Living in the Shadow of Empire State Britain and the Problem of Cultural Dementia

The UK has been an uncomfortable place in the last few days. There has been the controversy over the Windrush deportations, Tory Cabinet minister Esther McVey defending the rape clause at the Scottish Parliament as ‘non-invasive’, and the resuscitation of Enoch Powell’s ‘rivers of blood’ 1968 speech from beyond the grave. On top of this there has been the Trump-led bombing of Syria, backed by UK and French forces, without parliamentary vote or international approval.

We have to understand the deeper context of the state we are in. The UK has not and never has been a democratic state or polity. Instead the overhang and past influence of feudalism and absolutism define much of public life, institutions and attitudes to this day. Take just one obvious example. We talk about electing the UK Parliament, but we elect one part of it (the Commons), and don’t the other (the Lords), leaving it completely unelected (and this after a hundred year long campaign to abolish or overhaul it).

From Warfare to Welfare and Back

The UK has for all of its existence been first and foremost a warfare state: one whose purpose has been historically to wage war, conquer territories, dominate the high seas and maintain its Empire. If some people think this is something deep and buried in the past, just consider that since 1945 Britain’s armed forces have been involved in military action in every single year apart from one – 1968. That year represents the gap between the retreat of Empire and Aden and the beginning of British troops on the streets of Northern Ireland.

In short, the characteristics of the UK state and polity are that of an Empire State: an entity fashioned to pursue international conquest and dominance, and focus less on the well-being of the people at home. Mistakenly, Labour at its peak of intellectual confidence in the mid-20th century showed little understanding of this or interest in radically changing it. Instead, Labour believed through Fabian gradualism and osmosis (a kind of entryism into elites) that the warfare state could be turned into a welfare state, that civil servants and administrators who had ran the Empire and fought World War Two could with their new found legitimacy and confidence remake a country and banish the five evils of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness.

Fast forward to the present day – and sadly Empire State Britain is still alive and kicking. It can be seen in the moral disgrace that is the Home Office racism of the Windrush deportations, the injustices of the rape clause and false claim that it somehow offers ‘double support’, and our pretence at still believing we are a global power. Then there are is disaster capitalism invoked by Brexit – driven by the delusions of British exceptionalism, Atlanticism and the yearning for a newly empowered Commonwealth on British terms, and unshackled ‘global Britain’.

Thirty years of post-war Labour Governments have not shifted the fundamentals of the Empire State. Instead, they have shown a mixture of at first and at best, naivety and idealism in the Attlee years of Empire retreat; of clinging to the wreckage and debris of Empire while engaging in the last imperial withdrawal from East of Suez, under Wilson; and then, the ultimate folly of embracing and becoming leading advocates for the new imperialism of the US under Blair and Brown. All human history has shown us that you cannot build enlightenment and human progress on top of conquest and the militarisation of government and society; think of LBJ’s ill-fated Presidency and how the Vietnam war unraveled the ambitions of ‘the Great Society’ and thus the Democratic coalition for nearly forty years.

The shadow of Empire does not stop there and is even more serious and damaging. For it is not just a British predicament and set of delusions, but can also be found in France, the other great European empire and country which hasn’t quite divorced itself from that role and which sees itself with a contemporary global and regional role in former colonies such as sub-Saharan Africa. And then of course there is the new imperialism of the US.

The Prison of Cultural Dementia and the Lure of Greatness

The UK, France and US are in the words of David Andress in his book of the same name shaped by what he calls ‘cultural dementia’ – namely the deliberate forgetting, selective remembering, and invoking of a mythical golden era where the world was a simpler place and those in power could more easily bully those without it.

Andress argues, in a penetrating analysis, that this prevailing climate across much of the West affects the UK, US and France more because of the imperial imagination and ‘a sense of entitlement to greatness’. Furthermore, this is not just mere nostalgia for the age of Empire, but ‘a distorted and demented version of the past’. Despite the populist demagoguery of Trump (‘Make America Again’), Le Pen (‘We are at home’ the subtext of which is ‘This is our home (and not yours, immigrant)’) and Brexit’s ‘Take Back Control’, Andress writes that ‘Britain, France and the USA never existed as entities that were both closed off and commanding’, something the Windrush moral crisis has brought home to roost.

Scotland at the Edge of Empire

This has big consequences for everyone living in the UK and its future debates and choices, as well as in Scotland. We here sit on the edge of the Empire State, in the words of Ezra Pound: ‘from the edges of the Empire where the effect of the Central decay was showing, where the strain of the big lies and rascalities was beginning to tell.’

