MayDay! MayDay for Britain!
A response to Polly Curtis, ‘May Day for Mayday: bank holiday may move to “Best of British” October slot’, Guardian 4th February 2011
At the start of February there appeared this clunky piece in The Guardian, a paper allowed by the Tory victory of 2010 to settle back into its niche as the vaguely-worded self-righteous newsletter of the lifestyle-obsessed British political classes, describing how an unascribed agency (‘Ministers… government sources’) have suggested that the celebration of Mayday, by implication the International Workers’ Day which is not much observed in the UK anyway, should be changed to a new celebration of Britishness.
Trying to show that Mayday was originally pagan and ‘British’ (‘British’ is the Guardian word for ‘English’, helping its readers feel safe by avoiding the national or any other platform of civic action), the article still manages to vaguely blame the Con-Dem government by haranguing backbenchers for off-the-cuff comments; yet despite vaguely attributing blame to ‘the Tories’, it also claims that this British celebration only changed in the late 1970s, which saw Mayday rebranded ‘with a political twist’. This, of course, as well as begging the question of whether any such celebration could somehow be free of politics altogether, elides over a century of the observation of 1st May as a day of thanks to the people who manufacture the stuff basic to the lives of Guardianistas and everyone else.
Are we surprised by this? By the unattributed (and for all we know, apocryphal) suggestion, or by its limp presentation? As usual, is an implied sense in which a sellout of the workers would be ‘bad’, vying with the paper’s common, illogical, and state-ideological assumption that to be British is to be inclusive and therefore ‘good’. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. As a managerial term rather than a nation-state, Britain is not only something that can’t be celebrated in any proper personal sense (one imagines nuclear weapons rolling through the streets of East Berlin in the 1980s – or worse, the UK ‘National’ Lottery in the 2000s), it cannot even be experienced. Britain holds, to borrow the neo-Kantian terms of John Macmurray, no personal relationships. And as Britishness has declined as its imperial remit has shrunk to a lame and dysfunctional financial neo-imperialism, we are stuck with a continual rebranding which must take more and more frenzied forms. That is, Britain is defined against labour and for management – these were the conditions of its making – and, unchallenged, eventually all markers of class will be replaced by state-managerial ones. This is how Britain works. The irony in the slim, unattributed piece in the Guardian is that the rebranding process was accelerated under New Labour, who were spooked by what they had unleashed in devolution, and outstripped even the well-documented ‘Englishing’ of government in the early 1980s in their desire to create visible icons for a failing state. Faced with the dual pulls of an addiction to statism and a need to seem somehow ‘behind the workers’, The Guardian fails, as it always has, to tackle the key issue of how Britain itself constitutes a class system.
The Guardian’s online version does redeem itself with the common use of comments under articles, in which 90% of the comments tend to be more perceptive than the article itself. But for staff writers, since the time of the imminent fall of the Labour Party from UK power around 2008, the simple playground-politics line has been to keep out ‘the enemy’ (the Tories) at all costs, in terms which are excruciatingly uncreative, and ultra-British (giving it a problem criticising the British rebranding here, even though it vaguely intuits that something is somehow not right with ‘the workers’). This re-Britishing of the mainstream media is an accelerating process: as Michael Rosie and Pille Petersoo have demonstrated, media which are non-devolved, that is, which still operate at UK level, have tended to become increasingly conflate English and British issues. The Scottish problem has been solved (by Labour) – it is now safe to move back to Britain as a term which is too inclusive to be national in any troubling way. So, in the run-up to the 2010 UK Election, ‘nationalism’ was demonised obsessively through stories of the BNP as ‘fascist’ and ‘far-right’ (the BNP are too vacuous to be either of these), while, till a last-minute switch to the Liberal Democrats, Guardian policy was support a party of mass surveillance, state-engineered personal debt bubbles, Soviet-style internecine political assassinations, increases in privatisation and inequality, a creeping police state measured on any political scale, and a deeply undemocratic invasion of Iraq, whose workers they buried in the desert in their hundreds of thousands while celebrating British multiculturalism as a pragmatic state ideology. Or as the unfailingly noxious apparatchik Polly Toynbee put it in 2009, ‘I supported Tony Blair right through the 2005 election, despite the Iraq war, as I thought he had one more election win in him. But when he plummeted in the polls and became a liability for Labour, he had to go’.
