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How to remake Britain: The perils of grand designs

In a multinational state as divided as Britain has become, an overarching national project is unfeasible. 

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Roberto Unger begins his essay with the irreversible fact of Brexit, a novel point of departure for a contemporary thinker of the left. In the suffocating atmosphere of nostalgia for the pre-Brexit ancien régime that pervades progressive thought, his intervention is a breath of fresh air. He sums up the British situation with admirable clarity when he writes, “the scrambling of class allegiances that took place in the 2019 general election gave both the Conservatives and Labour a chance to rid themselves of ideas that have become irrelevant to the solution of the country’s problems”.

Unger is right that Brexit will bring fundamental change to Britain. That is one reason why some of us welcome it. But his proposals for a British national project are mostly unworkable. He tells us that the project he has in mind can “win the support of a broad majority of Britons and cut across conventional ideological divisions”. But there is little prospect of consensus on how Britain should change after Brexit. The shifts that follow will be radical, and some of them quick, but they will not be the expression of any national project.

History may be useful here, if only in a cautionary way. In Britain any national project is a recipe for intense political conflict. It was a sign of her realism that Margaret Thatcher understood and accepted this fact. She was herself animated by a nostalgic vision – in her case of the deferential Britain of the 1950s or 1930s – which her own policies dispelled. The upshot of her vision was a country shaped by a market individualism inimical to the dutiful bourgeois ethos she revered and embodied.

Tony Blair’s “modernisation” of Britain was also self-defeating. Devolution boosted nationalism, a force Blair believed had been consigned to history. The ideology of human rights, which he invoked to support his disastrous adventure in Iraq, has been rejected in the illiberal democracies of Poland and Hungary. The dysfunctional euro, which he was convinced Britain would inevitably join, condemned Italy, Greece and most of southern Europe to decades of depression and divided the EU irreparably.

[see also: The system cannot hold]

Blair’s project is now as backward-looking as Thatcher’s. Both of them became versions of neoliberalism and it is one of the curiosities of our time that progressive thinking is a programme for conserving the kind of society produced by these defunct neoliberal experiments.

Correctly, Unger focuses on the need for radical changes in British education. As he notes, an encyclopaedic national curriculum restricts local initiative and experimentation. Yet he shies away from the drastic changes that are required in higher education. The transformation of universities into businesses, to which academic staff submitted and then promoted, was a fateful step. Large sections of the British higher education sector – over-expanded, heavily dependent on debt-financed tuition fee income and, in the humanities and social sciences, teaching doctrinal orthodoxies with little intellectual or vocational value – are effectively bankrupt. Their collapse is already accelerating.

What survives will depend on government, and thereby on the shape of the British state over the coming years. Here Unger’s project neglects crucial political facts, the most important of which is that Britain is not a nation-state but a multinational polity. He argues, with much logic, that what is needed is not federalism but a combination of more radical devolution and centralised initiative. The state capitalism that developed from the financial crisis of 2008, which has become deeply entrenched in the course of the pandemic, requires continuous government intervention in the economy alongside wide scope for decentralised initiative. A mix of this kind is possible only after a hard Brexit, but it also requires that the forces of nationalism do not pull the British state apart – a realistic possibility.

The stand-off between the Westminster and Edinburgh governments on a second referendum will persist until after the next general election, which may not be held until May 2024. Even then a referendum will occur only if a minority Labour government emerges that needs SNP support in the Commons. Moreover, Brexit makes Scottish independence harder to achieve. Will the EU make it clear that it is ready to embrace a fiscally depleted Scotland at the cost of boosting separatist movements in Catalonia and Corsica? If not, the SNP will be campaigning for a leap in the dark.

Whether the British state breaks up in the next few years or lumbers on for generations cannot be known at this point. In any case it will be the contingencies of politics that decide. In a multinational state as divided as Britain has become, an overarching national project is unfeasible. Given the self-defeating upshot of Thatcher’s and Blair’s grand schemes, this may be no bad thing.

This article is from our series on the UK’s post-Brexit future.

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is Feline Philosophy: Cats and the Meaning of Life (Allen Lane)

This article appears in the 17 March 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The system cannot hold