The Empire and the City

In On Living in the Old Country (1985) Patrick Wright argues that Britain is a place where the past and the voices of the dead are crowding out those of the living and the present. We can see this being lived-out in the archaic elite malfunctions of the Conservative Party election campaign, which somehow, miraculously, is worse than Theresa May’s 2017 debacle.

Commentator Gerry Hassan has written: “There is a serious connection between the rise of a form of zombie capitalism and a zombie national imagination, of the power of the ‘living dead’ and the rise of a morally degenerative , antisocial form of capitalist order.”

This is what we are seeing played-out daily in television studios as bumbling politicians – forced out of their clubs and bars – collide with the fresh air of the real world.

Reviewing Wright’s book Paul Addison writes:

“Wright detects a strand of Utopianism: the conviction that old England still exists around and beneath us. The past can be recovered and restored: we can touch it, or stroll around it, wherever the material remains of the past are to be discovered. This reconstruction, Wright argues, is a reworking of patriotism. He draws a fascinating parallel between the re-enactment of the English past in the Falklands war, and the raising from the mud of the Thames, later that year, of Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose. A common significance could be attached to both events: an ancient seafaring people, Churchill’s island race, were recovering some long-buried aspect of their identity.”

This is a meme reiterated in endless Brexit declarations about us being a ‘maritime people’, Atlantacism, Britannia, “Free Ports” and the “Island Nation” (sic), plus endless references to Dunkirk the Blitz and war-footing.

Addison suggests: “In Wright’s vision, nostalgia has become a monster with a stranglehold over English society: as we are almost all governed by a sense of loss and decline, we no longer have the faith to change and improve society.”

I’m not sure “we are all governed by a sense of loss and decline” is a pan-British cultural experience, nor one shared by Generations X, Y and Z.

But Boris’s Brexit Britannia is certainly a janus-faced one. Brexit as a retreat from reality – an exercise in Empire Loyalism has another aspect, as Revolutionary Conservatives and chaos-mongers merge and Johnson’s recent bizarre speeches have been a melange of his default classical references and a new spree of garbled high-techno gobbledegook.

Right at the heart of this story are the intertwined narratives about class, national identity, race and empire.

The inferiority-superiority complex being played out by the Brexiteers has its roots in these myths.

As Bagehot writes (2009):

“The City and the Empire grew up symbiotically. Imperial trade and investment made London a world financial centre; the City became vital to the British economy, while at the same time, preoccupied as it was with foreign deals, largely separate from the rest of it.”

It’s in this context that the opening salvos of the 2019 election campaign about “billionaires” and “kulaks” goes on. It’s in this context that the casual racism and eugenics tumbles out of their mouths before “oops” sudden apologies are rushed out and hushed over.

At the heart of the election is this terrible balancing act, a party of government showing open contempt for ordinary people, masquerading as an anti-elite force. It’s not surprising that it’s all coming apart at the seams under even the weakest scrutiny.

The utterly bizarre idea that we should have solidarity and respect for billionaires can only be maintained with some sharp propaganda.

As Luke Hildyard has written:

“A billion pounds is an almost incomprehensible amount of money. One of the most successful tricks that the rich and powerful have pulled on the rest of us is not merely capturing a disproportionately large share of global wealth, but hoarding amounts so vast that it is practically impossible to grasp the scale of it, and thus to criticise. If you had been given £1,000 a day, every day since Jesus died, and stuffed it under a mattress, you would still not be a billionaire. There are around 15 or so countries whose entire wealth does not equate to that of an individual UK billionaire.”

As UK Gold (2013) uncovered we lose approximately £25 billion a year from tax evasion. The myths of austerity, the decline in public services, the nation of foodbanks, housing crisis and grinding poverty, all of it is unnecessary.

And this notion of Empire-loss keeps bubbling up unexpectedly.

