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New Left Review I/132, March-April 1982

Tariq Ali and Quintin Hoare

Socialists and the Crisis of Labourism

British politics today no longer lags behind economics. Hitherto, the hundred-year decline of British capitalism’s relative strength in the world economy, so often analysed, so rarely even temporarily checked, has been accompanied by a relative stability of the country’s political system. [1] For an excellent recent analysis, see Andrew Gamble, Britain in Decline, London 1981. (The author’s concluding reference to Baldwin’s celebration of the stability of British institutions, and to Trotsky’s comments, is also very much to the point.) Of the major imperialist powers, only two have experienced such basic institutional resilience over such a time-span: the United States and Britain. But they have represented not—as vulgar-liberal ideology would have it—comparable exemplars of some quintessentially Anglo-Saxon bourgeois-democratic preservative virtue, but rather opposite poles. At one extreme, after the bloody achievement of its final unification in 1861–5, already equipped during its emergence as an independent nation with relatively advanced political institutions, us political stability went together with—and was consolidated by—the country’s rise to economic and political supremacy in the capitalist world—a supremacy which reached its apogee in the three decades after World War II. At the other extreme, Britain rose—through its commercial and military-colonial expansion of the eighteenth century and its industrial revolution of 1780–1850—to a pre-eminent position in the mid 19th century that was by some (economic) criteria even greater than the later us hegemony, without any major modification of what was already by then in many respects (from its monarchy to its educational hierarchy) a notably antiquated political order. Since that time, as a hundred years of living off its economic fat has progressively disclosed the scrawny frame beneath John Bull’s corpulent persona, what once seemed a merely superficial archaism, with its own more-than-compensatory Burkean strengths, has been revealed as a morbid condition.

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