Britain's own C-word

The big question in coming months is how far the new leader will transform the machinery of state. D

Having at last entered into his inheritance, Gordon Brown has a chance to open a new chapter in the story of Britain's slow march towards democracy. His campaign hints about radical constitutional change were titillating, but inconclusive. He committed himself to reform of the Commons, a more accountable executive and parliamentary control over decisions of war and peace. He promised more vigilance over civil liberty and talked of more public involvement in policymaking.

But, as he said himself, these moves are not enough. They would nudge Britain a little further along the road to 21st-century democracy, but there would still be an enormous distance to cover. The great questions are how far Brown is willing to travel, and what comes next.

It is not difficult to envisage a constitution fit for the 21st century. It would state that sovereignty belongs to the people, instead of to the crown-in-parliament. The royal prerogative would be abolished (not just trimmed). Ministers and civil servants would be servants of parliament or the people, not of the crown. The House of Lords would be consigned to the dustbin of history. The second chamber would be elected on a national-cum-regional basis, with Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the English regions as the electoral districts. Subsidiarity would be a fundamental principle. The remorseless growth of central power, which has been a leitmotif of British government since the 1940s, would be halted and in some fields reversed.

Substantial, legally entrenched devolution from the central to the local and regional level would create new sites for civic engagement and provide a check against the inevitable self- aggrandisement of government at the centre. Human rights would be extended and more firmly guaranteed. Electoral reform would make the Commons democratically legitimate for the first time in its history. And, like virtually all other democracies, Britain would have a written constitution, based on clear and explicit principles expressed in accessible language.

For the moment, though, constitution-mongering is beside the point. At this stage process matters as much as outcomes. What is crucial is to ensure that constitutional reform is not the property of any party or group of parties, or even of the political class as a whole. The single most obvious feature of present-day British politics is the deep, almost visceral, distrust that the public feels for politicians and political institutions: that is one of the main reasons radical constitutional reform is needed. Certainly, political leaders will have a crucial part to play, but they will have to play it with deftness and modesty.

If the project is to succeed, it must be the property of civil society as a whole, in all its rich diversity. This would, in itself, be a breathtaking innovation, but that is no reason to hold back. The Brown government's first big test is whether it will do for the United Kingdom what Scottish devolutionists did when they set up the constitutional convention that paved the way for the Edinburgh parliament.

The English question

Public alienation from the system is now at an all-time high. Brown's prime ministership will stand or fall on his ability to translate negative alienation into a positive consensus for change. The emotional and institutional obstacles are redoubtable. One of them is the banalisation of public discourse epitomised in the mantra, "It's the economy, stupid". Today, the real stupidity is to give the economy primacy over the polity. The British economy is now one of the most productive in the world, but rising prosperity has gone hand in hand with a deepening political malaise. Falling levels of trust in politics and politicians, miserable general election turnouts, the recent SNP victory in Scotland, disaffection among a small but ominous minority of British-born Muslims and the belated emergence of a potentially explosive "English Question" now haunt the British state like so many ghosts of Banquo. But the spectres are political, not economic. They have to do with the fundamentals of identity, legitimacy and political allegiance. They can be laid to rest only by and through political debate and institutional change.

Another obstacle is the constitutional conservatism that lurks deep in the Labour Party's DNA. Ever since it became a serious challenger for power, Labour has taken Britain's time- encrusted constitution for granted and ignored the tension between social-democratic values and British constitutional orthodoxy. In the days of interwar unemployment and crisis-ridden postwar reconstruction, this was understandable. But over the past 30 years two things have become obvious.

The first is that, although the powers once exercised by the crown have been taken over by the government of the day, the British version of democracy is essentially monarchical. The second is that this negates the social-democratic values of equal citizenship, popular sovereignty and government by dialogue and discussion.

True, the reforms of Tony Blair's first term were more far-reaching than anything seen since 1832. But they did not spring from a coherent vision of pluralist democracy. All too often, the government clung to the monarchical habits of the past. Devolution to Scotland and Wales went hand in hand with increasing centralisation in England; the Human Rights Act with illiberal statutes restricting civil liberty and strengthening the state's already excessive capacity to intrude into the lives of its citizens.