Thus, since for the government and the Guardian there is nationalism and then there is nationalism, since 1997 senior Labour Party officials, including almost every Home Secretary, have been utterly pragmatic in presenting Britain as diverse and welcoming. (Of course, this begs the question of what was already there to be welcomed to: but, as Paul Gilroy has put it, we must abandon all sense of logic when dealing with any form of ‘race’ thinking). In part this has been to offset the uncontrollable aspects of devolution, in particular its tendency to ask difficult constitutional questions, especially surrounding civic nationalism as a catalyst for participation in social change. A keystone in the 2000s was the New Labour definition of multiculturalism, in fact a neo-Powellite policy of managing and converting to quasi-citizens anyone who did not correspond a default white, English, Anglophone setting, making such people declare themselves both loyal to the British state, and as a member of a neo-racial category – thus, ‘black British’, a term which was bought en masse by Guardian-reading New Labour voters.
So the spectre of socialism, even simple of social solidarity of labour catalysed by civic nationalism, has always been a terror for the Britain of the devolutionary era. This is not a specifically Tory phenomenon, though The Guardian makes a good living by presenting it this way. We now understand that the condition of devolution in its sense of tending to
self-rule flags up questions of class and social solidarity, as such and
throughout Britain, as even those commentators with a slight flavour of
crypto-unionism, such as Michael Keating, have demonstrated.
This is obvious when we consider the structure and purpose of the UK. The UK has been described as a unitary state (usually by nationalists) and a plurinational state (usually by unionists), but another way might be as an empty state. An empty state would be a state backed by no civic sense, no emotional pull, looking after only its own instrumental interests, and always having to be culturally adduced retrospectively. This is something like what sociologists sometimes call a state-nation, a state bound to the continual re-presentation of itself as a nation – helping to explain why there was so much serious talk of ‘soft Stalinism’ when New Labour laid out their cards. Where for traditional marxian theory the state is something that grows up around existing groups’ class interests to protect them, in Britain there were few such groups – at least outside the aristocracy – and any ‘organic’ process of growing-up-around had to be ideologically created, all the way from Defoe to Blair. Britain has always had the managerial rationalisation of capital not merely as its outer shell, but as its very raison d’état. The UK may not be exceptional, in housing multiple nations within a state, but it is unusual in being structured around the terms of capital itself. Thus the almost total lack of any registration of surprise in replacing a celebration of labour with a celebration of the state.
Moreover, and especially since the 2008 financial crisis, Mayday has also become more direct and anti-capitalist plus anti-statist, in a way that tends to make Guardianistas very uncomfortable. We all know, whether or not we say it out loud, that if the UK ever had any moral import at all, now it’s all over bar the rebranding. In both England and Scotland, the sub-British civic national connotes social solidarity and internationalism against the state. Essays in studies like Bechhofer and McCrone (2009), Hassan (2009), Hussain and Miller (2006), and even Michael Keating’s 2009 book, have shown that people across England also tend to see the national as such as positively flagging up social solidarity. Both Scotland and England now tend to back civic nationalism over state ideology. Of course, this point is probably obvious to anyone who has arrived at this article, or to anyone who has been involved in direct politics since 1979. The primary role of the British state is to stop the nation happening, in the nation’s proper, civic, dialectical, inclusive sense – and the replacement of a workers’ day by a ‘British day’ is an entirely normal sign of how Britain works. As a coalescence of vested capital sharing free rein over empire, later constitutionally embedded in ideas of heredity and legitimacy, then enshrined by a party system which encourages the political class to create a system in which nations are encouraged to conspire at high level in an empty state, this has always been the shape of Britain. That Britishness should define itself against a celebration of organised labour may be shocking, but it is absolutely true to form.
Of course, The Guardian will never admit that this system is self-destructive. They will never admit that there is only so long the citizens of these islands can fail to notice the proximity of British state-national ‘culture’ and saturation by CCTV cameras, an electoral system built to disregard personal needs while drawing people into a dead franchise, a neo-racist ideology of multiculturalism, inequality concretised in the candid return of tertiary education to its generational class base, the Orwellian flim-flammery and upward taxation of the ‘National’ Lottery, and the creep of callcentre-ese language in everyday life working to prevent meaningful interaction. In 1794, faced with a constitutional crisis and a need to flee London, prominent Jacobins headed to Edinburgh to hold their conventions on civicism and constitutional change – just as some did during the early days of devolution. England is a tougher place to sell leftist civic nationalism – though the rewards make it worthwhile. North of the border the civic bases joining public and labour remain more settled and discrete from the state, and it is almost impossible to imagine the proposed scheme being tried in Scotland (though as the Poll Tax showed, stranger things have happened). For half a century now, roughly tracking the period of Britain’s collapse, worker/ student movements in Scotland and France have been (counter-)culturally linked in a series of post-consensual cultural exchanges of the kind which saw Edwin Morgan, Alex Trocchi, and John Calder rub up against Guy Debord, Jean-Luc Godard, and Félix Guarrati. And these were people with a few suggestions about how to celebrate May.