Today
Sun 5 December 2021

As international leaders gather in Glasgow for the COP26 summit, Hadley Coull and Chris Ogden consider Britain’s unmoored identity in a volatile world

Globalisation is a jarring, destabilising experience both for individuals and nations: erasing traditional boundaries, roles, and identities, and creating seismic shifts in power and material wealth.

Digital technologies have magnified this disorientation, creating a world that is divided and uncertain. For all their benefits, the internet and other technologies have eroded hierarchy, trust, and certainty, compromising our relationship with truth, power, and meaning.

Our faith in grand narratives such as capitalism, the church, or democracy has crumbled, traditional institutions have lost their power, and we are struggling to find meaning in a globalised, digital world.

Both individually and collectively, we feel giddy, disorientated and confused. We don’t know what to believe or believe in any more, and the future is no longer a place of hope, but is instead a place to fear. The old stories have lost their power over us, and the rules don’t seem to work any more.

In this context, Brexit, the Coronavirus pandemic, and the climate crisis can be seen as merely the most recent and obvious manifestations of the death of stability, certainty, and prosperity. 

Yet, while these changes have taken place globally, their disorienting effect has been particularly acute in a declining Britain.


Hollowed-Out Politics

In the aftermath of Labour’s general election defeat in 1983, future party leader Tony Blair reflected that “I don’t think it’s really a matter of right or left as people make it out. What I do think is that it’s a matter of style”.

These words would prove prophetic in the coming decades, as personality, PR, optics, soundbites, slogans and spin devoured politics. Image rather than principles, hearts rather than heads came to dominate in a world which shied away from complexity, subtlety and nuance.

An insouciant David Cameron exemplified this breezy superficiality when he instructed his 2015 Conservative election campaign team to simply “give me the right language… I will do whatever I’m told”.

Theresa May’s auto-repeat approach further normalised the cycle of performative politics, with a premiership characterised by mindless slogans, U-turns and denials.

Boris Johnson’s pathological relationship with the truth represents the logical end-point of this trend. In Johnson’s world, complex issues and debates are reduced to rhetorical devices which elicit emotional rather than rational responses: “take back control”, “get Brexit done”, “the will of the people”, “oven-ready”, “flatten the curve” and “level up”.

But these endless slogans capture an important truth: Britain is a nation lost at sea – unstable, restless, lacking in confidence.

Unlike many other countries, it lacks a modern origin story. It also has no written constitution – no codified set of principles and values to guide the political system, in times of uncertainty or hardship. As a result, Britain’s identity is more impressionistic, precarious and malleable.

Without a clear, confident identity, we are vulnerable to manipulation, and prone to irrationality and self-delusion. This means we are more likely to cling to stories and myths; are more easily pitted against each other as different groups champion distinct mythical visions of Britain.

As the world around us becomes more complex, our responses become ever simpler.


Return of the Empire

The image of Empire often conjured up embodies the myth of self-determination and superiority. It is a powerful device, which pervades the modern right – from the Brexit referendum, to last week’s Budget and ongoing promises to ‘unleash Britain’s potential’.

Yet, our understanding of Empire is informed by the politics of our age and the simplifying nature of our technology. Notably, it is also remarkably absent from our education; a historical footnote somewhere between the Stuarts and the First World War.

As such, the reality of how Britain used threat, fear and force to carry out a sustained campaign of violence and subjugation over many centuries, has been lost. That wealth was siphoned from other countries, most notably India, to enrich Britain and to build the current infrastructure of many of our cities, has been overlooked.

As a nation, we never really worked through the unresolved trauma caused by the decline of Empire, unlike Germany, which faced a long period of reckoning following the Second World War. Britain has had no such introspection.

We have not fully faced up to the horror of our past, and its impact on our identity. Nor have we accepted our decline as a global superpower, choosing instead to lose ourselves in fantasies of Winston Churchill, James Bond, 1966, the Falklands War, ‘Cool Britannia’ and now Brexit.

Comfort has been sought in an imagined past, but the evocation of past triumphs is increasingly a mask for our deep-seated insecurity, our oft-misplaced self-importance, and our seemingly inevitable national decline.

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Empire, like Brexit, has become another rhetorical device used by elites to further their own interests – to evoke a sense of superiority, domination and exceptionalism.

More nuanced British values such as tolerance, inclusivity, diversity, fair play, levity and quirkiness have been lost in the stampede as the national psyche regresses to a more antagonistic, imperialistic, nationalistic form.

In its fragile state, Britain is more vulnerable to Pied Pipers such as Boris Johnson, who exploit rather than address the desire for identity and meaning. Our heads are spinning, as political and financial elites play us for fools, pitting us against each other as they harvest the spoils. 

Deception management thrives in this environment. We have become increasingly short-termist and insular. The strange dynamics of our time create the space in which expedient figures can offer empty catchphrases as substantive policy – and get away with it. Their shapeshifting makes them hard to attack, and harder to dethrone.

In this environment, where truth is debased, corruption pervasive and politics a sideshow circus, democracy in Britain is being dismantled as we move towards an increasingly authoritarian future.

Hadley Coull is an independent writer and researcher, who runs insight collective Headz. Dr Chris Ogden is a senior lecturer in International Relations at the University of St Andrews

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