Despite the self-declared radicalism of the Corbyn project it has shown little comprehension of the scale of the challenges they would face if they got into power – one of which is the worldview of the Empire State. Instead, the old style Corbynistas in the leadership are profoundly conservative and not that democratic, and still hold to the faith that if they capture the central tenets of the British state, somehow these can be turned into champions of building a democratic socialist country.

The fissures and faultlines of the UK are everywhere, and they also run through debates and opinion in Scotland. There is wariness, nervousness and the waiting for Brexit; there are debates and distinctions within independence opinion between those who are more impatient and don’t want to wait beyond 2021 and those who think waiting in a topsy-turvy world might be the best choice.

This is not as first appears a difference of just timing, but temperament and strategy. In his recent book, ‘On Grand Strategy’, John Lewis Gaddis, chooses as one of his examples of a master strategist the Russian general Mikhail Kutuzov who defeated Napoleon at Moscow in 1812. He did so by waiting and opposing his military colleagues who demanded he attack at every instance. His retort was a telling one according to Tolstoy in ‘War and Peace’: ‘We can only lose by taking the offensive. Patience and time are my warriors, my champions.’

What this necessitates is what I would describe as a radical and calm honesty and an awareness that passion, anger and indignation are poor guides and substitutes for political analysis and strategy. Pivotal to this is an awareness of timing and timescales. It isn’t enough because people want the next independence vote to happen as soon as possible to think that is the appropriate response and best way to act.

Similarly, the divide between the Now-ists and the wait and see futurists is a divide which matters so much because of the high wire politics and stakes that are being played out. But there is also a sense that this is in part not the full picture, and that there is an element of displacement into focusing so much on timing, when other factors such as the detail of any offer are less examined.

We somehow need to have a political environment that isn’t just defined by when the indyref is going to happen, or waiting for the SNP Growth Commission or, for some, the Scottish Government Cultural Strategy. We need a wider understanding of how we do political and cultural change, which has to be more than reheating the heady days of the summer of love (for some) of 2014.

Central to this is understanding culture and cultural change in our country: a subject the SNP have been notoriously quiet. We need more discussions, activism, reflections, creative work and spaces. In this many of our traditional pillars have retreated or crumbled such as the mainstream press, and this leaves us with a vacuum. This subject is explored in the next Scotland’s Festival of Ideas event on Saturday April 28 at Govanhill Baths, Glasgow, examining how we nurture, support and make new cultures as the old public platforms have retreated and new ones haven’t yet emerged – with Jude Barber, Andrew Tickell, Sarra Wild and Harry Giles with Joyce McMillan.

A critical perspective to the practices and traditions embodied in Scottish public life is necessary to understand where we are and where we go. Scotland for all its enlivening talk of a ‘democratic intellect’ and ‘diverse assembly’ has traditionally in its public life pre-Parliament been run by a closed order of institutional bodies and elites. This society, with much to be proud of – its distinctiveness, traditions and autonomy – also had for all its self-belief, a very managed, arranged set of public codes and cultures, which produced what I have described as ‘unspace’: the privileging of certain institutional actors, bodies and voices, and marginalisation and exclusion of the vast majority of the country.

This state of affairs has not gone away with the arrival of the Scottish Parliament and the SNP. Indeed, the Parliament has been, on too many levels in terms of how Scotland is governed, a force for continuity more than change. Thus, the shift in power in policy and formal institutions has not been dramatic, but with significant similarities and continuities to what existed pre-devolution.

The current state of British politics is directly related to the Empire striking back and the continued legacy and existence of the Empire State. For some pro-independence supporters the travails of living in the UK are such that they want instant redress and exit now, and believe that such is the wreckage around us that the case for Scottish independence will be won almost by default.

These are turbulent times: from disaster zombie capitalism, to the self-interest and self-motivation of Empire State Britain, and the prevalence of a cultural dementia which has given headwinds to the forces of reaction, privilege and a virulent xenophobia which has made strangers in their own land people who were once our fellow citizens.

Scotland, just like anywhere else, is not immune from this. We need to understand the politics of certainty and instant change aren’t really appropriate, but nor is just a steady as she goes continuity and trying to safeguard what we have as the barbarians are knocking at our door. We have to face these challenges, and even the shortcomings of our own institutions and practices: the remnants of the Empire State which can be found in the way numerous public authorities treat and belittle people, and how that infantilises and depowers too many of us. Empire State Britain is the problem which needs to be opposed and ultimately defeated, but we need to recognise that even here at the edge of the Empire, it is present and active, and needs to be challenged and overcome.

Comments (16)

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  1. bringiton says:

    The only way to end “Empire Britain” is for us Scots to say to England,”You are on your own” and that we want nothing more to do with Your Union.
    Most of us of an independent mind think that “devolution” was simply a political device invented by Blair to see off that event and con Scots into thinking that they had a real say in how things were done in Scotland.
    Well,we are about to find out.

