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The rot at the heart of Westminster The British state is too dysfunctional to save, according to one of the country's leading thinkers


November 24, 2020   9 mins

The 20th-century battle between communism and capitalism has had a strange, debilitating effect on British conservatives, by now almost completely captured, like their American counterparts, by a breathless Whiggish faith in the free market to cure all of society’s ills. A centuries-old political philosophy has dwindled into something little more meaningful than Liz Truss’s paean to “Uber-riding, Air-BnB’ing, Deliveroo-eating, Freedom Fighters”.

Even the late Sir Roger Scruton’s worldview represented an uneasy marriage between Thatcherite capitalism and the last vestiges of the world that came before it. It didn’t ever quite perceive that the Thatcher revolution was too successful: by kicking away the last props of the pre-capitalist order that underwrote the traditional conservative worldview, it killed off that which it proclaimed to love. 

The ultimate irony was Scruton’s appreciation, late in life, of the post-Communist, quasi-authoritarian conservatism of Hungary and Poland as a model. For all the anti-Communism of their post-Cold War governments, surely it was the statist paternalism of their communist regimes that preserved in aspic societies fundamentally more conservative than those eroded by capitalist liberalism in the free-market West. Without Marx, there could be no Orban or Kaczynski; without communism, Hungary and Poland would look like Britain or France.

With this irony in mind, perhaps Government officials, ideologically adrift at a time of national crisis, would do well to read the Marxist historian Perry Anderson’s 72-page dissection of Britain’s decline in the latest issue of the New Left Review. A first draft of modern history from the groundbreaking author of Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State, Anderson’s savage critique of modern Britain is as far from the court gossip and palace intrigue which characterises political journalism in this country as it is possible to be.

A product of Eton and Oxford, and of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, the 82-year old Anderson demolishes the British establishment from within. Like many European if not American Marxists, Anderson is a stern critic of the hyper-liberalism, derived from French Theory via American Puritanism, which disfigures much of the modern Anglophone Left. He is, indeed, more conservative in his thinly-veiled and patrician distaste for Anglo-Saxon liberalism than our own nominally Conservative government. So what guidance can this elderly communist give our Conservative leadership at a time of national crisis?

Citing the most doom-laden author of Germany’s interwar Konservative Revolution — noteworthy in itself — Anderson warns that “Decline, banished for a season from reputable discourse, has returned in more drastic guise. What lies ahead,” for Britain, “is more like the term in Spengler’s mistranslated title — Untergang: not decline, but downfall”.

Britain’s problems are structural, the combination of appalling economic planning over decades and inherent constitutional dysfunction: “Without any mass upheaval, or even such turbulence as marked the seventies, the order of Ukania  [a term for the UK adopted by Anderson from the Marxist and Scottish nationalist historian Tom Nairn] has been disrupted as never before since 1911–14, with no new equilibrium in sight. All its components — economy, polity, ideology, territory, diplomacy — have simultaneously and interconnectedly been destabilised. The model of growth around which the country has been built since the late nineteenth century has generated such internal tensions that it has finally backfired.”

The outcome, for Anderson, is the inevitable collapse of what he terms “the Westminster state”. As he declares, the “nexus is bound to dissolve, in one way or another. When or how is anyone’s guess.” Anderson’s essay, which follows the  slow-burning fuse of British decline back to the Early Modern period, is not party political: indeed, like many conservatives, he reserves his greatest ire for the various political and economic innovations of New Labour, which, like Thatcher before it, eroded Britain’s old order and replaced it with something worse. 

It is remarkable, for all his Marxism, how much Anderson sounds like a Tory grandee of old when he observes that Thatcher “had staged an intra-party coup, routing Tory paternalism as well as Labour corporatism with a cult of the market and a petty-bourgeois zeal no longer restrained by fear of the proletariat.” It is difficult, at times, in his dissection of the finely-graded class differences of Conservative leaders, or in his digressive lament for the declining standards of public schools, to discern where Anderson the Marxist analyst of power networks ends and where Anderson the harrumphing patrician begins. Either way, the upshot is the same. By the beginning of this century, he observes, “Tory England in the old sense was dead. What had replaced it in the Conservative Party was not better.”

In foreign policy, Anderson channels Powell as much as any left-wing thinker when he excoriates Blair and Brown’s “hyper-subalternity to the US in an era when America had become the sole super-power, whose pay-off overseas was a hugely greater sum of killing and torture”. Paraphrasing the conservative writer Peter Oborne approvingly, Anderson savages the “surrounding incrustation of advisers, assistants, researchers, lobbyists, think-tankers, client journalists and broadcasters” which New Labour introduced into Britain’s political life, which, “instrumental in all its relationships, without roots or connections beyond its own shallow, insecure, public-relations obsessed, ideas-empty world” still dominates our politics.

We think here, of the lobby correspondent Matt Chorley, who gloated on the downfall of Dominic Cummings, like a palace eunuch in the court of the last Chinese emperor Pu Yi, that “every genius who arrives vowing to shake up the media, undermine, bypass and destroy the lobby, ends up leaving. And for good or bad, we’re still there.” That is, of course, precisely the problem, and it is Anderson’s open contempt for our elites that guides the path to some form of solution.

There is, perhaps, an echo of the Neo-Tories of the 1930s in Anderson’s tracing of the roots of Britain’s current day decline to the political settlement of the Glorious Revolution, though of course fantasies of cutting a path back to Merry England do not occur to him. The source, for Anderson, of our relative economic decline is that “unlike any of its major competitors, the country knew no second revolution from above after the settlement of 1689, nor intervening convulsion on the road to modernity,” and thus the “fault-lines now becoming visible followed from the original composite nature of the British state itself.” 

