Britain, or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as it is still officially known, resembles an ungainly, dilapidated, half-refurbished Victorian pile threatened by the simultaneous onslaught of subsidence, storm damage, woodworm and dry rot.footnote This year brings an election that could be dangerously inconclusive and that is certain to further encourage Scottish separatism. The distortions of the traditional system of constituency representation are now less acceptable to a public also increasingly sceptical as to the competence of politicians and the fair working of the legal system. Meanwhile, the inexorable advance of European unification undermines the authority of Westminster and Whitehall, and demands clear choices. The gathering storm clouds of an international recession will test and trouble all the major capitalist states, but will hit hardest at those economies that, like Britain’s, are enfeebled by the neo-liberal experiment in deindustrialization and social neglect. Britain’s ruling institutions have weathered many storms before, because they have been able to draw on reserves of popular respect.

But the present menacing conjuncture includes a challenge to the legitimacy of the political and electoral system. Britain’s rulers may be ill-prepared for the trials in store, but what of the Left? Many sectors of the Left have been engaged in the process of diluting their message just at the point when they should be looking to create conditions in which a robust and renewed socialist politics could be fairly tested and widely canvassed. The Left’s most absorbing debates—on such important topics as Thatcherism and post-Fordism—have not focused on the quite specific demands of democratic advance in the uk which the election, Scotland, ‘1992’ and the dynamic toward European Union have placed on the political agenda.

Since the defeat of Chartism, British socialism has, anyway, concentrated on the social and disregarded the constitutional. When it adopted its first programme in 1918, the British Labour Party committed itself to sweeping public ownership but had nothing to say about the monarchy or the Palace of Westminster. The historical solidity, continuity and success of Britain’s ruling political institutions have discouraged critical thought about them. The British state has not been in serious trouble since 1832. It escaped the revolutionary overthrows of 1848. In the years 1910–14, Liberal England was thrown into crisis by a combination of Irish Home Rule, Ulster conspiracy, the agitations of the suffragettes, and a wave of syndicalist trade unionism. But, with the outbreak of wartime patriotism, this passed. The General Strike of 1926 never came near putting the character of the state at issue. Britain’s rulers extended the franchise, adjusted to social reform and decolonization, fought two world wars, and several smaller ones, all without any fundamental convulsion. Unlike most other European states, Britain was never invaded or occupied. The student effervescence of the sixties was more limited than that in the United States, Germany, France or Italy. The great miners’ strikes of 1972 and 1973–74 helped displace a government but were themselves absorbed by a quite orderly election. In 1979, trade-union action once again helped to set the stage for a general election—bequeathing a lasting trauma. But again the standoff between the parties—and between the government and the unions—was resolved by the election without putting any strain on the political system. The 1979 election had been preceded and precipitated by the referendum on Scottish devolution; but this issue, too, was tidied away, since the incoming government was thoroughly committed to the status quo so far as the Union between Scotland, England and Wales was concerned. Margaret Thatcher’s governments earned a deserved reputation for arrogance and authoritarianism, but they did so by using the large powers conferred on central government by the Westminster system. Despite the populism and neo-liberalism of the Thatcher programme, and its preparedness to politicize the top levels of the civil service, it exploited to the hilt the quite traditional structures of the uk state to legitimate and realize the government’s objectives. The 1980s witnessed considerable social turmoil, but even the miners’ strike of 1984–85 did not put at issue the survival of the government, let alone the form of the state. Such observations are all, of course, relative in character. Someone who had lived all their life on the Canadian prairies would find the English Home Counties a dramatically mountainous landscape; but an Afghan or Swiss would take a quite different view. Compared with the modern history of Germany, France, Spain or Italy, that of Britain has been decorous and untroubled.footnote1

Britain’s good fortune argues some virtue in its institutions, but at the price of missing the moment of democratic renovation that accompanied the defeat of fascism in Europe. The good fortune of the uk state allowed it to inhabit a providential Shangri-la, appearing vigorous and well-preserved despite its advanced years. The mysterious elixirs that worked this miracle included the early successes of capitalism, a far-flung empire, an insular position and more recently the now dwindling assets of the Cold War, the ‘special relationship’ with the us, and North Sea oil. But with the lost horizons of a vanishing world may come an unforgiving climate in which the old magic will no longer work. Of course British conservatism—that small-‘c’ conservatism which is as strong in the ranks of Labour as in the clubs of St James’s—should never be underestimated. But this year it faces not one but several formidable tests.

The coming election is likely to be a close-run thing, with a strong possibility that no party will enjoy a majority and the likelihood that Scotland will move further along its own course. The first possibility, that of a ‘hung parliament’, could plunge the country into a constitutional crisis in which parliament would indeed twist in the wind as a consequence of Britain’s antique electoral arrangements and unwritten Constitution. The Liberal Democrats, who would hold the balance, have long advocated that the first-past-the-post system should be ditched. They have a very lively political interest in making sure that it is.