  2. Habib Steele says:

    Will the Empire state act so as to make it impossible for us to gain independence if we wait until Brexit is complete? If, however, we rush into a referendum, will we have time to communicate the case for independence to the many people who do not use the internet but get all their news from the MSM?

    My sense is that the situation is urgent. Could we have a campaign of advertising on the independent tv and radio stations? How could such a campaign be funded? How willing are we Scottish Sovereigntists to go out and knock doors and present the message; the evidence of the failure of the English governments or the UK towards Scotland such as updated booklets with the salient points presented in Stuart Campbell’s Wee Black Book; the evidence in favour of the case for independence such an updated summary of salient points in Stuart’s Wee Blue Book?

    I’m living in Wales to be near my family, and need to remain here until all my grandchildren are in school in two years time. I happened to be in Scotland in 2014 and knocked doors for the YES campaign, but I can’t knock doors for a coming campaign during this time. This lack of opportunity to participate is frustrating for me.

  3. William Ross says:

    Gerry

    You always write an interesting article but I am never very sure what your argument is? Do we just need to become more sensitive and sophisticated? Will that answer when Nicola should go for Indy ref 2?

    As someone who voted SNP all my life and supported YES in 2014, I just do not get your “Empire Britain” argument. As I saw the 2014 campaign, there were voters who attached huge importance to British identity, others who attached huge importance to Scottish identity and others who felt both Scottish and British. This was finally a choice between two country futures.
    While I prioritized the Scotland country future, without hating Britain, I became extremely aware that many of my fellow Scots believed in the Britain country. These Scots included my brother and first cousin.

    I have no doubt about Scotland`s status as a country and that is the only reason why I would seek independence. I have no interest in trying to impose socialism in a geographic cut-out that resembles Scotland. I also have no doubt that a British country exists, and to try to denigrate this country and deny that it is a “democratic polity” is ludicrous. Your argument about the House of Lords is pitiful. The House of Lords, most of whose members are nominated by the elected Prime Minister, is a revising chamber. The man in the street has no interest in changing the House of Lords; it is an elite concern. It might be popular with Bella readers but these are a tiny minority. The Britain country is very much a democratic polity. It was a democratic- enough polity to allow Scotland to have an independence referendum in 2014. It is democratic enough to concede that Northern Ireland can join the Republic if a majority so vote. Would that such liberties were available in Spain and France.

    You quite wrongly associate Brexit with an “imperial “project. In this you are feeding the myths of Bella. A Brexit UK will be an independent sovereign country with full control over its own laws, money and borders. It will be the World`s sixth largest economy, with many of the World`s best universities. It will have the most important financial centre on Earth, with its own strong independent currency. It will have the most influential broadcaster. It is, and will be, a cultural superpower. In commerce, English law is dominant. London is the insurance capital of the World. It is also a major oil industry and mining centre. The UK is a prime military power with a seat on the UN Security Council. It will be at the heart of the most powerful military alliance in history and will ( ironically enough) play a key role in defending the helpless countries of the EU.

    Or, to put it very roughly in a single phrase: Three times Canada?

    I tend to think that this is a clear enough role? The man in the street has no difficulty seeing it. Why can you not?

    I am still for Scottish independence but only to “take back control”.

    William

    1. Alan says:

      “It will be the World`s sixth largest economy…”

      And so begins a long list describing what some Brits see when they look in the mirror. It’s not what the rest of the world sees.

    2. Craig P says:

      >>The Britain country is very much a democratic polity. It was a democratic- enough polity to allow Scotland to have an independence referendum in 2014.

      It is easy to grant a vote when you are certain you will win. Such a commitment to principle will not be repeated.

    3. Andrew says:

      If (when!) Scotland becomes independent, England and Wales combined will be the 4th largest economy in Europe, behind Germany, France and Italy. The country would be outside the top 20 economies in the world within a decade and probably outside the top 30 economies within two decades.

      It’s highly unlikely that the UK is going to retain its UN Security Council seat, the UK is already losing votes at the UN and lost its judge in the International Court of Justice after 70 years.

      Whether the City can remain the financial centre of Europe is highly questionable and certainly something the UK has very little say in. We wait the EU’s decision on the legality of Euro clearing in London.

      Pretty much the only positive is that the UK is genuinely a development superpower with a very substantial aid budget. But that is the next target of the Brexiteers, indeed the Daily Express have replaced their Leave campaign with a regular campaign against aid to Africa and ConservativeHome publish regular articles on the importance of cutting development aid.

  4. Crubag says:

    Always entertaining to read, though as William Ross says, the call to action isn’t always so obvious – and perhaps isn’t meant to be? A kind of hurry up and wait?