Summarising the Nairn-Anderson hypothesis underpinning the New Left Review’s analysis of modern British history, Anderson, like the Scottish nationalist historian and writer Neal Ascherson, traces our current woes to our inhabiting an unreformed Early Modern union of three crowns, in which “the very success of the Anglo-British parliamentary monarchy in overtaking all rivals to become, as early as the 1690s, the most advanced power of Europe, fixed it fast in a shape whose counterparts elsewhere were later swept away”. 

Our early success is thus the cause of our modern failure: “Developmental priority and imperial success had arrested the British ancien rĂ©gime—‘the grandfather of the contemporary political world’— half-way between feudal and modern forms, leaving its structures an ‘indefensible and unadaptable survival’ of the transition from absolutism to constitutionalism,” with the result that we remain trapped in “a conceptual landscape of Britain swept clean of all but ‘one significant life-form and one technology: the post-1688 ruling bloc and its prosthesis, the Westminster state.’”

If Anderson’s thesis is correct then all our problems, in one way or another, lead back to Westminster and the great gothic fantasia on the Thames, the increasing decrepitude of whose architectural fabric is an almost too obvious metaphor for the British state itself. Can it be restored without bringing the whole structure crashing down? The very antiquity of the British state is argued, by some, as a source of potential strength: if devolution could be rolled back, if the almost dictatorial powers available to a confident executive could be wielded effectively, perhaps some of the rot could be cut away, as long as the essential structure underpinning it remains strong?

But the British state is only as strong as the people entrusted with its care, and it is the deteriorating quality of our elites — a theme running through Anderson’s essay — that is perhaps the most dispiriting aspect of all. It is not, unfortunately, an exaggeration to observe that both main parties are dangerously incompetent, and that the also-rans are, if anything, even worse. The conservative journalist Henry Hill’s recent call for a British “Meiji Restoration,” a reassertion of the power of the central state in a programme of national renewal, “conducted with an eye to tradition and the power and sovereignty of the nation” surely falls at this hurdle: the idea may be good, we are forced to answer, but have you seen who’d carry it out?

So what comes after Westminster? The European experiment — a Tory attempt at “taking Britain into Europe as a surrogate for Empire”— clearly failed, leading to a fraught denouement whose terminal “Brexit referendum was a domestic quarrel, in which both sides were at mass level essentially oblivious of the ostensible object of the occasion, the European Union itself, other than as an object of polar cathexis; Remain and Leave opinion at large equally ignorant of, and indifferent to, its structures and mutations.”

As befits the editor of the New Left Review, whose deep engagement with European politics is not matched by that of Britain’s FBPE media ecosystem, Anderson is notably more critical of the wounded class consciousness or “status anxieties” of Britain’s bourgeois Remainers than of the Brexiteers, noting dispassionately that Remain was a project of the AB social class, support for which has led Labour to be “penned in to the corral of an increasingly middle-class— professional, managerial, clerical— Europeanist constituency, where it risks competing more with Liberal Democrats than Conservatives.” 

As Anderson observes witheringly, “the correspondence columns of leading dailies overflowed with professorial fury at the prospect of exiting the Union, literary periodicals raised a din such as London had not heard for a century,” yet in time, “some of the Remainer emotion of recent memory, the part reminiscent of mourning for Diana, will presumably fade.” Instead, for our post-1688 political class, it is “peripheral nationalism” that will likely be “their potential nemesis,” yet Anderson’s analysis of Scottish nationalism is entirely devoid of the lust for national self-negation, part romanticism-by-proxy and part-schadenfreude, displayed by the London intelligentsia for whom he shows such disdain.

Following Nairn, Anderson undercuts the self-aggrandising mythologies of the SNP, reminding his readers that Scotland was not a colony but a beneficiary of Britain’s industrialisation, and a keen and active participant in the imperial project. Instead, he traces Scotland’s sudden drive towards independence to distaste for New Labour, “the neo-liberal regime in London, packed with vociferously unionist Scots — Brown, Cook, Reid, Darling, Campbell et al: bards of Britishness to a man” whose economic mismanagement “antagonised more and more sectors of Scottish society”.

The essential dilemma for the SNP is that Brexit has made independence simultaneously more attractive and impossible to achieve, at least as a member of the European Union. Pleading to enter Europe from without, its way barred by another fragile Early Modern kingdom, Spain, “departure from Europe has both inflamed Scottish nationalism and entrapped it”. We remain, unfortunately, trapped in a loveless marriage for the foreseeable future, with no preferable partners available and an ugly rift of some kind awaiting us. 

Intriguingly, Anderson takes the case for English nationalism more seriously than does our political class, sounding like a Marxist Simon Heffer in his sympathy for “the country that had not spoken yet, the English, whose voice had long been usurped by a British-imperial class speaking for them”. As it stands, New Labour’s constitutional reordering, by granting autonomy to the peripheries while keeping England subject to the Westminster entity, has set the stage for English nationalism to manifest itself in unappealing forms: “in not affording it any institutional expression” Anderson argues, “Blair’s project made it likely that [Enoch] Powell’s intonation of it would be heard once more.” 

There are two Englands struggling to be born, Anderson argues: the angry, resentful England of the streets and a social-democratic European nation “with a sensibility closer to the historic connotations of ‘Little England’ — insular, but unambitious and pacific, socially somewhat Scandinavian, free of all illusions of grandeur.” Indeed, here Anderson approaches a call for what we have in these pages called a certain National Hobbitism. Whether this is what we’ll get is, of course, another matter entirely. More likely, in Anderson’s view, is “a very British attempt to ‘muddle through’ with a model which is itself not working,” treading water as “a dinghy towed by the capital ships of Washington and Brussels” until the Westminster state’s final collapse.

If there is a coherent thread to Anderson’s broad sweep of British history, it is that the relentless outward focus of the Westminster establishment set in train a slow-burning decline at home. As he writes, “Imperial expansion had formed this state. When that was no longer available, it followed its traditional outward bent, resolving to ‘press towards the internationalisation of the UK economy as the answer doing most good to the flourishing parts of the system and the least damage to the ailing ones.’”

