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New Left Review I/130, November-December 1981


Tom Nairn

The Crisis of the British State

Ireland, mounting street violence in the greater English cities, the disintegration of the Labour Party (and hence of the old two-party stability), continuing separatist agitation in Wales and Scotland, a renewed economic crisis after the brief reprieve of North Sea oil—these may appear, at first sight, signs of one more attack of that familiar malady of modern times, the ‘British disease’. However, appearances may be deceptive. The symptoms are now so acute, so numerous, and in such rapid development, that one is forced to ask whether the old ailment has not assumed, at least, a new and more serious stage. What is it that has changed? Why has the long decline so suddenly accelerated? What further changes will this new stage bring? In the past, most diagnoses have concentrated upon the weaknesses of twentieth century British society. They have emphasized that society’s economic collapse from a position of leadership to one of relative backwardness; its consequent loss of power and international prestige, and subservience to American aims; and its range of picturesque social anachronisms, from the Windsor monarchy to the inimitable proletarian café (pronounced ‘caff’ to underline its indigenous, non-bourgeois character). While not mistaken, this general picture habitually omits something important. The decline, mediocrity and archaism are also related to something else, less visible. As well as the socio-economic peculiarities of the United Kingdom, one should take into account its distinctive state. What seems to be happening in the new phase of British problems is that a long-standing illness of society is turning, rapidly and unmistakably, into a crisis of the state. For the first time outside the experience of war, ‘crisis’ has grown sufficiently acute to involve and threaten the form of state power.

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