The consequences were doubly malign. The "old" constitution - centred on the absolute sovereignty of the crown-in-parliament - has gone for ever. But it has been replaced by an ad hoc miscellany of measures and executive actions, pulling in different directions. The result is a constitutional wasteland, which is rapidly becoming a breeding ground for confusion, conflict and illegality. The law lords say one thing, ministers another. The consensus among international lawyers was that the Iraq war was illegal. The Attorney General pronounced it legal.

But the biggest obstacle to further democratisation is the crabbed mindset engendered by British constitutional doctrine. For those imprisoned in it, the constitution (any constitution, not just ours) is an uncodifiable melange of practices, precedents, conventions and occasional enactments that govern the operation of the political system until new practices miraculously emerge from the womb of time.

Herbert Morrison's famous dictum was that socialism is what the Labour government does. On the traditional British view, the constitution is what the political actors of the day can get away with. The constitution simply is. Constitutional discourse has no room for ought.

Yet, in reality, constitutions - whether written or not - are more than assortments of institutional nuts and bolts. They embody (and sometimes express) a moral vision: a vision of the good political community, of the good citizen and even of the good society. The US constitution (to take the most famous example) defines a set of institutional arrangements and legal principles designed to reconcile republican liberty and popular sovereignty in a polity of continental scope. Its opening words - "we, the people of the United States" - summarise the governing principle with beautiful economy: the state is the property of the people, not of the rulers temporarily in charge of it.

The state and the monarch

Ironically, even the "old" British constitution embodied a vision of the good political community. The trouble was that the vision was pre- democratic. It was a vision of responsive, but autonomous executive power, in which the people had only walk-on parts in a drama scripted by government at the centre. The state did not belong to the people. It belonged to the monarch, and later to the monarch's ministers. Under the pressure of social, cultural and institutional change, that vision has faded. But it has not been replaced. The result is a vacuum of understanding and principle, which goes a long way to explain the disaffection and cynicism that now poison the wells of political debate and undermine the whole progressive tradition.

Not only was the old constitution pre-democratic, it was monocultural and mononational. It presupposed a culturally homogeneous society and a single, overarching "British" identity, replacing the various national identities of the UK. Manifestly, neither of these assumptions hold good today. Fundamental political questions - Who belongs to the political community? What holds it together? How do the nations of Britain relate to each other and to the whole? How does England relate to the non-English nations? Where do ethnic minority cultures and communities fit in? - are now on the agenda, in a way that has never been true before.

But the British constitutional tradition lacks the moral resources to supply convincing answers. British nationhood can be only civic, like those of France or the United States, not ethnic, like those of Israel and much of eastern Europe. Apart from any other reasons, there is no British ethnicity. Britain is and always has been a multinational state. But civic nationhood presupposes a civic culture, and in so far as present-day Britain has a civic culture at all, it is feeble to the point of anaemia. There is no British equivalent to the valeurs républicaines of France, or the "civic religion" of the US. Rightly, there is now a broad consensus that "Britishness" should be about values, not genes.

But British values are nowhere defined. Faced with alienated young Muslims or separatist Scots asking why they should be British, we have no iconic national utterance to point to - no equivalent of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen or the American Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. Mumblings about Magna Carta are not adequate substitutes.

This has been true a long time, but two developments have added urgency to the question. The first is the historic Commons vote for an elected second chamber. It would be outrageous to sweep this under the carpet and only one degree less outrageous to erect an unstable halfway house between democracy and appointment. But the vote to elect the second chamber was only the beginning. A host of other questions crowd behind. On what basis should elections take place? What electoral districts should be represented? What powers should the chamber have? Above all, what will it be for? These questions can't be answered by more piecemeal tinkering. The creation of an elected second chamber will be a revolutionary change with ramifying effects across the political system. It would be absurd, even dangerous, to look at it in isolation.