Yet every attempt at reform, by trying to solve Britain’s structural problems at home through leaping headlong into the wider world, whether Europe, a subordinate role in the American empire or globalised finance, has only patched up the surface cracks and allowed the underlying rot to advance further. From 1945 onwards, British politics has been consumed by “futile attempts at retrieving national greatness, in which the very term ‘decline’ was a lure inviting the notion that ‘revival’ was possible”.

The essential problem we now face is whether or not Britain can survive as a unitary state. For Anderson, the answer is simply No: Britain was a project of empire, and without empire, the glue that held it together has dissolved. Simply, in Anderson’s thesis, “the stability of the old order had rested on the external forcefield of empire; once that was gone, the patriciate lost its grip at home, deference giving way to a ‘molecular, resentful sort of rebelliousness’, disabling the supports of the old regime, and Thatcher’s lower-middle-class crusade could finish off the grandees”.

The work of misguided destruction in the cause of renewal that Thatcher began, Blair finished, emplacing the charges that now threaten to destroy our state. The British state, for Anderson (sounding at his most like Peter Hitchens), was the British establishment of old: once they and the empire were gone, shuffled off the historical stage by the Pyrrhic victory of the Second World War and its consequences, decline and collapse were inevitable. 

The current government, entirely devoid of any meaningful political thought, would do well to read Anderson’s essay. He presents a narrative stripped of all illusions, in which, as in Marx’s famous quote, the British reader “is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind”. There is a strange unreality to British political life, with the relentless outward focus on the wider world so detached from our material conditions that it has become a kind of tragic delusion.

But there is no purpose pursuing dreams of a Global Britain while the Union fractures at home: any serious attempt to save the British state will require a serious, dispassionate appraisal of the structural flaws threatening to break it apart. If the current occupant of 10 Downing Street does not intend to make his mark in history as the last Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, he could do worse than inject a dose of rigorous Marxian thought into Britain’s body politic, and there is surely no more suitable vessel than the detached, patrician analysis of Perry Anderson, that most High Tory of Marxists.


Aris Roussinos is an UnHerd columnist and a former war reporter.

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Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago

Perry Anderson’s analysis seems to be very close to my own, and I will try to read the whole essay. Like Mr Anderson, my contempt for New Labour is total. I expected them to evolve the country into something more Scandinavian. Instead they worshipped at the feet of the City and went around the world bombing and killing. They were evil, utterly evil. I can forgive Thatcher a little more. She had to save the country in an economic sense and there simply wasn’t the bandwidth to address many other issues. That said, the ongoing decline in education was exacerbated by her governments, and she paved the way for railway privatisation and many other disasters.

Covid has revealed the stupefying incompetence of the British state and the political class once and for all. To this has now been added a grotesque authoritarianism. Never again can any sane person have any faith in any of its constituent parts or any of those individuals who are craven and brazen enough to have anything to do with it. It seems to me that nobody with any integrity or competence would have anything to do with the British state or ‘that great Gothic fantasia on the Thames’, as Mr Anderson so wonderfully puts it. For many years one has observed the quality of so many of the MPs – especially on the Left – and simply despaired. As a consequence we have now had 30 years of total misrule and perhaps 100 years of drift and relative decline. Mr Anderson believes that some sort of collapse is unavoidable, and it is hard to disagree.

rosie mackenzie
rosie mackenzie
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

Neither of you mention the overweening power of the media. We are led and decided for by them, not HMG. Governments come and go, but the forces of the media, unelected, unrepresentative, overpaid, often hereditary, and always unaccountable, are in power for life. It is they who have dragged everything down. If it were not for them, we would have decent, able people going into public life, in much larger numbers. We would have higher standards of education and training. People would speak better, as they used to. We would probably have less immigration to cope with.

David Simpson
David Simpson
3 years ago

except we keep buying and reading the rubbish – we have the media we want, apparently

Pamela Booker
Pamela Booker
3 years ago

Quite. Power without responsibility – just like SPADs. But what can be done other than individuals live as they please, obeying the basic rules of civility. That should be sacrosanct in law and upheld by the political classes and the judiciary.

Zigurds Kronbergs
Zigurds Kronbergs
3 years ago

Less immigration? Most of the media are viscerally hostile to immigration. And “coping” with immigration would have been a good deal simpler if governments had invested properly in schools and the health service.

Micheal Lucken
Micheal Lucken
3 years ago

I agree, government conforms to the vision of our mono-culture media. Labour looked dead and buried in the early 1980’s until it dawned on Kinnock that they needed to appease the press in order to get elected. Unlucky for him he couldn’t lose the dour working class image in time. Blair got it right though. Cameron carried on where Blair left off. May was all over the place seeking approval and failing, Boris looks like being the same. The only fly in the ointment for the establishment has been Brexit.

Perhaps there is an eventual inevitability about it in a liberal democracy that has a “free” media which is dominated and driven by wealthy global corporate interest and is regularly fed with the right sort of recruits educated by the right sort of academies. America looks the same with Trump being the fly in the ointment over there.

Paul Hunt
Paul Hunt
3 years ago

I was thinking about how people pick the Supermarket that tells them what to eat, are you a Tesco, Waitrose or Asda person? Newspapers are exactly the same. There’s the argument that the Media are as much Lost Sheep chasing what people what to read, as seen now by the Mining of twitter to guess what is important that day.

rtsprenger2
rtsprenger2
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

The last sentence of the first paragraph and the first of the second contradict one another: at the same time “privatisations are bad” and “the state/political class is stupefying incompetent”.

Well, if the British govermment is so uncapable, at least it doesn’t have a lot of public companies to mess around with anymore.

X Xer
X Xer
3 years ago

The answer to everything is Marxism/socialism…except where it’s been tried, where it has always been a murderous disaster.

