‘But neither should a country, especially one with such a proud history as ours, slip gently into a lower league without a strenuous effort at least to prevent it,’ said Tony Blair (20/1/22).
That’s Blair’s programme since 1997 in a nutshell. He had come to power with a promise to make Britain a “normal European country”, join the Euro, revive manufacturing etc. But he was taken aside and shown the facts of life. The choice was a gentle decline to becoming another contented Holland, or one last big throw at the imperial dice … We know the choice he decided on.
What follows is an attempt to explore the relationship between the people and its political culture and how that culture persists in performing the core function that it has always done since the British state emerged – the perceived right, nay duty, of Britain to inflict itself militarily across the globe as it sees fit. That this persists even when its capacity to do so effectively is in serious doubt is what fascinates me.
The emergence of Britain at the time when industrialisation was in its infancy and the way that the idea of Britain became associated with the emergence of the working class is also a factor in the continued persistence of the imperial notion. As the prosperity of the country increased during industrialisation it can’t but have had a profound impact on the people’s perspective on the world. In fact it could be claimed that the relationship between the working class and the imperial culture was symbiotic rather than a contradictory one and to the extent to which that imperial culture changed it changed on the basis of that symbiotic relationship. Heroic images moved seamlessly from Horatio Nelson to Tommy Atkins without a serious mis-step.
There was a time just before the First World War when there existed the possibility of a shift in working class perspectives. The emergence of the non-craft unions, the 1911 strikes and the expressions of solidarity among the British working class for the 1913 Dublin Lockout seemed to indicate the possibilities of a break to a more independent working class outlook on the world. But then the First World War happened and all the groundwork previously laid down by the likes of Randolph Churchill and Lloyd George did what it was meant to do – ensure the basis of a continued working class affinity with the imperial perspective.
But let’s not forget Robert Blatchford. More than any other working class leader, Blatchford was aware of the limits of the British working class when it came to its imperial instincts. His Clarion movement was probably the most successful manifestation of the social mobilisation of the British working class in history. It reached into all facets of working class life and embraced every conceivable aspects of working class experience from the idea of Labour Churches to Cycling Clubs. It’s difficult for us today to comprehend the sheer scale of his success with that movement and it’s now something that’s effectively been pushed to the margins of history by the Marxist historians that have set our understanding of working class history since.
Blatchford achieved the success he did because he understood the relationship between the British working class and its imperial context. For that reason it was Blatchford’s perspective that became the effective counterweight to any possibility of the emergence of a widespread non-imperial outlook among the working class in the decades prior to the First World War.
Then the war that changed everything happened. But not so for the British working class. There emerged the Labour Party as the main political expression of the working class interests but that party had by now received its political education from elements of the Liberal Party and as such provided no real threat to the prevailing way that the world continued to be perceived by the working class. The Irish democracy was defied by the use of the British Army without any serious dissent, The General Strike came and went without any real impression being left on the mass of the working class, the Great Depression happened with the most significant expression of working class assertion being the hunger marches. And so on.
In the meantime, while the other “advanced” countries produced mass communist movements in response to the experience of the working class the British communist movement remained paltry in comparison. And Britain continued its imperial mission in Malaysia and Kenya without any serious challenge from the people.
There are obviously millions of people in Britain who work but there is no longer a British working class. The class that was given existence by the unique experience of industrialisation no longer exists in sufficient numbers to exert a political influence in the same way it did in the past. That class came and went without any discernible influence on the imperial outlook which defined and justified Britain’s actions in the world. While it influenced the evolution of the British State and it influenced the domestic policies of that state, it failed to alter that core component of Britishness.
That core component continues to exist as something independent of political influence in a most wondrous way. The explanation as to why it continues to exist in a post-industrial age was best explained some years ago by a First Lord of the Admiralty who was interviewed on the radio on the occasion of his retirement. Asked to explain why the British Exchequer should continue to sustain a significant Royal Navy while the NHS was in dire need of funding he responded by pointing out that a merchant ship hijacked in the Horn of Africa or anywhere else in the world created financial reverberations in the insurance markets of the City of London – irrespective of who owned that ship. It was the Royal Navy’s duty and responsibility therefore to police against such possibilities and to do that required a significant navy.
Thus it occurred to me how the imperial perspective has managed to evolve independently of the erosion of the economic basis from which it originated. But it could only have succeeded in doing that because of the continuity of its existence from the time of its emergence to the present day. Yet, while we can rely on the First Lord of the Admiralty to provide a practical explanation that justifies the naval expression of that perspective (the Royal Navy was ever motivated by practical need) the real danger comes from the fact that the perspective continues to underpin the military adventures that are both justified and continue to reinforce that perspective.
My thoughts on Britain and its continued existence were provoked by the way in which the imperial perspective has survived the potential threat of a working class alternative and the dissolving of the economic conditions which originally enabled it to flourish. As such it has to be seen as something that exists independently of economics and politics and therein, to me, is the nature of its wondrousness.
The illustration shows the Clarion, magazine published by Robert Blatchford