Writing in the summer Simon Jenkins in the Guardian observed:

“Boris Johnson is in a long line of Westminster leaders determined to infuriate the Scots – as a century ago they once infuriated the Irish. With the exception of Tony Blair’s partial devolution, London has simply ignored the progressive disintegration of the “first British empire”, the one that has embraced the British Isles since the Norman conquest and was cohered as a supposed United Kingdom in 1801.”
Jenkins reflects on the current shambles with a bit or history: “While France, Germany and Italy (if not Spain) have steadily assimilated their disparate provinces over time, the United Kingdom has done the opposite. Through persistent, bumbling misrule it has alienated the so-called Celtic fringe, and fuelled the fires of separatism.”
The shambolic election mired in endless deceits feels the coming together of years of discontent, a reckoning for a generation of spivs and huckster politicians, an end of Empire.

Comments (10)

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  1. squigglypen says:

    Incisive and depressingly accurate article.

  2. Alan says:

    “a generation of spivs and huckster politicians”

    Quite although I think most of the current crop of politicians care little about “the fresh air of the real world”. It’s more the case how they can take selective pieces of the past and spin a fantasy of Britain past to mischaracterise the present and promote a fantasy Britain of the future to further their own corrupt ends.

    William Davies’ March 2018 piece in the LRB “What are they after?” gets at the spin and the fact that its nothing but spin (

    “Recent history suggests that [Edward Bernays] was worrying about the wrong thing. The professionalisation of politics and the rise of spin led to the opposite problem: politicians began to think too carefully about how they presented themselves in the media. The image management of the Blair and Clinton era smacked of inauthenticity, a charge that was later levelled at mainstream political parties in general, leading to the populist upheavals of the past few years. But there is a further risk lurking in Bernays’s analysis, which he seemingly didn’t anticipate. If professional politicians have an unearned advantage over others when it comes to attracting public attention, there is a danger that politics comes to attract people who only want public attention – such as Johnson – and others who only know how to exploit it, such as Rees-Mogg. While Rees-Mogg may be a firm believer in the Victorian moral vision of Brexit, there can be no denying that his currently elevated status is largely down to the fact that he is recognisable and provides good media ‘content’. When the media report his latest comments, it’s because he is someone whom everyone recognises from the media. Everything he says or does must be calculated to ensure that this remains the case. As any troll understands, wit and disruption are the best tactics for succeeding in the ‘attention economy’.

    It would be almost reassuring to know that there was an ideology of Tory Brexit that was driving things, just as there is an ideology known as ‘Lexit’ which views the EU as an anti-democratic neoliberal institution that must be resisted. But for the generation who entered public life in the 1990s, after the ‘end of ideology’, there were only two choices: to devote oneself with immense earnestness to the nitty-gritty of policy and economics, or to revel in the freedom of symbolism and storytelling, as journalists, PR professionals and pranksters. Political careers came later. Britain’s misfortune is that matters of the greatest seriousness are now in the hands of basically unserious people.”

  3. bringiton says:

    The British/UK union has always been run as if it is England’s union.
    Brexit has crystallised this notion in the minds of people,especially here in Scotland.
    Hence we get terms like “separation” rather than self determination being used by people who view
    the union through the prism of English dominance.
    The German constitution of devolved governance,instigated in part by the British after WWII was brought about
    in order to prevent a powerful central force arising again within the German state.
    Apparently this is good for Germany but bad for Britain and how ironic that it has allowed Germany to flourish
    whereas England is heading down the toilet of right wing xenophobia.

    1. Andy S says:

      That might be a surprise to the population of Jamaica, where Scots surnames abound, or indeed to those at the receiving end of Jardine Matheson’s Asian opium dealing.

  4. James McCarthy says:

    This article rang many bells with me. As a conscript in the mid 1950s I was destined to command African troops during the last colonial war – the Mau Mau campaign in Kenya. It took a number of years for me to realise that, without any education in the causes of this conflict that we had ben conned, in which the popular press was complicit – alongside the privileged ‘establishment’ who still yearn for a Union Jack Britain and Empire which simply does not exist. In particular, there is little understanding of why these ungrateful Scots are whining on about self-determination. My hope is that a younger voting generation will break free from this straight-jacket of 19thC thinking – and perhaps the finale to the Proms will not be the lusty singing of ‘Rule Britannia.’ We should remember that the so-called ‘union’ was forced upon Scotland though threats and bribery of an aristocratic elite

  5. SleepingDog says:

    It is true that capitalism manifests in many forms, although I would have guessed all of them are antisocial. What we see in the accumulation of billions is value extraction. Economist Mariana Mazzucato writes of pharmaceutical company ‘value-based’ pricing, which is essentially extortion, and covered in one of the saner recent Dispatches programmes:
    Trump’s Plans for the NHS
    On the basis that mouthy, impulsive criminals will often blurt out their nefarious objectives by projecting them on rivals and foes, it is interesting to hear Trump talk of ‘freeloading’, as in the NHS negotiating drug prices at 1/7th of the cost to patients in the USA. When demanding equalization of prices, reducing the extortion rates for US citizens is apparently unthinkable. But the real question is how much pharamaceutical corporations freeload off publicly-funded research, education and other resources.