    But while I think the imagery resonates with some, it risks masking realities.

    For me, the most telling is the epithet “Little Englander” which is used in these debates- often to mean someone who harks back to an imperial past. An imperial past which was actually very brief, 1876 to 1948 – the English are like the Greeks and more influential culturally than militarily. Little Englander was used then to label those who believed in a liberal, free-trading international order, rather than one locked down by empires. And I think we risk underestimating that strand of Englishness, the traders, the deal-makers, the diplomats, if we focus only on the pageantry (much of which is five minutes old and easily dispensed with).

    If we looked at Europe now, it is countries like Spain and France that are apparently desperate to hang on to constituent parts or suffer a crisis of identity, and it is the Republic in the south of Ireland that would like to acquire the north, rather than the northern British part the south. I think England is very post-Empire, and that needs to factor in Scottish thinking.

    1. Iain McIntosh says:

      “I think England is very post-Empire”

      Unh?

      The English are the driving force behind the commonwealth that no one else gives a monkey’s about. It gives England’s elite, comfort.

      Walk down Whitehall, it remains a homage to all things empire. England could have replaced the field marshals and generals with Newton, Wren, Shakespeare, Brunel or Locke, they have not.

      brexit, Australia, India, Canada and New Zealand are to make up the trade shortfall, tories are often to be quoted as saying England turned its back on its friends when it joined the EU.

      The warm sense of comfort empire gives these people is likely to come to a crashing end when ex empire countries capitalise upon England’s weakness and desperation for trade deals.

      There’s no free lunch for diminished bullies, lets hope Scotland escapes in good time!

  5. hamish says:

    And “they” are reading every word we write and hearing every utterance we make. Do not underestimate the power of the Empire State.

  6. SleepingDog says:

    In outline, I find this article reasonable.

    UK establishment (or Empire State) seems heavily reliant on bad examples elsewhere, hence the damage done to other countries. From UK media, I never knew how many schools and hospitals supposedly backward nations overseas had until they appeared as bomb sites on television. Probably only the USA is allowed as a current cultural peer. Historical examples are usually less problematic unless they throw up embarrassing comparisons (“Victorian levels of child poverty” for example).

    The event link appears broken; I think this works:
    https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/nurturing-culture-in-an-age-of-rage-tickets-44791947922

    While I agree with the point about “the privileging of certain institutional actors, bodies and voices, and marginalisation and exclusion of the vast majority of the country”, there are ways to involve and inform people, and prevent individuals and factions taking sole credit while acknowledging contributions. Build things that can be evaluated. For creative works, produce a making-of resource. Document decision processes for transparency. Describe rejected ideas or failed tests. Show working and methodology. Credit inspirational sources, templates and components.

    A lot of people could get involved in web technology precisely because it provides transparency (view source) and is based on open standards, technology and protocols. The clear separation of concerns allows easy collaboration and division of labour. The same should work for democratic methods, collective decision-making and collaborative creative works.

    Waiting does not mean doing nothing. Providing good examples and finding them abroad should help critique the status quo so that an independent Scotland is less likely to emulate the character of British imperialism in miniature.

  7. Terence callachan says:

    If we are to persuade people in Scotland to vote for Scottish independence we need to give them some basic assurances.
    For a start we should announce that State pensions in an independent Scotland will be Twenty pounds a week higher than UK
    We should announce that the minimum wage in independent Scotland will be a good bit higher than in UK e.g £10 an hour as opposed to £7.50 an hour
    Basics like this will not cost an independent Scotland a huge amount of money but will give people who voted NO last time something to gain that really makes a difference to the life they lead right now.
    If we don’t do this people who don’t have much will see no benefit in voting for Scottish independence

  8. Thad quinn says:

    I felt your piece jumbled up. It doesn’t make sense. Bessos

  9. w.b.robertson says:

    In my (long) experience, too many people kid themselves that the answer is to acquire power. In Scotland, power too often appears to get confused with independence. The key is really…if you have power what would you then do with it? Few punters unfortunately know how to use it. I personally hoped that years of a SNP dominated Holyrood would provide more than sufficient examples to boost the Yes movement, win votes , convince the doubters – and create a taste of a future society. Alas, I am beginning to wonder! Baby baskets? Political tokenism?

    1. Andrew says:

      The SNP government have not demonised immigrants, threatened 3 million people with the largest mass deportation in Europe since World War 2 and taken the country out of 759 vital international treaties.

      Sometimes “do nothing” isn’t such a bad option!

  10. Iain McIntosh says:

    “The key is really…if you have power what would you then do with it?”

    True!

    Assumption is that SNP have power, they don’t, they have responsibiity, not power, great difference.

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