Constitutional alterations normally require an alteration of the communal will: that is, a national or nationalist identity motion of some kind, whether of resentment, ascendancy, defeat or rebirth. Such a will might be stimulated and led ‘from above’; this entails, however, the existence of a dissentient ruling elite which thinks in constitutional terms, and puts state reform resolutely ahead of social reform and economic policy. But such an order of priorities is quite alien to the modern United Kingdom ruling class—indeed nothing has been more alien to it. Constitutionalism had been familiar enough to its early-modern predecessors of the period 1640–1707. But the state constructed at that time was then reconfigured primarily through contests against what appeared as the more aggressive modernity shown in the revolutions of 1776 and 1789—that is, the modern constitutionalism out of which today’s nation-state world has mainly arisen. In those contests the pioneer itself had become tradition-minded and custom-bound—‘empirical’ in its philosophy and pragmatic in its political attitudes. British parliamentarism grew perfectly inseparable from such attitudes and Blair’s New Labour victory of 1997 was still far more an expression of them than a repudiation.
Without that more decisive break—a rupture on the level of grammar, as it were, rather than rhetoric—New Labour’s political renaissance could only be undertaken ‘the wrong way round’. It was fated by its own history to move periphery-first. Authority had to be conceded outwards without the prior establishment of a new central framework capable of encompassing all the new energies and demands. When General de Gaulle decided it was time that France ‘married its own century’, he set up a new republican constitution to consummate the wedding. In Germany and Italy, new federal or regional patterns of government were imposed after Fascism, in order to modulate and confine the unitary state. In Spain the post-Franco democracy designed and enabled the Catalan, Basque, and other autonomous governments, by first of all erecting a radically novel political and juridical mainframe.
But in the United Kingdom the mainframe itself has remained sacrosanct. Behind a firework-display of fizzling rhetoric about change and modernization, it has simply been carried forward, and trusted to go on ‘evolving’. Trust it, and therefore us: things will settle down and generally sort themselves out, while in the meantime (which could mean a lifetime) things can go on in the comfortable, circular kind of way people (i.e. England’s people) are used to, albeit with some changes round the edges. In France and Spain new state constitutions were seen as the necessary condition of a political break with the past. But after Thatcher, only a new politics was demanded, not a new framework for political living—and that in order to redeem and continue the past, not to break with it. Recent episodes of UK history may have come to be despised and rejected; but not the longer perspective of Britishness, within which success and world leadership had been for so long celebrated. Only on the periphery had ‘radical’ changes become unavoidable, in the more European sense of ruptures or definite new departures. For ‘Middle England’ itself, these were reckoned to be superfluous—or at least indefinitely postponable.
There were in fact interesting poll and survey indications in the later 1990s that English opinion may have been a lot more open to new departures than party political leaders assumed. Unfortunately, it was the assumptions of the latter which counted. They continued to believe that dramatic departures of style and communication accompanied by minimal, adaptive changes to the constitution were most in accord with the subjacent mood. Hence some departures from the stick-insect rigidity of Thatcherism were in order—but not of such a kind as to frighten the horses. Socialism had been exorcised in accordance with the same supposed mood. After which, it would have seemed damnably un-British to start imposing a Hispanic-style revolution up top: surely some modernization-touches would do instead? Enhanced (only cynics would say ‘disguised’) by brilliant new ideas? Might not some thoroughly intelligent bricolage, plus a strong dose of accelerationism, technicism (etc.) restore the basis of Anglo-British statehood for long enough? And keep the restorers in governmental business for long enough, too?
The past does not simply ‘survive’. To be reproduced effectively within modernity it requires vehicles, social devices and intentions. Through these what would otherwise be fossils become allied to new interests and passions, acquiring the style (even the fashionability) demanded by what the Situationists originally called la société du spectacle. One of the key vectors for this is economics. It is still a common error to believe that the Habsburg Empire so wonderfully captured in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities was economically hopeless or doomed. In fact it did fairly well until killed off by war and defeat. David Good and other historians have shown how notably it was advancing by 1914, after a period in which Austria–Hungary had indeed lagged behind industrially. Society there may have been unviable, and particularly the contradiction-riven state—but this was not for reasons rooted in economic development alone. Like other deplorable truisms of the time to come, ‘It’s the economy, stupid!’ was quite familiar in Vienna.
‘Was the Habsburg Empire an economic failure in the sense that it could not engineer modern economic growth prior to its collapse?’ asks Good. His answer is ‘an unequivocal “no”.’ The Empire grew at a significantly faster rate than the United Kingdom over the period between 1570 and 1914, and its GNP per capita was by then equivalent to that of France. Of course it straddled the ancient socio-economic gap between West and East, and hence contained within its own borders a steep ‘development gradient’. Yet the latter, Good points out, was less steep than the one between the North and the South of the United States. The latter’s ‘impeccable credentials’ as a model of successful capitalist evolution have been largely the result of backward projection from post-1945. Although it had not caught up with Belgium, the English Midlands or the Ruhr, Franz-Joseph’s Empire stood comparison with Mediterranean and peripheral Western Europe (which meant, with most of it). The implication is plain, if disagreeable to economics-worshippers: there was no straightforward relationship between development and political success or stability. ‘Modernization’ never fails to create contradictions and stir things up. It provided Vienna (today, London) with greater resources to buy off opposition, dangle bribes and be terribly broad-minded; but at the same time, it made the unbribable, the resentful and the contrary far more aware of their unequal, left-behind status. Not everyone can be bought off equally. Any measure of success—like the arrival of a railway, the opening of the first supermarket, sudden access to college education—generates an irascible appetite for more, and more quickly. The broad-minded (blueprint in hand) perceive this as unreasonable: impatient narrowness, egotism, jumping the queue. Thus a grander, encompassing, controlling sort of identity comes to oppose more particular, self-assertive, ‘I’m-as-good-as-you’ identities. The sharper the impact of socio-economic change, the more this clash turns towards nationalism—the sense that life-or-death may be at stake here, unless control of development is made to lie where it should (with us, not them).
Success in statistical tables and growth-leagues does not automatically favour a grateful, conserving philosophy of evensong, egotism and familial values. The British Conservatives discovered this in the late 1980s, not long before they fell helplessly through the floor. Neither does stagnation and the sense of retreat or confinement encourage either revolution or nationalism (except among tiny minorities who know in the abstract that what people tolerate is actually ‘intolerable’, and inform them of this). There may have been some formative periods of industrialization when such combinations were possible—times when modernity existed only in pockets, as the privileged accident of one nation or another. But its generalization has swept this away. Along with the debris has gone what Emmanuel Todd has recently baptized as L’Illusion économique—the notion that economic development itself is the sufficient condition of any specific political or state pattern, or of the triumph of any particular ideology. The universal necessary condition of all advance ceases to be the special explanation of any one forward movement.