Formidable agenda

The second new development is the "English Question" I mentioned earlier. Sometimes this is confused with the notorious "West Lothian Question", but it goes deeper than that. English nationalism (or patriotism, for those who feel squeamish about nationalism) has always been with us, but for most of the time since the Act of Union it has masqueraded as British nationalism. English nationhood was subsumed by British nationhood; the cross of St George by the Union Jack. The Scots and the Welsh were understandably offended by the English habit of talking of "Britain" and "England" as though they were the same thing, but to most English people it was second nature.

Now this is changing. St George crosses on flags at football matches, the recent Social Attitudes Survey finding that there has been a significant fall in the percentage of English people who identify themselves as British and Conservative talk of confining votes on English legislation to English MPs are all straws in the wind.

It is not a high wind - yet. Perhaps it never will be. But it would be dangerous to count on that. Devolution has fostered a remarkable and fundamentally healthy growth in the self-confidence and sense of nationhood of the Scots and Welsh. Scotland and Wales are now distinct political communities, with real capital cities and real parliamentary assemblies, in a sense that has not been true of Scotland for 300 years and has never been true of Wales before.

The revival of England's sense of nationhood is a natural response to these transformations. Though the metropolitan liberal intelligentsia has never been comfortable with the idea, the English are a people, too. If the peoples of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are entitled to autonomy over a wide range of policy areas, how can it be right to deny it to the English?

The agenda is formidable, but so is Brown. He has been the strongest Chancellor since Cripps and the most successful since Gladstone. He has a chance to build a consensus for democratic change of a kind we have not seen since 1945. If he succeeds, he will go down as one of the greatest reforming prime ministers of modern times.

Gordon Brown's in-tray

Health Give public greater access to GPs on weekends and evenings; resolve NHS pay crisis and flawed application procedure for junior doctors

Poverty Put government back on track to meet target of halving child poverty by 2010

Terrorism Develop cross-departmental approach to tackling Islamic extremism

Housing Build eco-towns; meet targets for new housing; make it easier for first-time buyers to get on the property ladder; deal with home information pack problems

Schools Increase funding of state schools; set up National Council for Educational Excellence to tie industry, higher education and the voluntary sector more closely to schools; increase the number of school-leavers entering university

Europe Deal with fallout from the EU treaty and calls for a referendum

Iraq Set date for troop withdrawal; answer calls for an inquiry into the Iraq war

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins

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Happiness is a huge gun: Cold War thrillers and the modern nuclear deterrent

For all that books and films laud Britain's strength, ultimately, they show that our power is interdependent.

Francisco “Pistols” Scaramanga, the ­assassin for hire in Ian Fleming’s 1965 James Bond novel, The Man With the Golden Gun, has invested more than money in his favourite weapon. Bond’s colleagues in the Secret Service have concluded from Freudian analysis that Scaramanga’s golden gun is “a symbol of virility – an extension of the male organ”. It is just one of many phallic weapons in the Bond saga. In Dr No, for instance, Bond reflects on his 15-year “marriage” to his Beretta handgun as he fondly recalls “pumping the cartridges out on to the bedspread in some hotel bedroom somewhere around the world”. Objectively speaking, guns comprise little more than highly engineered metal and springs, but Fleming invests them with an ­extraordinary degree of psychosexual significance.

Size matters in the Bond novels – a point made by a furious Paul Johnson in a review of Dr No for this paper in 1958 (“everything is giant in Dr No – insects, breasts, and gin-and-tonics”). One of the Bond stories’ biggest weapons is a rocket carrying an atomic warhead: the Moonraker, which gives its name to the third Bond novel, published in 1955. The most important thing about the Moonraker is that it is apparently British – a gift to a grateful nation from the plutocrat Sir Hugo Drax. And, like Bond’s Beretta, it is freighted with psychosexual significance. When Bond first lays eyes on it there is no doubt that this is an erotically charged symbol of destructive power. “One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen,” Bond says, with a “rapt expression”:

Up through the centre of the shaft, which was about thirty feet wide, soared a pencil of glistening chromium [. . .] nothing marred the silken sheen of the fifty feet of polished chrome steel except the spidery fingers of two light gantries which stood out from the walls and clasped the waist of the rocket between thick pads of foam-rubber.

