Roberto Unger’s essay is predictably probing and salutary. His recommendation that we focus on what the UK may achieve outside the EU is useful and cheering. And he is right to insist that the UK’s economic woes will never be redressed until systematic attention is paid to our no less woeful “constitutional arrangements”.
But his analysis also poses questions. As Unger has argued elsewhere, in the UK, as in the US, what is urgently needed is a new progressive alliance able and willing to address the most pressing political dilemmas. An alliance like this may be easier to achieve in the US because progressives operate for the most part under the umbrella of the Democratic Party. But in the UK, progressives – and their potential voters – are split between Labour, the Greens, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the exiled Conservative left. Unless first-past-the-post gives way to proportional representation, it will remain difficult to forge the effective coalitions of the righteous and the reforming needed to lead a national project.
The problem though is not simply the electoral system. Ever deepening partisanship poses other significant challenges. Increasing provisions for “party democracy” has only tended to make things worse. In recent decades, both Labour Party members in the constituencies, and still more their Tory counterparts, have been drawn to selecting leaders who cater to their respective comfort zones, rather than seeking out candidates possessed of high and proven competence and broad, potentially UK-wide appeal. So the left has suffered from the leadership defects of Jeremy Corbyn, while the country as a whole has suffered from a series of not overwhelmingly distinguished Old Etonians and Oxford Conservatives.
[see also: The system cannot hold]
But the most immediate obstacle to forging a “national project” is of course that, pace Unger, the UK is becoming less and less “a unitary state”. Brexit has only exacerbated existing fissures in sentiment and allegiance between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Referenda can be useful devices for producing closure on tricky moral issues such as abortion, and for determining mundane civic habits, like the direction of traffic on roads. But without proper care, thought and drafting, they are poor instruments for resolving acute debates over cultural and political identity.
When Australia held a referendum in 1999 to determine whether it would remain a monarchy, the rules stipulated that a majority of its states had to vote in the same way for either change, or for no change. Imagine how different things would be had David Cameron and his allies stipulated that – in a composite UK – a majority of its four component parts would also have to agree on either staying within the EU or on leaving it. But, of course, this was not done; and there is a fundamental, structural reason why this was not done.
Australia acted as it did because, like most countries, it possesses a codified constitution which sets out the rules of the political and governance game. For all the prating about “Global Britain”, the UK remains profoundly unglobal in this regard. It still does not possess a codified constitution. Consequently, and as with the EU referendum, its rulers can substantially make things up as they go along, sometimes with disastrous political consequences.
There is also, though, a more ubiquitous problem. Unger is attracted to broad and ambitious analysis, an approach with which I am in sympathy. But focusing on identifying the dilemmas that now confound “the whole world” cannot by definition be enough. In the UK, as in most countries, a substantial and powerful minority exists that continues to benefit from the political and economic status quo. In the absence of major warfare, serious civil commotion, revolution, or the fear of these things – and without the emergence of successful and adroit coalitions of the righteous and the reforming – how are these sometimes predatory and complacent minorities to be outmanoeuvred, so that new projects and happier possibilities can feasibly emerge?
Linda Colley is the author of “Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837” (Yale) and “The Gun, the Ship, and the Pen” (Profile)
This article appears in the 17 Mar 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold