Triumph of the Termites

Tom Nairn

  • The End of the Party: The Rise and Fall of New Labour by Andrew Rawnsley
    Viking, 802 pp, £25.00, March 2010, ISBN 978 0 670 91851 5
  • What Went Wrong, Gordon Brown?: How the Dream Job Turned Sour edited by Colin Hughes
    Guardian, 294 pp, £8.99, January 2010, ISBN 978 0 85265 219 0
  • Broonland: The Last Days of Gordon Brown by Christopher Harvie
    Verso, 206 pp, £8.99, February 2010, ISBN 978 1 84467 439 8

Much of the tale is conveyed by the covers. A sad, thoughtfully dithering photo of the prime minister fronts What Went Wrong, Gordon Brown? The cover of Christopher Harvie’s book features a cartoon from the Independent: an apocalyptic lightning flash strikes and anoints David Cameron, while Brown and Alistair Darling flee London as Parliament quakes against the background of a setting sun. Andrew Rawnsley’s The End of the Party is less dramatic: we see Brown, Mandelson and Blair in a morning-after sprawl; Brown’s big toe sticks out of his sock. The Guardian compilation reminds readers how high expectations were when Brown took over. ‘Master of his universe’, Rawnsley wrote in the Observer then; Peter Hennessy could recall nothing on this scale since ‘the cross-party war cabinet in 1940’; and Jackie Ashley thought Brown’s early success showed ‘how deeply he can reach into Tory England’.

By September last year, however, Martin Kettle was summing up how little it had all amounted to: ‘Brown is going down fighting. But he is going down. In the end this speech [to the Labour Party Conference] was a rage against the dying of the light.’ Ashley had advised him to pack his bags back in June: ‘He could still go with dignity. The day he does, his reputation will begin to rise again. That day should be today … The people won’t ever warm to him, and they no longer admire him.’ The earlier enthusiasm had been for a possible saviour, seen, oddly, as being from outside Blairland: a conscientious Scots Presbyterian, able to resist City capitalism and the ominous remains of neoliberalism. When Brown’s moralism failed – and it failed utterly, as Broonland makes clear – then ‘Tory England’ became a field of broken reeds, awaiting its Conservative harvester. No wrecker can be hated as much as a failed saviour, above all when he is known for his resonant promises.

In Broonland Harvie restates the thesis he first presented in A Floating Commonwealth (2008), which sought to move on from the half-century of left v. right politics, of ‘class politics, factored through Parliament’, that lasted from 1926 until the triumph of New Labour in 1997. The articulation of British politics since has overemphasised personality, temperament, displays of charisma or bad moods – recently we’ve even had debates about ‘bullying’ in Downing Street. In a world where larger shifts seem too difficult or dangerous, petty quirks and grudges become too salient and obsessions develop over personality traits and failings: this is the court of the fallen and frustrated depicted by Rawnsley. Those who have lapsed irretrievably from history’s mainstream just can’t accept their fate: this is an epitome of the Brown leadership years. The high point of his first prime ministerial visit to Washington was a declaration that ‘no power on earth’ could separate Britain and the US and destroy the special relationship. No power, that is, except the weevils and termites all about him in Downing Street and beyond, all those unworthy of Great British transcendence. The termites have multiplied remorselessly throughout his reign, and now appear to include much of the UK electorate. I doubt if most of them think they are deserting grandeur: rather it appears to have deserted them.

A Floating Commonwealth depicted a Britain made lopsided by the division between its centre and a far-flung ‘arc’ to the north and west of London. British capitalism’s mutation into an epicentre of global finance-capital provided the conditions for a very special form of deindustrialisation. Yet England is now a country in its afterlife, unable either to revive its pre-eminence or resign itself to loss. Hence its helpless plunge into imagined community with its global successor, America. Gordon Brown has made himself the prophet of the resultant Britishness: an indurate camp-follower forever exhorting brotherhood. Englishness, above all, has found itself configured by this dependency.

The demographic dominance of the English means that their preoccupations have inevitably taken precedence. And ‘class’ has been habitually overstressed in English society as supposedly transcending mere nationality. The age of ‘class’ was one of warfare and the conclusion of empire. Domestic unity and consent remained difficult to achieve and were given too much importance, as Britishness was gilded by an imaginary universalism. Now comforted through its death agonies by Brown, Britishness should not be confused with weakness. Its ideological hold has proved all too powerful. Indeed, the pose of internationality and the ‘wider view’ has been one reason Britannia has survived so much better than Mother Russia. Its very phoniness meant Anglo-Brits could keep its pretences alive, and claim to fit the globalisation uniform better than the Russians.

What the New Labour smoke machine effectively concealed, and justified, was a transition from one English patriciate to another. It completed the elision of the pseudo-aristocracy in favour of a financial oligarchy, underpinning the ‘natural’ supremacy of the City of London and effectively reinforcing the centre’s hegemony over the dissidents and assorted riff-raff of Harvie’s ‘arc’. He likes to call the result the ‘UKL’ (or ‘UK of London’); I’ve tended to think of it as the ‘UKTV’, referring both to the Thames Valley and the media. Whatever you call it, it acts as a guarantee for the English against mere or ‘little’ England ordinariness.

Contrary to many claims and denunciations, Anglo-British social democracy did not surrender to ‘capitalism’ in the abstract. The concrete embrace of Anglo-Britain became Blairism, and finally Brownism took over the peculiarly intense passion of the disoriented heartland. As Harold Wilson had put it decades earlier, Britain simply has to be Great or it is ‘nothing’. Margaret Thatcher took up the same refrain, using an anti-Marxism that would mature into the later 20th century’s neoliberalism. Harvie provides a lively account of this clockwork in action, as Britannic identity made a combative retreat from the centre of things to nowhere in particular. The battle to stave off nothingness has assumed both right and left-wing forms. After 1989, it was naturally the right that gained control, until the moment when (as Marxists used to say) capitalism’s internal contradictions generated the breakdown of the financial crisis.

Blair and Brown together carried labourism towards this neoliberal prostration. But Blair managed to scramble aboard the last lifeboat, leaving Brown saluting on the bridge. These books see Brown as a camp-follower left in control, trying to bolster his position by sermons and exhortation. But something vital is left out here: the national-political dimension. Brown is essentially the 1707 Treaty of Union on legs, and in that sense Scotland has been left in charge of the faltering multinational state. The Scotch butler has taken over the mansion – in its best interests of course – and displays a servility that is over-loud in its proclamations of an all-British uprightness and exemplarity.

The English denizens of what Harvie calls ‘Broonland’ may not be deceived, but so far they have found no alternative voice – and are unlikely to discover one in the approaching general election. True, there is the notion of voting Britain out of the European Union, but the appeal of such a ‘liberation’ is worse than dubious. After all, joining the EEC is one of the few ancien régime turning points that British electorates actually voted for. And while they might be persuaded to reverse the verdict, it would require another referendum, and this would be complicated by the fact that all the Westminster parties are keen to prevent Scotland’s SNP government from holding a vote on independence. In Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, exits from a declining Britain are plausible enough to be worked on. The real issue remains the English, with their centuries of overidentification with the ‘Britain’ that is now in such trouble. They still haven’t given up on notions of redemption. David Cameron has made the salvation of the Union one plank of his forthcoming election campaign.

Brown’s impossible dilemma arose from his hopelessly late arrival into the process. Harvie presents him as a former ‘radical’ discovering how difficult any serious change of course had become, since City finance capital had gained a stranglehold on British socio-economic development. The Red Paper on Scotland, edited by the prime minister in his youth, had defined a Scottish bid to make an impact on a United Kingdom social democracy that still seemed under construction – a pre-Thatcher Britain whose outer arc might still make a comeback and reconfigure a ‘centre of things’ less set in the neoliberal mould. The aim was a revival of something like the energy of 1945 Labourism. Instead, the radical spirit that prevailed was Thatcherism, which fostered a counter-revolution across the whole North Atlantic. Labourism found itself surrendering not to centrists, but to a movement bent on maintaining greatness at all costs: the special relationship, overseas wars whenever required, and initiatives presentable (at least in London) as world-saving. The last ditch of Britishness would leave no space for piecemeal reversal of a ‘radicalism’ so set in its ways, with a noble death inscribed in its DNA.

Was Brownism simply paralysed by the manifest failures of Blair’s New Labour project? At one level – as all these books show in different ways – the facts have spoken for themselves. However, all the messages revolve around an absence that has little to do with the failure of socialism or the neoliberal crisis. The source of paralysis lies in England, or rather in Englishness, in matters of identity and unachievable polity rather than territory or demography. Liah Greenfeld, in Nationalism: Five Roads to Modernity (1992), described England in the 17th century as the progenitor of all subsequent modernising states. However, England could never itself become an example of a classic ‘nationalism’ because it took a great leap outwards to become an ‘empire’.

Brown’s regime has been another stage in the inevitable shrinking away from that dream-state. Other European countries have undergone the same contraction, but most often by way of defeats and revolutions. Only the UK has lingered on into atrophy, still pining for transcendence and the preservation of (at least) the mini-empire of its own archipelago – Britain rather than break-up. Since this is the obsession of the ruling stratum, it is not surprising that regional leaders from the ‘arc’ have played such a prominent role in shoring it up, from David Lloyd George to Gordon Brown. Their investment in the extroverted ‘grandeur’ has been larger than that of English chieftains, psychologically and ideologically.

David Cameron’s curious, strained, right-wing social democracy turns out to be what we are left with, after the collapse of the former contenders, socialism and Thatcherism, in the enduring (and unwinnable) struggle between capitalism and the public sector. Under those conditions, the direction of the struggle becomes not less but more important. It also encroaches much more directly on national factors, on the meaning of statehood. Irresolvable in old left-right terms, conflicts seek an alternative in other terms. While Kevin Rudd tries to reform Australian identity, and the country’s place in relation to an altered South-East Asia, Brown wants to salvage a moribund British identity, and conserve the Cold War North Atlantic relationship.

The substratum is also vital: all-Australian identity is not threatened by secession, with the partial exception of Western Australia, but the all-British firmament is undermined by straightforward movements towards the exit, a separation encouraged by indifference to American dependency and the positive appeal of the European Union. Harvie himself is convinced that independence is the best way to escape a decaying and ambiguous loyalty. For as long as ‘for “England” see “Great Britain”’ prevails, the arc will have to go its own way, leaving the centre to its English self. Britannophiles insist this is a backward step, a return to the age of nationalism rather than an emergence from it. Of course it is. But it is one forced on the periphery by central failure: by the Brownite determination to conserve an archaic sovereignty, the primal statehood that prompted nationalism around the globe without reforming itself, and which continues to force itself on the state’s subjects, leaving them no option but exit. And if they do exit, what is really available, except the standard national-state kit of self-determination and rights? Neither Euro-Union nor globalisation are anywhere near producing a serious alternative.

The English majority’s incapacity to make a new start is one thing. But surely it means more than just stalemate? In the old days capitalism usually won out: its opponents denounced their rulers as crooks, exploiters and so forth, and those in authority ignored them. They couldn’t be too crass about it, because socialism (and then Communism) represented a possible replacement. Counter-denunciations of socialism’s ‘bureaucracy’, intellectual élitism and heartless statism weren’t enough to dispel this threat, and resulted in certain restraints being placed on shareholders, managers and speculators. After Thatcherism and 1989 this threat dwindled and British Labour was foremost in welcoming the shift. In this new world, capital, as Harvie writes, ‘knew no bounds and destroyed all relationships’. Financial necromancy was safe from public interference, from the revenge of the moneyless and unwashed.

The End of the Party is a valuable guide to the phases of betrayal that followed: the expenses scandal (‘Chamber of Horrors’), the McBride smear scandal, and the release of Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi. As Rawnsley admits, dissolution and blunders don’t make much of a narrative. By far the most important section of his book describes New Labour’s one vital success: Blair’s role in pursuing the Northern Irish peace process, and the form of government that concluded it. Brown had little to do with this. Overall, the current postscript regime has ‘seemed incapable of fashioning its record into an account that the electorate wanted to appreciate nor to weave a narrative about what it would do in the future’. Too much of that future for their liking will be decided by forces that have matured beneath the surface as New Labourism has gone into decline, like nationalism in both Wales and Scotland. Even more clearly than in Ireland, the corrosion of Westminster and the old two-party order brought new narratives into being – envisaging a different, confederal kingdom alongside a renewed England, or an exit from the stifling wreckage of Brown’s (and Cameron’s) Great Britain.

As Gordon Brown knows, the title Broonland has a somewhat different resonance in his own country: The Broons is a comic strip that has appeared every week since 1936 in the Sunday Post. The prime minister was most likely reared on this family saga, as well as that of another national icon, Oor Wullie, a dungaree-clad scamp never out of trouble with his parents, teachers and the police. My own childhood Sundays were dominated by a battle-cry far more deadly than anything the minister in the Kirk came up with: ‘Wha’s got The Broons? … It’s my turn next!’ Unsatisfactory responses led to fights and flights, or demands for serious compensation in the form of Irn Bru and Liquorice Allsorts. Harvie reminds me of Oor Wullie. He is out for serious trouble with the UKL establishment, and provides a definitive depiction of broken-up Britain, a polity staggering half a century late towards the feeblest possible reforms of itself. As Martin Kettle predicts in What Went Wrong: ‘A referendum on electoral reform … will only be on the minimum change and it won’t happen until after Labour wins the election. In other words, it won’t happen at all.’ Such is the ‘loyalty’ that the Broon nation-state has inherited, a state which conceded a minimal ‘voice’ through devolution mainly to conserve its own underlying archaism, merely ensuring that in the longer term its citizens are likely to make for the exit.