The guns in the Bond books can be seen as expressions of their bearer’s power – or, as with Scaramanga’s golden gun, compensation for a lack of virility. The Moonraker is equally symbolic, but on a far larger scale: an expression of a nation’s geopolitical power, or compensation for its impotence.

As what is known officially as Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent (“Trident” to everyone else) returns to the top of the political agenda, the cultural dimension of the debate will no doubt continue to be overlooked. Yet culture matters in politics, especially when the issue is a weapon. As the guns in the Bond novels remind us, weapons are not merely tools, they are also symbols. Trident is not just a system comprising nuclear warheads, missiles and four Vanguard-class submarines. Its symbolic meanings are, to a great extent, what this debate is about. Trident stands for Britain itself, and it does so for different people in different ways. Your opinion on whether to cancel or replace it depends to a great extent on what kind of country you think Britain is, or ought to be.

The Cold War British spy thriller is particularly topical because it developed in tandem with Britain’s nuclear programme through the 1950s and 1960s. Moonraker was published just weeks after Churchill’s government announced its intention to build an H-bomb in the 1955 defence white paper, and three years after Britain’s first atomic test on the Montebello Islands, Western Australia. These novels drew on technological reality in their plots concerning the theft of nuclear secrets or the proliferation of nuclear technology, but they influenced reality as well as reflected it, with stories of British power that helped create Britain’s image of itself in a postwar world.

The main theme of the genre is the decline of British power and how the country responded. Atomic or nuclear weapons serve this as symbols and plot devices. Len Deighton’s debut novel, The Ipcress File (1962), for instance, concerns a plan to brainwash British scientists to spy for the Soviet Union, and has as its centrepiece an American neutron-bomb test on a Pacific atoll, observed by a British double agent who is transmitting Allied secrets to an offshore Soviet submarine. The novel’s technical dialogue on nuclear technology, and its appendices providing a fictionalised account of the Soviet Union’s first atomic bomb test and a factual explanation of the neutron bomb, are in the book not merely for verisimilitude: Deighton’s British spies are observers or victims of the nuclear arms race between the US and the USSR, agents with remarkably little agency.

A more dour variation on the theme is John le Carré’s The Looking Glass War (1965), in which the prospect of obtaining information on Soviet nuclear missiles in East Germany provokes “the Department”, a failing military intelligence organisation, to try to regain its wartime glory with an intelligence coup. This hubris leads to tragedy as its amateurish operation unravels to disastrous effect, le Carré’s point being that military and economic might cannot be regained through nostalgic wish-fulfilment. These novels situate British decline in the context of superpower domination; their characters recall the technological and operational successes of the Second World War but seem unable to accept the contemporary reality of military and geopolitical decline. For Deighton and le Carré, Britain simply doesn’t matter as much as it used to, which is why, in le Carré’s later Smiley novels and Deighton’s Game, Set and Match trilogy (1983-85), the spymasters are so desperate to impress the Americans.

Fleming is usually seen as a reactionary, even blimpish writer – his England was “substantially right of centre”, Kingsley Amis remarked – and he signalled his own politics by making a trade unionist the ­villain of his first novel, Casino Royale (1953). So it might seem surprising that he was as concerned as his younger contemporaries Deighton and le Carré with British decline. The historian David Cannadine, for one, emphasises that although Fleming may have been aghast at certain aspects of postwar change such as the welfare state and unionisation (opinions that Bond makes no secret of sharing), he simply refused to believe that Britain was in decline, a refusal embodied in Bond’s very character.

Bond the man is more than the “anonymous, blunt instrument wielded by a ­government department” that Fleming described to the Manchester Guardian in 1958. He is an expression of the British state itself, demonstrating Britain’s toughness while besting its enemies – the Russian agents of SMERSH and, later, the international criminals and terrorists of SPECTRE. He is supported by a formidable apparatus of technological and logistical capability that mythologises British research and development, which had peaked during the Second World War (a point made more obviously in the film franchise when Fleming’s Armourer becomes the white-coated Q, heir to Barnes Wallis and the ingenious technicians of the Special Operations Executive). And, as Cannadine astutely observes, “this comforting, escapist theme of Britain’s continued pre-eminence” is most evident in Bond’s relationship with the United States. The Americans may have more money, but they cannot spy or fight anywhere near as well as Bond, as is made plain when the hapless Felix Leiter, Bond’s friend in the CIA, literally loses an arm and a leg to one of Mr Big’s sharks in Live and Let Die (1954).

Moonraker, however, exposes a more complex and sceptical side to Fleming’s Bond. It is significant that this emerges in a book that is explicitly about Englishness and the Bomb. The rocket is being built atop another symbol: the white cliffs of Dover, prompting some surprisingly lyrical passages on the beauty of South Foreland coast. And yet, though replete with emblems of English tradition and bursting with hatred of ugly, evil-minded foreigners, this novel has an unmistakable political subtext that undermines its apparent confidence in British power. Drax, it turns out, is a patriot – but a patriot of Nazi Germany, which he had served as an SS officer and plans to avenge with a missile that is pointing not, as everyone believes, at a test site in the North Sea, but at central London, the intended Ground Zero being a flat in Ebury Street, Belgravia (the location, incidentally, of Fleming’s own bachelor pad in the 1930s and 1940s). The missile has been designed and built by engineers from Wernher von Braun’s wartime rocket programme, and its atomic warhead has been generously donated by the Soviet Union, which is looking to bring Britain to its knees without having to go through the rigmarole of fighting a war.

The Moonraker, we are told repeatedly, will restore Britain to its rightful place at the global top table after its unfortunate postwar period of retrenchment and austerity. But the rocket is not British, except in being built on British soil, and the aim of the man controlling it is to destroy British power, not project it. The implication is that Britain is not only incapable of looking after its own defences, but also pathetically grateful for the favours bestowed on it. After the missile is fired, its trajectory diverted by Bond back to the original target (thereby fortuitously taking out a Soviet submarine carrying the fleeing Drax), the government decides to cover it all up and allow the public to continue believing that the Moonraker is a genuinely British atomic success.

One of the ironies of the Bond phenomenon is that by examining the myths and realities of British hard power, it became a chief instrument of British soft power. Of the first 18 novels to sell over a million copies in Britain, ten were Bond books, and Moonraker (by no means the most successful instalment of the saga) was approaching the two million mark 20 years after publication. The film franchise continues to offer Cannadine’s “comforting, escapist” image of Britain (the two most recent pictures, directed by Sam Mendes, are especially replete with British icons), but the novels are altogether more uncertain about Britain’s role in the world. Moonraker is full of anxiety that the myth of British power is nothing more than a myth, that Britain lacks the industrial and scientific wherewithal to return to greatness. It even conjures up an image of the apocalypse, reminding readers of the precariousness of those cherished British values and institutions, when the love interest, the improbably named Special Branch detective Gala Brand, imagines the terrible consequences of Drax’s plan:

The crowds in the streets. The Palace. The nursemaids in the park. The birds in the trees. The great bloom of flame a mile wide. And then the mushroom cloud. And nothing left. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

***

Even though their plots ensure that apocalypse is averted, Cold War thrillers thus made their own contribution to forcing us to imagine the unimaginable, as did more mainstream post-apocalyptic novels such as William Golding’s Lord of the Flies (1954), Nevil Shute’s bestseller On the Beach (1957) and The Old Men at the Zoo (1961) by Angus Wilson. In Desmond Cory’s Shockwave, first published in 1963 as Hammerhead and featuring the Spanish-British agent Johnny Fedora (whose debut preceded Bond’s by two years), Madrid is saved from destruction by a nuclear bomb that the Soviet master spy Feramontov almost succeeds in delivering to its target. As he contemplates his objective, Feramontov muses that, in the “bomb-haunted world of the Sixties”, death in a nuclear fireball “might even come as a release, like the snapping of an overtautened string; and after the rains of death had flooded the Earth, those who survived in the sodden ruins might think of him as a benefactor of the race”.

