Today
Sun 5 December 2021

Professor Chris Painter wonders how Britain has turned into such a radically different country in the space of a decade

How did Britain regress from a vibrant, creative society, enthusiastically embracing the future during the Tony Blair era – epitomised by the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympic Games – to the reactionary, introverted country, clinging onto worn-out myths, that we now appear to have become?

One retort is whether this is a meaningful question in the first place; that the Blair years’ association with ‘Cool Britannia’ is simply the wrong point of reference. Instead, the focus should be on the period from 1945-79 – which saw a real aberration from the norm of unbridled capitalism, noted as it was for a high degree of political consensus around the managed economy-welfare state. It was a consensus shattered by the ideology of neoliberalism ushered in by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. 

A related objection is that the rhetoric of the Blair years and their immediate aftermath was simply froth, devoid of any real substance. A stark comparison with the current Government is bound to be illusory. What we perceive are different voices manifesting themselves from the same diverse, pluralist society.

Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.

Dean Acheson

Yet, to deny a striking contrast between the tone of political discourse and dominant political narratives of the Blair and Boris Johnson years still seems fanciful, irrespective of those reservations. Indeed, for many, it feels as though they have lived in two different countries. 

Not only has the domestic mood significantly shifted in recent years, so have the values the UK projects onto the world stage.


What Changed?

There is a litany of familiar explanations for the transformed atmosphere, falling into various categories. 

One relates to the media: public broadcasters’ flawed notion of ‘balance’ at the expense of veracity; the self-serving proprietary dominance of mainstream publications; and manipulative social media algorithms that funnel us into mutually exclusive opinion camps. 

A second revolves around alt-right transnational networks, funded by the dark money of oligarchs, and placing Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the centre of a spider’s web – something given further credence by close ties between the 2016 Brexit and Donald Trump campaigns.

A third hinges on electoral behaviour and the notion that voters seem to be swayed more by emotive political pitches than by rational argument.

But the really interesting debate relates to the structure-agency framework. 

Structural change relates to longer-term underlying determinants of outcomes. These include deindustrialisation during the Thatcher premiership; financial deregulation towards the end of her term of office, resulting in a heavily-leveraged and financialised economy – an eventual catalyst for the 2008 financial crisis, with few sanctions imposed on financial institutions for consequent destabilisation. Growing social inequality, increasing insecurity and the decline of civic institutions – not only fraying social bonds but also weakening what the late American economist JK Galbraith famously described as the countervailing powers to capital – are also structural changes Britain has experienced. As are their contribution to partisan voter dealignment, with the vacuum created fuelling the rise of identity politics. 

In contrast to this, individual agency takes us into the realm of contingent choices exercised by elite political actors when other courses of action were available to them. 

The disillusionment on the left attributable to Blair’s backing for the Iraq War. David Cameron’s unforced error in committing in 2013 to an in-out EU referendum and his unfortunate timing of the vote in June 2016, in the wake of six years of austerity. Nigel Farage’s near-racist exploitation of fears around immigration. Boris Johnson’s opportunistic decision to back a populist Brexit campaign in contravention of everything he had previously professed and to the liberal, cosmopolitan persona he had presented as the Mayor of London. 

None of these decisions, with their unpredictable consequences, were inevitable.

Most of all, agency focuses on the calibre of political leadership; whether leaders choose to exploit divisions in society or seek to ease and redress tensions (paradoxically, the Coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated inequalities whilst simultaneously rediscovering sources of social solidarity).


The Myths of Empire

Yet, we must also take into account the stories that nations tell themselves about their past and how they are woven into the fabric of political narratives. Appropriately spun, such narratives can tap into something deep within the collective psyche of a country. 

For Britain, there are the myths of a heroic imperialist past and its lone exploits in the Second World War. However, in the final analysis, we are led back to a pithy observation made by the American politician Dean Acheson in 1962: “Great Britain has lost an empire and has not yet found a role.”

Beginning with Harold Macmillan, prime ministers of all political persuasions from the early 1960s onwards concluded that that role needed to be at the heart of what became the European Union, culminating in Harold Wilson’s successful 1975 referendum re-affirming the UK’s membership. This move embraced Britain providing a diplomatic bridge between the EU and United States.

Daniel Todman, in his epic account of Britain’s War: A New World 1942-1947, provides yet another reminder of the scale of ambition that went into planning for the post-1945 economic, social and urban reconstruction at the back end of that conflagration, notwithstanding indifference and scepticism on the part of Winston Churchill himself. 

Surely, in response to the multiple crises of our own times, which go a long way in explaining the souring of the national mood since the Blair years, an institution-building project of similar magnitude is both warranted and imperative?

Instead, here we are, returning to square one with the predicament identified by Acheson continuing to fester.

All we appear to be left with is Boris Johnson’s fantasy of a post-Brexit ‘Global Britain’. In reality, this is another piece of English nationalist hubris deliberately calculated to revive our worn-out myths as part of an expedient culture war – alarmingly being led from the very top.

Chris Painter is Professor Emeritus of Public Policy and Management and formerly Head of Social Sciences at Birmingham City University

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