Britain Alone: a history of Britain since the global financial crisis
Liam Stanley - Research Fellow, SPERI, and Lecturer in Politics, Department of Politics and International Relations, the University of Sheffield
It starts with the following observation, which I build on from recent post-colonial scholarship. With the confirmation of Britain’s exit from the European Union in January 2020, the UK now has a new relationship with the global economy. Shorn of empire and now the EU too, Britain’s economy is as national as it has ever been. A decade or so ago, globalisation seemed inevitable. How did this remarkable reversal happen?
The answer to this question can be found in the 2008 global financial crisis and its fallout. The consequent austerity and scarcity have profoundly affected Britain, setting in motion many political conflicts. History has taken a new path. The status and meaning the country is in crisis.
The book traces this process. It shows how the post-crash years intensified and created new conflicts over who gets what. These conflicts became so intense that politics itself transformed. Rather than just the day-to-day conflict over the distribution of resources, political conflict opened up to the most foundational questions: what sort of country Britain should be, where its borders should be drawn, and who should be able to access its wealth and resources.
As it went, the boundaries of Britain were drawn further inward, to more closely align with the nation. The book names this process “nationalisation”. Nationalisation is typically thought of as the transfer of services or commerce from private to state ownership. But there is an equally important second definition that this book focuses on: making the state more national.
In abstract terms, this might involve excluding non-nationals from state resources or creating new nation-state entities to pursue a different kind of politics. In practice this might mean restricting welfare state access, building a “national” health service, or campaigning for national independence — as well as actions that look to legitimise those moves, such as nation-building or “us vs. them” discourse.
The book shows that to understand the present and future, we must analyse the historical paths that brought us here. It shows how thinking in terms of the relationship between state and nation means looking at British history somewhat differently. Britain, after all, is not really a nation. It is a union between existing nations. “Britain” was contrived as nation after its state had already been created. Yet Britain was not really a state either. It was an empire.
It was only after the Second World War that Britain started looking more like a textbook nation-state. This post-imperial nationalisation is central to the modern myth of Britishness: how the Attlee government founded the post-war welfare state to reward the British peoples for their wartime sacrifices, with the empire conspicuous by its absence. Institutions like the NHS were for the nation, and were appropriately labelled as such.
The politics of the global financial crisis created the conditions — austerity, scarcity, inequality — for another nationalising thrust. The basic principle is this: Hard times produce a social impulse towards consolidation, to draw in nation-state boundaries, to protect those who are conferred greater value by virtue of being core to the nation. But this is not and never is automatic or organic.
A number of steps are needed: to create and solidify the dividing lines; to mobilise people into participating in contesting those boundaries; and then to have the power to formally redraw them. Some will win, others will lose. Control and patronage of the state is the most decisive weapon. The book traces this process.
Although Brexit is its ultimate symbol and transformation, the book shows how Britain’s recent nationalisation cannot be reduced to just leaving the EU. The thrust to re-align the British state with the British nation is also apparent in the Coalition government’s claim that “we are all in this together” in resolving the national debt emergency; the “hostile environment” and restriction of NHS services to foreigners; in the prevalence of pro-military campaigns and the constant invoking of World War II collective memory; in the post-Brexit vision of the Johnson government, including “levelling up” the country; in the on-going “culture wars”; and in the lockdown weekly clap for NHS workers.
The book also shows how Brexit is only one of three nationalising electoral projects that had the potential to remake the British nation. Scottish nationalism had its chance in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, while economic nationalism was revived through the Corbyn-led Labour Party who had a surprise surge in the 2017 general election. All three aimed to realign Britain’s nation-state boundaries, and so transform Britain’s integration into the global economy.
These three projects feature in the middle and as apogee of the book’s narrative: what are the structural features that gave rise to all these electoral projects within three years of one another? Why did only one of them “win”? And what are the implications of this?
One result is an enlarged political space for projects that look to prioritise and reinvigorate the nation and carve out a new globalisation. The Johnson government — neither free market or strong state — is best understood in this context, but its nationalist project will struggle under its own contradictions, which will be exacerbated by covid.
Through developing this analysis, the book weaves a thread from the fallout of the crisis and austerity to Brexit and the shape of lockdown politics. Given that these nationalising thrusts were given life by the inequalities of the post-crash years, these dynamics have and will not go away.
SPERI celebrated the launch of Britain Alone: How a decade of conflict remade the nation on 9 March with a live online panel discussion.
Purchase a copy of Britain Alone direct from Manchester University Press and get 40% off with the special discount code: STANLEY22
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