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
The result may be a general crisis of legitimation, in something like the sense made familiar by Jürgen Habermas: that is, a moment of rupture in which economic breakdown ceases to be confined to the arena of trade-union negotiation and government conjunctural policy, and invests the totality of social values—the basis of the state’s authority. To understand why this should be so it is necessary to recall one or two salient facts from the history of the British state. First of all, its antiquity—in a sense far from being merely chronological. It is the oldest of existing state-forms; and much of its legitimacy in the contemporary epoch has been derived from this truth, via an ideology of ancient wisdom and ‘adaptability’. The point, however, is that its age comports certain aspects of archaism, and on that level—the heart of the system rather than its external members—it has proved perfectly unadaptable. It has survived through conquest, successful warfare and external good luck—not by successful self-transformation.
The customary analyses of Britain’s problem locate it in relation to the Industrial Revolution (1780–1840) and the period of imperialist hegemony (up to 1914). But this time-scale is too restricted for the history of the state. The basis of the English (after 1707, ‘British’) polity lies in the bourgeois revolutions of the seventeenth century, between 1640 and 1688. The latter successfully founded a ‘primitive’ capitalist state, frankly oligarchic and patrician in character. A philosophical empiricism and a striking degree of informality were other attributes of this curious entity—all features derived from its precedence and the inevitable lack of political models. One should recall, equally, that this political order was never to have a written constitution. The fact is sometimes presented as an amusing oddity, on a par with policemen’s helmets and tepid beer. What it reflects is the truth—less entertaining—that Her Majesty’s subjects are not citizens, because the myth of popular sovereignty remains alien to the state. Although famously parliamentary and representative in its mode of hegemony, the United Kingdom is not a ‘democracy’ in the sense which has regulated all constitution-making since the American and French Revolutions. It relies upon its own, aboriginal sovereignty-myth: the ‘Crown-in-Parliament’ and the (literally) absolute authority of the latter. If anyone is inclined to believe this is an academic, textbook matter, he should study the current debate within the Labour Party: this is what it is about.
In spite of its primitivism, the British state was consecrated by a unique measure of success, obtained through its defeat of the absolutist regimes of the eighteenth century (especially France), colonization, and early
It has taken many economic and governmental ‘crises’ to erode a deeply-rooted consensus, and move crisis to a more strategic level determined by the underlying state characteristics I mentioned. One may express this in summary fashion by saying that the historical state-apparatus, notably well-adapted to external administration and patrician social management, has proved quite incapable of economic and industrial intervention. It lacks the dimension of a successful dirigisme (the word was imported into English because nothing corresponded to it in Westminster’s political universe). Generally speaking, the state and industry are necessary partners in economic modernization. With few exceptions, state initiative and support have proved indispensable to rapid capitalist development—above all where the problem is competitive, one of ‘catching up’ with foreign models. But what United Kingdom capitalism exhibits is a chronic divorce between them. It is important to note that this disjuncture—and the consequent incapacity of governments to treat the perennial economic malady—is genuinely structural in nature. There is an essential disequilibrium in British capitalism between its powerful financial and multi-national sector, and its increasingly weak domestic industrial basis. Since the end of the last century, political hegemony has lain indisputably with the former—a hegemony never more confidently and blatantly exercised than under the administration of Mrs Thatcher since 1979. But the financial and overseas-oriented sector has always been happy with the British ancien régime. It has no need of a modern, interventionist state-apparatus. Technocracy (another linguistic import!) is regarded in those circles as an alien nuisance, synonymous with ‘interference’ and un-gentlemanly bureaucracy. Here, then, is the material force—in practice an overwhelming one—that sustains all those celebrated anachronisms in existence. It is this deformed structure which underlies the recurrent crisis-cycle of British twentieth-century politics.
‘Recovery’, in the sense of industrial regeneration, is impossible without state leadership. But there is no ‘state’ able to fulfil such a role. Hence the left-wing governments which propose dramatic plans to reverse decline invariably find themselves disarmed: there are no means, short of a revolution, by which such fantasies can be realized. After a year or so—as under Harold Wilson in 1964–67, and again in 1974–76—the modernization-dream crumbles into mere crisis management, discrediting the progressives. The right has an easy revenge, exploiting such manifest statist incompetence to restore ‘freedom’, the hard discipline of market
Why has this long established decline-spiral suddenly got worse? Because of a new conjunction of factors. For the first time, severe economic recession—the impact of the global slump upon an already weak economy—is intersecting with political collapse. That is, with a political change that is more than the usual alternation of parties and ideologies. In the last round of overt crisis, in 1973–74, a Conservative government struggled with (and was defeated by) economic, trade-union militancy; but now, while working-class economic response to ‘Thatcherism’ has remained feeble, the crisis has been translated on to the political plane. This is the measure of its seriousness. While economic, corporate upheavals (even very grave ones like the miners’ strike and the three-day week in 1973) can be repaired and forgotten, alteration of the political structure will be permanent.