Edward Hocknell
Edward Hocknell
3 years ago

I’m not sure that Britain is that much of a failure: it’s still a very nice place to live. Official administration is a bit slow and tentative, but not significantly worse than anywhere else. The point about Conservative obsessions with free market solutions is perhaps outdated too. This government has a distinctly Keynsian air. Much of the new money on defence will go to hi tech, AI and so forth, hoping for an industrial benefit. Very American. We need a thorough constitutional overhaul, I agree. A more federal arrangement is long overdue, and the replacement of the House of Lords with a chamber representing the regions would help refocus attention on domestic rather than global matters.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
3 years ago

The purpose of the House of Lords is to represent the large interests, the power brokers and the establishment; as a counter-point to the febrile demands of the democratically elected House of Commons. How would a ‘chamber representing the regions’ perform that function, or don’t you think it needs performing?

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
3 years ago

The fact of the matter is old marxists have always been moaning on that Britain isn’t a communist state..and when they get olde and realise it isn’t ever going to be one they start lashing out and banging on about *inevitable* decline and blah, blah, blah.

The internet changed everything and is continuing to change everything… yet hardly gets a mention. London is a world city, possibly *the* world city, so writing a story of decline around it seems a bit of a stretch.

The UK*State* and it’s *establishment* has always been incredibly flexible and fluid, and it’s why for hundreds of years this country has survived the revolutions and upheavals that have wracked others.

Communist control in Hungary or Poland can be reduced to a mention to support some general thesis, but if the idea is we have to go through some kind of muddled up Marxist imperial communism to get an authentic state of Conservativism…well we went through that 400 years ago.

There is a real sense of renewal in the UK at the moment that is being completely missed by so many writers and commentators….but ’twas ever thus I guess, anyway I agreed with his comments about a hollowed out *client* media…but that happened because two or three big internet companies stole their lunch and they, like a slaughtered cow, haven’t just completely fallen over yet because the signal from the exploded business model hasn’t reached all the limbs..

rtsprenger2
rtsprenger2
3 years ago
Reply to  Ted Ditchburn

This is the most sensible comment here. “Declinism” makes intellectuals seem more profound and important.

Andrew Baldwin
Andrew Baldwin
3 years ago

Well said, Edward. There’s not much wrong with the UK that a proper federal structure couldn’t cure. Anderson was miserly in his praise of much-admired British innovations. The NHS has been a model for health care in so many other countries, including my own country, Canada. The UK was the first European country to adopt an inflation targeting regime for its central bank. Although it was only the third country in the Anglosphere to adopt an IT regime it was the first to remove mortgage interest from its target inflation indicator, an improvement so obvious it was quickly imitated by New Zealand, although not, alas, by Canada. If properly developed by the ONS, the Household Cost Indices will be a model to all the advanced countries in the world on how to design consumer price series for upratings. There is really much for other countries to study and imitate in the way the UK conducts its affairs.

Micheal Lucken
Micheal Lucken
3 years ago

A nation is more than just the economy. It is cultural decline that is being lamented. If you work in or are part of the London financial scene then I’m sure everything looks hunky dory but from the outside London is looking increasingly like a separate country with completely different outlook to other parts. Material wealth hasn’t gone through the floor but what people can do how they go about their lives what they can do and say and many other aspects of life are being lost along with a sense of social cohesion. Maybe the economy will continue to hold up into the future, who knows given the current accumulation of debt, but I doubt a willingness to sacrifice for Queen and Country is what it was half a century ago and if it does come under threat some time in the future from foreign power will people really care.

Peter Lockyer
Peter Lockyer
3 years ago

So it all went wrong after 1689?? If a country that founded the largest empire in human history, the industrial revolution, and much more besides, if this was failure, what would have success looked like. There’s something deeply distasteful to me about people who have massively benefited from what this country has achieved and has to offer who continually rubbish it. Often from a public school background. Spend a year working in a leprosy hospital in India like I did. It will do your head a world of good.

Ryan Williams
Ryan Williams
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Lockyer

I think you might have missed the point – that the seeds of this new failure were sewn in the past. It doesn’t mean the intervening years weren’t hugely successful, but those roots can cause problems later on, regardless.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  Ryan Williams

Yes, but it is still a little absurd to trace things back so far. You can always find ‘the seeds of failure’ if you go back far enough or look hard enough. Whilst I agree with Anderson’s analysis of where the UK stands today, I would go back no further than the WW1 and the economic damage it inflicted, and perhaps even no further than the post-WW2 period. Surely, it was the end of empire that should have seen a rethinking and modernisation of all our institutions and governing structures. The same period also saw industrial drift and the inexorable rise of the welfare state, both of which have proved disastrous. Add to that the staggering collapse in educational standards following Labour’s abolition of the grammar schools, and the rest is misery.

Frederick B
Frederick B
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

If we are looking for starting points for our decline, I suggest 1867. That was the year we cut adrift our remaining North American colonies to become an independent Canada. They, plus our Australasian colonies, plus Ireland should have become internally self-governing states of a Greater Britain. Thus the key accomplishment of the Empire would have been retained as integral parts of Britain herself. No need for the EU, no need for Canzuk, no need for agonising over our place in the world – it would have been achieved.

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
3 years ago
Reply to  Frederick B

Nice counter-factual. Shame about the reality.

Robyn Lagrange
Robyn Lagrange
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I think you might have overlooked the fact that the “stop-go” economy was caused by unwinding the pound as a reserve currency at the same time as trying to maintain a fixed exchange rate, solved when Margaret Thatcher allowed the pound to float. This is a problem the USA is about to face in the near future.

Andrew Phillips
Andrew Phillips
3 years ago
Reply to  Robyn Lagrange

That and the failure of the capitalist/managerial class to update the business model to emancipate workers, which was brought about by defeat in eg Germany & Japan, but rumbled on here until the collapse of ’79

Andrew Russell
Andrew Russell
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

It started to go wrong in 1066. Britain’s never been the same since.