    On the precise issue of Brexit and US trade negotations, the Dispatches programme alleges that several secret meetings have taken place between UK civil servants and US trade negotiators where drug pricing has been on the table, which could add many billions to NHS spending, prevent cheaper alternate drugs being used instead of US moneyspinners, and having the NHS forced to accept drugs it has already rejected as providing insufficient medical benefit (through NICE, I guess).

  6. Daniel Raphael says:

    Excellent as usual. I tweeted it with many tags, and got rave responses. This, plus the “Barricades” article by Ms. Elphinstone, are two of the many outstanding pieces to recently grace this site.

    Please continue.

  7. Jo says:

    If only all those “bumbling politicians” were confronted, in TV studios, by dedicated journalists they would be mincemeat within seconds.

    1. Well we’re doing our best Jo ….

  8. Craig Devine says:

    It seems to me that Brexitgeddon is rising on the dark back of a nihilism among a monolithic block of the comfortably off in large parts of the UK, particularly in the South of England- and so I would absolutely agree with the sentiment “we no longer have the faith to change and improve society”- this sociological block cannot contemplate an alternative to the status quo (that of course has served them well enough) & are terrified of the cracks appearing in the monolith of their identity by the possibility of a Corbynite victory in the forthcoming election. Hence the lazy soundbites that go unchallenged by the MSM drip-fed from the Tory mothership of ‘Corbyn worse than Stalin!’ or ‘Corbyn hates the rich!’ or some other variant on a smear that he’s an ‘anti-Smite’. This also symptomatic in the attacks on Extinction Rebellion, Greta Thunberg and the petty daily attacks on environmentalism in general through the MSM- and in these burning days we witness a speech by Sajid Javid’s that more or less amounted to climate denial. What these people fear most is change and of course reality, for reality is defined by change- instead this affluent monolithic block has retreated into right wing fairytales and Empire fantasies and outright denial about the real world of ecological devastation caused by the disaster capitalism that feeds their lifestyles. And so in the coming weeks of the election campaign the Tory party scandals, illegality and systemic lying will multiply but they will still vote for ‘good old Boris’- for what is the alternative? And so the Tories will continue to loot the gutter the lazy Corbyn soundbites to the electoral dinosaurs & rinse and repeat like throwing bricks through windows- they’ll throw in some hardcore patriotic logic for the flagwaivers and woo the Brexiteers, neo-nazi skinheads and golfing granny’s- in one vast conglomeration of xenophobic soup that overcooks to become a bitter patriotic British broth. Javid labels Labours manifesto vision ‘fantasy economics’ and calls for us to believe in a failed neo-Liberal ideology that offered up the 2008 crash, austerity, the housing crisis and foodbanks- he wants us to believe that this is the socio-normative state with no alternatives: this is the inverted world of English capitalism of London politics where investment in infrastructure for the long-term sustainability of society is countered with the MSM tory bidding of ‘how you gonna pay for it!’. As Deleuze once said: “Belief in the world is what we most lack; we have completely lost the world, we have been robbed of it”- what is more we have lost the art of the possible as Aristotle defined politics- and there is no blindness more profound than not being able to see an alternative to the conditions that already exist/hence the Tory capitalisation on the affluent monolithic block who are largely politically illiterate in the sense of being myopic to viable alternatives- and I believe it is this bleak cynicism of this block that leaves them open to the nihilism of Brexits dark side and at the same time highly suggestible from exploitation from existing power structures due to their simultaneous naivety toward the idea of an alternative…this is the paradox at the heart of all conservatism: to hold in a single condition a co-existing state of soft naivety to power and a simultaneous hard cynicism to liberational alternatives.

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