British democracy used to be presented as the envy of the world – the Whig version of history, the rule of law and above all the sense of continuity which was meant to differentiate the UK from its European neighbours.
Such a view permeated British elites, institutions and public life. But it also informed many left-wing radicals and dissenters. One notable example was provided by the American writer Edward Shils on visiting the UK in 1953. He reflected on being completely taken aback to hear 'an eminent man of the left, say, in utter seriousness…that the British constitution was "as nearly perfect as any human institution could be."' And Shils was even more surprised to find that 'No one even thought it amusing.'
Fast forward 60 years and the prevailing wisdom is that few, if any, sensible people hold such self-congratulatory views. Britain has been buffeted by so many changes in the decades since 1953. While there are some examples of famous British continuity from then to the present day, such as the monarchy, in many respects Britain today is a different country.
Yet, inside the heart of the British political establishment, such misplaced assumptions still continue. The difference is that now the elite are a little more circumspect about publicly saying it, knowing it might offend public sensibilities. One exception to this was provided by Tory MP Charles Walker, chair of the Commons procedure committee, who last week reacted to criticism of Britain's democratic arrangements from the leader of the Women's Equality Party, Sophie Walker, on 'Daily Politics.' After her critique he responded with anger: 'I always come on this programme and you have people who completely trash parliament and our democracy.'
He then launched into a glowing tribute of all things British constitutional:
We have an outstanding parliament, an outstanding democracy, high levels of accountability. Politicians travel from across the world to come to our House of Commons to understand how we do parliament. They are amazed …that when a constituent writes to me I can pass that letter on to a secretary of state and get a response. The constituent may not like the response, but they get a response from a minister in relation to their concern. That is an extraordinary level of accountability.
This is the unguarded perspective of part of the British establishment, and of a huge segment of the Tory parliamentary party. Occasionally examples of this belief in the good of all things British emerge elsewhere. Andrew Marr, concluding his upbeat 'A History of Modern Britain', published just before the banking crash, observed that 'in the years since 1945…we British have no reason to despair, or emigrate,' which isn't how some remember the 1970s or 1980s, or indeed subsequently, Brexit Britain.
Others still defend all the puff and pageantry of royal Britain as aiding the national spirit. On the birth of another royal baby a few years ago, Kirstie Allsopp, Tory property developer, asked: 'What is wrong with Britain being a Disneyland?' The obvious answer being that the UK isn't a fantasy playground, and the royal family infantilises all of us.
The last 40 years in the UK has seen more wealth and income transferred to the already uber-rich and privileged. Public assets have been sold off, corrupted and outsourced – a UK 'economic miracle' proclaimed as the gospel by Thatcher believers not once, but at least twice (1980s, current Tory era).
This transformation, preached every day by right-wing outlets from the media to think-tanks and opinion formers, has done nothing to address the fundamental weaknesses of the economy pre-Thatcher. These include the historic devaluing of manufacturing, the anti-business ethos at the heart of the Tory party and the City of London, both of which are more interested in pseudo-enterprise and rentier capitalism, while research and development and long-term investment has never been at the core of British capitalism.
Before EU entry in the 1970s the UK was seen as 'the sick man of Europe,' and membership of the Common Market was meant to address these woes. Yet, after 40 years in the EU, Thatcherism and Blairism haven't addressed them. Suddenly, Britain's productivity gap has become news again, but this is deep-seated and structural in its causes, and linked to low research and development rates. This is at such abysmal levels compared to our neighbours that a 2013 Economist survey put the UK 159th out of 173 countries as a percentage of GDP – only beaten by 14 nation-states, seven of which were in sub-Saharan Africa.
What has kept the UK afloat for decades is supposed to be the role of the City, but last week it was revealed that the UK is now £490 billion poorer than at the time of Brexit: going from a net surplus of £469 billion in overseas assets to a net deficit of £22 billion. The country does not have 'any reserve of net foreign assets' – a staggering statement compared to the hyperbole about British overseas investments regularly made.
It isn't an accident that more thoughtful British establishment voices such as Peter Hennessy believe that the best days of Britain are firmly in the past – located in his childhood circa 1953 with the coronation and conquest of Everest, the same year as Edward Shils made his observations. Hennessy wrote a revealing vignette, 'The Kingdom to Come,' in 2015, about the loss of the Britain of hope, optimism and openings for people from all walks of life, which centred on how Scotland's referendum shook the whole house that is the union of the UK to its foundations.
He noted in conclusion that the certainties which once made the UK what it was, mostly no longer exist. The main tenets of what made Britain what it had been were no longer either centrestage or held in high esteem. As a consequence, by the time of our referendum and its aftermath, there was no agreed and popular map in the minds of citizens about what Britain was. This, he reflected, was bad news for its future.
Numerous left-wing accounts critique the direction of Britain over the last 40 years, and tend to see this leading inexorably to the twilight years of Britain as a nation-state. But as Cat Boyd wrote recently, the problem isn't so much Britain but British capitalism and neo-liberalism. This means that in the age of Corbyn – insurgency and populism – for many the answer to all this in Scotland, isn't automatically independence.
However, what Boyd's take does not address is the problem within the corridors of power in British government and public life. The British state and the institutions which sit around it have been cheerleaders for a corrupt, crony, debased capitalism. How this is taken on, defeated and superseded is one of the great challenges of our age.
The British elite's mirage of believing this nation to be the one which has taught the world democracy, the rule of law and parliamentary accountability, and which was benign and enlightened in all it did globally including empire, still continues. It might be said less frequently now in the cold light of Brexit, but it is there and it is used to advance the Boris Johnson/Jacob Rees Mogg vision of a new buccaneering Britain ruling the waves, at least in trade and commerce.
A couple of years ago at a G20 summit the Russian government called the UK 'just a small island,' which resulted in David Cameron replying: 'Britain is an island that helped to abolish slavery, that has invented most of the things worth inventing… We are proud of everything we do as a small island – a small island that has the sixth largest economy, the fourth best funded military, some of the most effective diplomats, the proudest history…' He signed off what was called a 'Hugh Grant moment' with the words: 'I'm thinking of setting this to music.'
Some may think there is no harm in this romantic delusion and that all countries need their myths and even poetry in their statecraft. However, this fantasy history of Britain – waxing lyrically and selectively about the past – is used to justify the existing rotten order. It is used to maintain a state and politics which isn't about the welfare of its people, which doesn't actually care about the poorest and most vulnerable, and which actively wants to do financial and psychological harm to those who need help from the state most: witness the bedroom tax, rape clause, implementation of universal credit, and a host of other welfare 'reforms'.
If the UK is ever to become a country which is about caring for its own citizens, the complacent spin of Charles Walker believing our broken democracy is still a shining example and the Cameron Panglossian vision have to be superseded by a more humble and humane Britain. What chance does this have with the folly of Brexit hanging in the balance? Yet the future and continuation of the UK in any form, along with Scotland's debate, depend on it being defeated.