Andrew Russell
Andrew Russell
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Russell

PS For any right-on types reading my previous comment and preparing to type a furiously modern rebuttal, I suppose it’s depressingly necessary to point out that I’m not being entirely serious here.

Giulia Khawaja
Giulia Khawaja
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Russell

I tend to agree though. I do wonder what England / GB would be like now if the French and their feudalism had not arrived.

michaeltheloser2001
michaeltheloser2001
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Russell

Caesar’s Invasion…

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
3 years ago

Not really. He came he saw, he conquered. Then he departed. The later Claudian invasion was more permanent and Britain was civilised for nearly 4 centuries. Then we had the Dark Ages. That was when it really went wrong.

Stephen Wikner
Stephen Wikner
3 years ago
Reply to  Ralph Windsor

No he didn’t. That was later in Turkey. He just came (twice) and saw and then left.

Ralph Windsor
Ralph Windsor
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Russell

Went wrong again in 1660.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter Lockyer

In my case, working in various African countries. A very large part of the problem is the people who continually talk about ‘the world’ but never go to any part of it other than Oxfordshire and Tuscany. Britain, despite a myriad of dysfunctions, is still one of the best countries in the world to live in.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Lale

Otherwise why would so many risk life and limb to get here……

Caroline Galwey
Caroline Galwey
3 years ago

Uncomfortable reading, but hard to deny he’s on to something. Perry Anderson is now almost an oracle from the past, from the time when the Left hadn’t disappeared down the rabbit hole of grievance studies, and will probably be shrugged off on that account by the people who most need to listen to him.

Michael Joseph
Michael Joseph
3 years ago

Cripes – Anderson, Nairn and Ascherson! Talk about the holy trinity of buffoonery.
Even if the UK was the best-run and most admired state in the world, these guys would still be bleating about how terrible it all is. They’re Marxists ffs (well, two of them are – Ascherson is a Scottish nationalist so equally delusional). All three have issues with any society that isn’t some imaginary utopia! The mere fact that they’ve recognised that our political classes are a bunch of venal incompetents and that the current settlement isn’t working that well is hardly insightful analysis. Plus they’d say that even if it wasn’t true.
None of these muppets have any solution whatsoever to the problems the UK is facing. And if anybody was moronic enough to implement any of the ideas they advocate, we’d be in even worse trouble than we are now.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
3 years ago
Reply to  Michael Joseph

I liked the bit that somehow Hungary and Poland have an authenticate sort of functional conservatisim…and we haven’t, because we didn’t go through Communism.

I am not sure whether he’s bewailing the gestation of conversatisim despite 3 or 4 decades of Marxist *true consciousness* as a failure…or hailing it as a success.

daniel Earley
daniel Earley
3 years ago

An excellent analysis that would make difficult reading for some people, not necessarily the conclusions but certainly some of the assumptions. I am definitely in agreement with the assessment of the damage done during the Blair years to the UK but especially to England as an individual country. Is the solution to completely reform our civil service and national institutions? Good luck finding someone with the political will, savvy and fortitude to see it through. We only have to see the entrenched response to the Brexit vote, as the author alludes to, to imagine what the ‘Establishment’ response to that would be.

Malcolm Webb
Malcolm Webb
3 years ago

What a load of Marxist twaddle. Please read The Road to Serfdom and Gulag Archipelago again for afters.

Michael Whittock
Michael Whittock
3 years ago

Part of the rot at the heart of Westminster is that the political parties are not what they say on the tin anymore. The Conservatives are no longer conservative as they willingly preside over the destruction of the moral foundations of our society including the traditional family. Labour are no longer for Labour as the collapse of the red wall illustrated. They are more interested in furthering the madness of gender politics than the interests of labour.The LibDems are now the illiberal autocrats as they team up with the intolerant and fascist cultural Marxists and woke gangs. For all their faults where are the new Margaret Thatchers, Neil Kinnocks and Charles Kennedys?

Elizabeth Hart
Elizabeth Hart
3 years ago

There is something bloody grim happening in the UK, or whatever it’s called now, and other Western democracies, including Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand.
The dictatorial attitudes unleashed by politicians in regard to the coronavirus situation have been astonishing. It’s shocking how people’s freedom of movement and association has been curtailed by the likes of Boris Johnson, and Premier Daniel Andrews in Victoria, Australia, apparently via ’emergency powers’. And even more shocking there appear to be no checks and balances to protect people from politicians who turn into tyrants, with accountability effectively being trashed. How has this been allowed to happen?!?!

Andrew Best
Andrew Best
3 years ago

Never trust a communist.
Especially now in 2020!

daniel Earley
daniel Earley
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

Add to that, never trust a socialist.

Mike SampleName
Mike SampleName
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Best

Since I was old enough to really start following the details (mid-90s), I’ve come to the conclusion that “Never trust a politician” is sufficient. I can count on my fingers the number I have seen over the last quarter-century that are both competent and interested in more than their own self-aggrandisement – regardless of my feelings on their leanings.

Mark Melvin
Mark Melvin
3 years ago

I found this article fascinating with enough to agree and disagree with, not to mention the subtler nuances. I’ve long felt decline is happening and the paucity of statesmen in government (of any shape, size, hue, gender, whatever else) is sadly indicative of where we have ended up today. As a nation that has muddled through crises too innumerable to count, I suspect the conclusion of a muddled attempt to fudge something may be just about right. It really is a shame that people in power are just in it for the short time they are in it and not for the long term good of the country, which is what it looks like even if they say that its not so. The paper won’t be read though, no chance of that. I also do wonder how many people have ever read Animal Farm or 1984 rather than just quote bits of it. They were terrible books, almost unreadable but the concepts were frightening. Probably just like this gentleman’s paper.

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Melvin

1984 and Animal Farm are terrible books? Unreadable? What have you written?

Jos Haynes
Jos Haynes
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Lale

They were/are fairly awful as works of fiction (I have re-read both in the past few years) but are remarkable for their political insights.

A novel cannot only be criticised by other novelists!

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
3 years ago
Reply to  Jos Haynes

‘They were/are fairly awful as works of fiction’. In your opinion. You state it as if it were objective fact.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Lale

I agree in a way. Orwell was a great essayist and journalist, but he wasn’t a natural novelist. I read the Penguin Collected Journalism (inc. Essays) many years ago and was enthralled. None of his novels had the same effect. Patchy would be the best word. Novels as political tracts, especially, seldom work. The scale is wrong, somehow.

Pamela Booker
Pamela Booker
3 years ago
Reply to  Mark Melvin

I blame our decline on the wilful destruction of our education system where narrow “ideas” replaced facts – ie: actual knowledge Where critical thinking and consideration of the facts has largely been replaced and limited by an agenda to accommodate “feelings” and “sensitivities”.
As for finding true statesmen and stateswomen in the british diaspora, I’m afraid that for many, as in the US, having access to funding of a political career is a barrier.

mattycottrell
mattycottrell
3 years ago

This was a really challenging read, especially for a staunch unionist and believer in an internationally engaged Britain such as myself.
I shudder to think what it will look like for that collapse to happen – especially in a younger populace that has been indoctrinated by divisive identity politics, full of resentment and scorn for their closest neighbours. It won’t be pretty, and best avoided.
If the Union doesn’t last, I still hope for England as a ‘Switzerland’ to the North of our similarly ailing immediate neighbours to the South, East and West. Economically its hard to see a Britain that won’t need to look to emerging markets for its growth, because that is where the growth will be coming from due to changing demographics.
The article makes no mention of historical links to the Commonwealth, we have already signed some trade deals, and there does seem to be more appetite for closer connections through the so-called CANZUK block. I don’t see things as dark and could add energy to that imperial impulse that Mr Anderson describes, albeit in a more healthy form.
At home reform will need to be from the bottom up as those at the top, as the article indicates, just don’t have the stomach for the kind of reform required, nor would such a reform be in their interest. We need both main parties to remodel themselves towards the people that vote for them. We’ve been stripping the tombs of our ancestors for too long! I don’t wish to be too black pilled about the future, I’m not so old that I don’t believe things can change.
Its easier tear down than to build up, some might call it pragmatism, I see it as pessimism, things can change. This won’t be read because its a dreary and hopeless prognosis and no solutions are offered – we can turn it around, but we are nearing the end of our rope.

Robyn Lagrange
Robyn Lagrange
3 years ago

For the past millenium, England has never been ruled by an Englishman. Similarly, Parliament represents many viewpoints but it isn’t representive of English culture.

Ever since the Act of Union, the political project was to ignore the rebellious English. It wasn’t a true union. Scotland retained it’s own system of law and customs.

In the act of devolving Scotland and Wales, an unsuccessful attempt was made to regionalise (Balkanise) England; To create regions roughly equivalent to, say, Scotland. I think that is described as “divide and conquer.” The people in the north of England are not Scottish. Their traditions and culture are English, much more English in fact than the citizens of London.

If devolution lit the fires of Scottish Nationalism, that’s just too bad. From an English point of view I’d be delighted to see Scotland become an independent nation.

The nature of the Irish Republic has undergone a sea change in the last few decades and at some stage the call for a United Ireland will be irresistable.

I don’t think the Welsh have an appetite for independence, so the dis-United Kingdom will probably be reduced to England and Wales.

In a moment of weakness, David Cameron expressed the opinion that England should have it’s own parliament although that,like him, is a distant memory. The departure of Scotland and Northern Ireland will achieve that by default.

The decision to leave to E.U. was an English decision. Given the option to express an opinion, the English could well decide the United Kingdom has passed it’s sell by date. Everyone will be consulted, with the exception of the English.

Britain will never be great again, but the nations within the U.K. have a chance to be moderately successful once the Westminster ball and chain is cut adrift. I suspect that is a commonly held view everywhere except Westminster.

I’ll get me coat. INCOMING!!

jonathanblakeborough61
jonathanblakeborough61
3 years ago
Reply to  Robyn Lagrange

Well said

Simon Holder
Simon Holder
3 years ago

A fascinating article, made more so by the juxtaposition of heretical thoughts into various opponents’ camps. However, I still believe that Thatcher saved Britain and turned it into an island of potential, but needed another ten years to implement it; the problem was that after her downfall she was succeeded by the useless and anti-democratic John Major (proved by his response to the Brexit vote as ‘the tyranny of the majority’ – well, a majority is democracy, John!) and then the arch-destroyer of everything, Tony Blair, on whom I blame everything that went wrong with Britain and the catalyst for all our ills ever since, including devolution, too much unrestricted EU immigration and total obeisance to that corrupt body. The ‘woke’ movement is the proof of his reign of smiling terror. There is a silver lining, though: I think Johnson will be brilliant eventually, as he proved as mayor of London, and after we have left the corrupt, bullying, unaccountable, profligate international-law deniers of the EU (that last refers to our fish) we will be able to create a new Commonwealth/Empire with CANZUK countries and our American cousins. With the potential CPTPP, too, we might get somewhere near to where we were at the end of the 19th century; whether the Scots wish to be part of this re-birth of our shared island is up to them but any rot at Westminster is in double amounts in Edinburgh! So, rejoice! We might be on the cusp of a new Merry England – and a global one, too!

Phil Jones
Phil Jones
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Holder

I very much like what you have said Simon but sadly I can not see it happening. A big reset will be required first to be able take advantage of our full potential.
Pre Thatcher my father used to say we need a dictator to sort out the mess. A bit extreme but to the point. Thatcher was the closest available. The problem is in the present I do not see any politician of her caliber, all I see are flawed pygmies. On the otherhand Thatcher & Thatcherism came from nowhere.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Holder

Can’t resist ‘the corrupt, bullying, unaccountable, profligate international-law deniers’ as it sounds like such an good description of the Johnson government.

Pamela Booker
Pamela Booker
3 years ago
Reply to  Simon Holder

Concur mostly but I’m afraid Boris is only interested in following the money to build his empires. Why else did he give the destructive and costly HS2 the go-ahead against the popular will? He doesn’t have the moral and intellectual strength to question those advising him. Nor the statesmanship to put the country before the personal.

David Cockayne
David Cockayne
3 years ago

Scotland will probably go its own way, which means are near permanent entrenched Tory majority in the new UK, no more subsidies for Scotland and no more listeneing to the bleating, blustering blather of Ian Blackford. What’s not to like?

Alan
Alan
3 years ago
Reply to  David Cockayne

The old Scottish are subsidy junkies supported by the benevolent English
trope. If it makes you feel better when Scotland does eventually go its own way, then run with it.

Alan
Alan
3 years ago

I am surprised that anyone finds this analysis new or uncomfortable reading in 2020. Where have you been? If anything this is a rather watered down rehash of other commentators. Anderson and Nairn have been writing about this since the 1960s. Here’s an excerpt from Nairn’s The Breakup of Britain written in 1977. You could also read Ascherson, O’Toole, or Barnett who often cover similar or related ground.

And one hardly needs to be a Marxist to appreciate that there is something seriously wrong with the British State. Here’s Lord Scarman in 1992 explaining how we will end up where we have now arrived in 2020 in the absence of serious political reform:

To sum up, the 1688 checks and balances were never complete: they have now gone: and today the only legal checks left on the party in command of the Commons is the periodic necessity of an election. Our democracy is not safe. The rights of the people lack the protection of the law against oppression, tyranny and injustice if threatened by a prejudiced or frightened political party in control of the Commons. The risk is real: and our constitutional insurance is weak, limited and very fragile.

Toby Bray
Toby Bray
3 years ago

Fascinating piece, thanks.

S
S
3 years ago

Without communism, I’m not sure Britain and France would look like Britain and France

Andrew Russell
Andrew Russell
3 years ago
Reply to  S

Perhaps if Britain and Western Europe had been under the Soviet yoke for a few decades it wouldn’t be so dire now. – Strange, but communism in Eastern Europe inadvertently saved a lot of beautiful old buildings, which would undoubtedly have been subjected to the shock-of-the-new brutalist atrocities of the 1960s* and beyond. So at least it was good for something.
*Accidentally typed “1060s” there – which, I suppose, for Norman invasion type reasons, was also a pretty bad decade for English architecture.

Ted Ditchburn
Ted Ditchburn
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Russell

Much of Eastern Europe is new build fakery, pleasant enough but no older than mid 20th century as between them the twin successes of Germany and the USSR managed to flatten huge areas of thousands of cities during the war.

Andrew Russell
Andrew Russell
3 years ago
Reply to  Ted Ditchburn

True, lovely cities such as Warsaw, Kiev and Minsk were destroyed. But Prague wasn’t. It would’ve been trashed by the brutalists, although the infamous “panelak” towns in the suburbs are examples of the grim lack of imagination so typical of forward-thinking types.

Duncan Hunter
Duncan Hunter
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Russell

Really?! You clearly didn’t see Bratislava before they smashed a motorway through its historic centre. Bucharest?
Closer to home, Glasgow?
Get real.

Andrew Russell
Andrew Russell
3 years ago
Reply to  Duncan Hunter

I think you missed my use of the word “inadvertently” in that sentence.

Michael Livingston
Michael Livingston
3 years ago

Why, oh why, I ask myself, do I fall into the same old trap? Yet another 15 minutes of my life I’ll never get back!

Andrew Russell
Andrew Russell
3 years ago

You won’t get it back anyway. That’s how time works.

Richard Martin
Richard Martin
3 years ago

… Or maybe the problem is too much planning?

Maybe politicians have wanted to be philosophers, and forgotten how to be practical.

Maybe we have become to firmly wedded to the idea of ‘progress’, that somehow we are better than any who have gone before.

Maybe there are too many of us, and maybe we should decide on the optimum number, and work towards it.

Andrew Russell
Andrew Russell
3 years ago
Reply to  Richard Martin

Plato thought he could create philosopher kings who would bring about his kind of society, He had a practical opportunity to attempt this when he taught Dionysus II. Sadly (so the story goes) Dionysus got a trifle bored with the old fellow and decided to put him up for sale in the market place instead.
There’s a moral there somewhere.

Jacques René GiguÚre
Jacques René GiguÚre
3 years ago

CANZUK block? Like Lot pleading to Yawveh,if you can find five (no four, maybe three,just two oh Lord?) people outside the editorial writers at the Toronto National Post wishing to resurrect the Empire…

Andrew Lale
Andrew Lale
3 years ago

Bet I stopped reading before you did.

Andrew Thompson
Andrew Thompson
3 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Lale

Bet we were close :-/

Steve Gwynne
Steve Gwynne
3 years ago

I think on this one Aris, you (and Perry) and I inhabit very different worlds.

The current guiding philosophy of our government is a domestic agenda of national sustainability, national resilience and national sufficiency whereas the international agenda is fulfilled by occupying the niche of gold standards and by that approach, be more of a mediator rather than a follower.

In this context, I personally find no fault with the government, they are doing everything according to plan including integrating working class priorities.

Therefore it is difficult to know where you or Perry are coming from, especially as neither of you (or the many commentators below) actually identify specifically where your disapproval lies. All I see is the usual name calling, ‘incompetent, useless, authoritarian’, which quite frankly are the same shallow critiques currently coming from the hard Left and the hard Right.

Presumably, Perry is coming from the old socialist order but like you on this occasion, is lacking any depth so I can only conclude, that he is just another ‘sophisticated’ ranting socialist.

We are indeed living in strange times in that the libertarian Right have so much in common with the marxist Left. In other words, so distracted by their hollow ideologies that they can’t see the wood or the trees.

Peter Dunn
Peter Dunn
3 years ago

The sweep of history was what it was…but was interrupted by Blair govts deliberate and underhand fragmentation of UK.
Scottish/Welsh devolution/peripheral self governance/Regional Development Agencies all of it total smoke&mirrors..and total bollocks..
Their real aim was to make them ALL EU regions/units of one sort or another in preparation for FULL political&monetary union within EU.
They’d plotted all that(in collusion with EU acolytes from ALL parties)thinking people wouldn’t notice the mission creep.

They did notice and they weren’t having it.

Andersons cerebral marxism fools no-one…his cabal is responsible for so much destruction of the fabric of our society from within our education system.
Britain will only recover its self-respect when they are removed from our national discourse.

Peter KE
Peter KE
3 years ago

The failure of government is not just the politicians but needs to include the civil service, quangos, ngo’s, journalism (especially bbc), education system, police and judiciary. Sweeping change is needed throughout.

D Ward
D Ward
3 years ago

I have a copy of Anderson’s “Lineages of the Absolutist State”, of all places on my bathroom windowsill. I bought it second hand (and unread) over 30 years ago when I was at Uni and it remains unread to this day.

I tried to interest my daughter in reading it recently (which is why it’s in the bathroom), but having flicked through it, she declined to take it any further.

Fraser Bailey
Fraser Bailey
3 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

I don’t quite understand why trying to interest your daughter in the book would lead to it being in the bathroom. Surely this would be a book to be read over long periods of focused attention, not in the bathroom.

D Ward
D Ward
3 years ago
Reply to  Fraser Bailey

I was hoping In the bath with a glass of wine would do the trick. But it didn’t. I might try again after this.

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
3 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

Try Michael Oakeshott and his essay ‘The Character of the Modern European State’, part of the book ‘Of Human Conduct’ (warning: expensive, even in paperback). Lucid and far more informative than anything I’ve read by Anderson. Oakeshott is a neglected writer, whose books I find fascinating. I discovered him rather recently.

Gordon Fraser
Gordon Fraser
3 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

Why would you interest your daughter in a book you yourself haven’t read?

Arnold Grutt
Arnold Grutt
3 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

I used to tire of Anderson’s monumentally tedious dissection of the various shades, personalities and theories of Communism in the LRB. After yet another seminal thinker (totally obscure, with an unpronounceable name) surfaces, at some piddling Conference in some dreary hell-hole, the will to persist simply evaporates). Who could ever be interested in that stuff?

Alan Hughes
Alan Hughes
3 years ago

An excellent article which prompted me to go and read the original. You have summarised it well and made some areas a lot clearer. Both make pessimistic reading if one holds an entrenched position, and entrenched position, because it is likely that change is coming. As Perry says “No part of the current configuration is independent of the others. Their nexus is bound to dissolve, in one way or another. When or how is anyone’s guess.. It gives a good deal of insight into both the success of Scottish Nationalism and its problem. Riding a similar wave of populist anger it is going to find this difficult to direct over the coming years.

tim.lewthwaite
tim.lewthwaite
3 years ago

I agree with a number of Anderson’s points but he misses certain things. For example where he says English nationalism is taking an ugly form because New Labour didn’t allow it a political expression as they did Wales, Scot., NI. is simply wrong. It whiffs of the usual Labour bashing that Marxists and High Tories join together in. New Labour, for all its many faults, DID try to push devolution on England. John Prescot considered forcing regional devolution when it was rejected by the North East in a referendum. So NL did try and avert this ugly English nationalism in some ways.

Increasingly finding myself drawn to John Denham’s analysis on English nationalism, that yes its a sort of reversion back to pre-imperial Englishness mixed with dying, ugly Anglo-British imperial statehood, but there is actually a place for it outside of these two manifestations; contemporary, folk, and even progressive.

Paul Hunt
Paul Hunt
3 years ago

Reform… “we are forced to answer, but have you seen who’d carry it out?” Lol this is my argument for the Monarchy and was my argument against Brexit. Do we really want to swap The Firm for party appointees- better than a peerage! President John Major or President Harriet Harmen, any takers? And lets stop slow CAP payments and get our own system- DEFRA was the bottleneck that couldn’t handle the payment system!

Andrew Phillips
Andrew Phillips
3 years ago

Great review. Not sure about ‘rigorous Marxian thought’, which sounds like an oxymoron. If I were a bit younger might take it on as a PhD thesis. Perhaps some young turk will do so – could be argued either way

Vivek Rajkhowa
Vivek Rajkhowa
3 years ago

I’m surprised to find myself agree with a Marxist, Britain is not run by a conservative government, but by one dressed in Whiggish contempt for what a nation is meant to be. 1688 was the beginning of a downfall. I believe it can still be revived though. The monarchy must be given greater power.

Pamela Booker
Pamela Booker
3 years ago
Reply to  Vivek Rajkhowa

Completely agree that the Monarchy, our head of state, should be given more power – just as presidents have to intervene when sides disagree – such as when the judiciary became involved in a PM’s decision last year. When the people are in despair at their cloth-eared leaders, the Monarch should be able to step in and bang heads together.
I would also return the HoL to the hereditaries as they had no class axe to grind nor were they there because of here today, gone tomorrow prime ministers. Noblesse oblige served this country well for decades.

Vivek Rajkhowa
Vivek Rajkhowa
3 years ago
Reply to  Pamela Booker

100% agreed with you there. Had George VI not been so willing to remain on the sidelines perhaps that would be the case today. And completely agree re the HOL, return the aristocracy to their rightful place.