But where the post-apocalyptic dystopias might be viewed as an argument for nuclear disarmament, later Cold War thrillers such as Cory’s usually accepted the fact of mutually assured destruction – and that British peace and prosperity were guaranteed by US nuclear firepower. Nowhere is this more apparent than Frederick Forsyth’s 1984 bestseller, The Fourth Protocol, which turns the Labour Party’s famously unilateralist 1983 election manifesto into a uniquely party-political espionage plot. In it, the general secretary of the Soviet Union conspires with the elderly Kim Philby to smuggle into Britain a small, self-assembly nuclear bomb that a KGB “illegal” will put together and ­detonate at a US air force base in East Anglia.

Unlike in Moonraker and Shockwave, however, the objective is not to provoke hostilities or prompt military capitulation, but to persuade the British public to vote Labour – by provoking horror and outrage at the risks of US nuclear weapons remaining on British soil. However, the new and moderate Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, will have a scant few hours in Downing Street, as a hard-left rival under Soviet control (such as a certain Ken Livingstone, whom Philby describes as “a nondescript, instantly forgettable little fellow with a nasal voice”) will at once usurp Kinnock and reinstate a policy of unilateral disarmament, leading to the removal of the US missiles.

The ideological force of Forsyth’s novel is clear enough: Britain is beset by enemies within and without, and must arm itself morally and politically against communism. But although this is an insistently, even tiresomely patriotic novel, its plot makes no attempt to conceal Britain’s relative military weakness and dependence on the United States, though disaster is averted by the combined brilliance of MI5, MI6 and the SAS. The Fourth Protocol thus becomes an allegory of this country’s world-leading “niche capabilities”, which maintain Britain’s prestige and relevance despite its declining military and economic might.

Today, the political argument remains on much the same terms as at the start of the Cold War. Whichever way you look at it, Trident symbolises Britain. To its supporters, it is symbolic of Britain’s talent for “punching above its weight”, and its responsibility to protect freedom and keep the global peace. To its opponents, it is an emblem of economic folly, militaristic excess, and a misunderstanding of contemporary strategic threats; it is an expression not of British confidence but of a misplaced machismo, a way for Britons to feel good about themselves that fails to address the real threats to the nation. One academic, Nick Ritchie of York University, argues that Britain’s nuclear policy discourse “is underpinned by powerful ideas about masculinity in international politics in which nuclear weapons are associated with ideas of virility, strength, autonomy and rationality”.

In 1945, shortly after Hiroshima became a byword for mass destruction, George ­Orwell predicted in his essay “You and the Atom Bomb” that nuclear weapons would bring about what he was the first to call a “cold war”. Because an atomic bomb “is a rare and costly object as difficult to produce as a battleship”, it could be produced at scale only by countries with vast industrial capacity; this would lead to the emergence of two or three superpowers, confronting each other in a “peace that is no peace”.

Orwell’s point about industrial capacity helps explain why Trident is totemic: it is proof that our industrial might has not entirely vanished. Alternatively, it can be seen as a consolation for industrial decline. This may be why the huge cost of the Successor programme – one of the main arguments wielded by Trident’s opponents against replacement – appears to be a source of pride for the government: the Strategic Defence and Security Review proclaims that, at £31bn, with a further £10bn for contingencies, Successor will be “one of the largest government investment programmes”.

Clearly, size matters today as much as it did when Fleming was writing. But Moonraker again helps us see that all is not what it seems. Just as the Moonraker is a German missile with a Soviet warhead, even if it is being built in Kent, so the missiles carried by the Vanguard-class submarines are, in fact, made in California, Britain having given up missile production in the 1960s. The Trident warheads are made in Berkshire – but by a privatised government agency part-owned by two American firms. Trident may be British, but only in the way Manchester United or a James Bond movie are British.

The Cold War spy thriller presciently suggests that true independence is an illusion. Britain may consume the most destructive weapons yet invented, but it can no longer produce them or deliver them without America’s industrial might. British power is interdependent, not independent: that is the Cold War thriller’s most politically prescient message.

Andrew Glazzard is a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute and the author of “Conrad’s Popular Fictions: Secret Histories and Sensational Novels” (Palgrave Macmillan)

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt