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.