basic building blocks that form the foundations of economy and society. The everyday economy is the key to a one nation politics that bridges the divisions between towns, cities and regions, and between different classes and ethnic groups.

The second task is to instil a social and democratic politics of belonging about how we are to live together in our multi-ethnic, multi-national Union. A shared sense of national identity is fundamental to social cohesion and upholding our democracy and the equality of citizen’s rights and obligations. It involves re-founding the United Kingdom to secure it for the long term; deepening and extending democracy, notably in England, in order to strengthen the accountability of governing elites; and reforming our structures of governance to devolve power and resources to regions and localities.

And thirdly Britain must define its role in the world.

China is becoming a major global power. Russia is asserting itself as a pivot between Europe and Asia, but leaning toward the latter. Economic and geopolitical power is shifting east of Suez. The Atlantic as the fulcrum of global influence is giving way to the Pacific. The strategic competition between the US and China will define geo-politics in the 21st Century.

Globalisation will not be predicated on our western interests. The time when Europeans could determine the course of world affairs is passing. In this global interregnum Britain is well placed to construct a role for itself as a strategic actor. It is not the global power it once was but nor is it in decline. It is well placed to exert strategic influence if there is the political will and capability.

Our Union has been the most successful in the world, but it needs re-founding to safeguard its future. England is one of the oldest nation states, but it needs a democratic refit. The economy has suffered from the uncertainty of Brexit and its structural weaknesses create social division and high levels of class and regional inequality. It needs reform. Britain remains a world power with an economy and technology to match but we are diminished by a governing culture of decline management.

On Friday we take our first step into the world unencumbered by empire. Verhofstadt is wrong. Globalisation has slowed in response to the disruptive impact of hyper-globalisation. Western democracies are looking to restore their nation states and repair their domestic social contracts with their alienated voters. Britain is leading the way, overcoming populism to forge a democratic nationhood, open to building a strong relationship with our European neighbours and further afield. It is time to end the doom-mongering. The future is in our hands.

  1.  Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks, Lawrence and Wishart, 1986, p. 195

Jonathan Rutherford is a writer and one of the co-founders of Blue Labour

Join the discussion

Join like minded readers that support our journalism by becoming a paid subscriber

To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.

Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.

Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments