An analysis and commentary on the social, economic, and political dissonance in Britain and the related attempts at reform underway. This is the first in a series of three articles.
2012 is a year for acute global attention to Britain. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations at the start of June, including a four-day holiday weekend, and the build-up to the London Olympics at the end of July were packed with unique spectacles that have attracted popular attention. The British government has used these events to market Britain as a place for visitors and investors, most explicitly in a series of adverts with the common statement that “Britain is great.”
Yet 2012 is also a year for controversial domestic reforms of key institutions: the legislature, political representation, economic regulation, social rights and responsibilities, education, immigration, and the welfare state. These reforms are the focus of international attention for those seeking lessons for crises in European economics and democracy, as well as Americans seeking an end to “culture wars” and socio-economic divisions, if not any state facing uncertainties about socio-economic change in an era of austerity.
Current British political attention to socio-economic reform reawakens political contests that are at least three decades old. Margaret Thatcher (Prime Minister 1979-1990) famously worked explicitly to make Britain great, when Britain was most seriously divided between socialism and free enterprise, with all associated class and culture wars, but ultimately to her undoing.
John Major (Prime Minister 1990-1997) called for a “classless society” in an attempt to distance himself from Thatcherite conservatism but without clarifying what such a society would look like or how it could be achieved (he later claimed to have been misinterpreted).
Tony Blair came into power (1997-2007) on the back of fair criticisms of the culture of privilege and “sleaze” that tarnished Major, but unfairly went further, in part to bolster New Labour’s dubious working class credentials. Blair advised Britons to demand “respect” and entitlements. He used the respect agenda to justify judicial responses to anti-social behavior, but he frequently implied that class was at the root of all social evils and also criticized Britain’s traditional culture of “deference” to authority.
All together, these clumsy attempts to recalibrate the classes encouraged popular rejection of traditional values, such as good manners, hard work, smartness in thought and appearance, and social responsibility.
Consequently, Britain today looks unappealingly dissonant to those anchored in British civilization as it is still known as such in some academic programs, across a vast diaspora of largely unadmitted British descendants, not to mention generous Anglophiles everywhere, or simply those immersed in the fictional worlds of Downton Abbey and Hogwarts Castle.
Overlapping the class divisions are nationalist, ethnic, and religious divisions that threaten Britishness itself. Britain is a contested nation-state: the constitution recognizes England, Wales, and Scotland and some offshore dependencies, such as the Isle of Man, as nations. In 1998, Scotland gained its own parliament; its ruling party is the Scottish National Party, which in June launched another campaign for independence, its strongest yet. Wales has its own assembly; Northern Ireland (a province, not a nation) has a legislature, in which British and Irish nationalists sit, including some former terrorists.
Below the nations are increasing numbers of sub-national groups, defined usually by ethnicity or religion, which in England especially are more prominent in the debate about identity. The worst forms of anti-Britishness have led to domestic terrorism — by Britons inside Britain: for decades by Northern Irish Catholics who waged terrorism in support of their wish for incorporation into the Republic of Ireland; within the last decade by radical Islamists, most lethally on 7 July 2005, when four suicide bombers killed 52 others on London’s transport system.
The Blair administration encouraged Britain’s fragmentation by recognizing (and funding) many groups that claimed to represent or understand radical interests, on the reasonable grounds that we were all better off if radicals participated rather than opposed. When dealing with the more pragmatic or secular parties in Northern Ireland, recognition helped to reach a partial peace, but the Blair government’s recognition of religious challenges to secularism encouraged ethno-religious radicals, including Catholic and Protestant splinter groups in Northern Ireland, and Islamists in Britain.
The Blair administration invited self-appointed ethnic and religious representatives into Downing Street, but banned certain groups from meeting in or entering the country. Perversely, the most political groups got the most attention, marginalizing the moderates, particularly those who opposed politicization of their religion or ethnic identity.
The Blair administration also made easier the establishment by communities of their own schools (usually defined by one religion, but still funded by the public), passed laws that protected religion from criticism, and enforced the laws mostly to protect the most politically agitated religions. For instance, in 2005, radical British Muslims protested the publication in a Danish newspaper of a cartoon of the prophet Muhammed by calling for violence (one placard read: “Behead those who insult Islam!”), but police arrested only the counter-demonstrators who were calling for free speech.
Britain is a secular country. Although the Church of England is privileged (its highest clergy have seats in the House of Lords), its interventions in politics are infrequent and rhetorical. Other religions want stronger privileges, so the Church of England has jumped on the bandwagon, for instance, when the Archbishop of Canterbury (Rowan Williams) supported calls for some judicial recognition of Shari'a law.
For all its talk of multi-culturalism as a melting pot towards a cohesive society, the Blair administration also promoted self-segregation. The Blair administration did not offer a positive national British identity, apart from multi-cultural Britain – indeed, it often told Britons that what made them British was their tolerance for others.
During its early years, Blair’s administration had overseen a reasonable economic and cultural resurgence and partial peace in Northern Ireland, but in 2007 Blair stepped down, discredited by unpopular wars and executive arrogance. The Chancellor of the Exchequer (treasury minister) – Gordon Brown – took over (without any popular election), but in May 2010 his administration was voted out, discredited by the collapse and public bail-out of the privileged banking sector, effective public bankruptcy, and insensitivities on the campaign trail.
Voters clearly rejected the Labour Party, but did not strongly select another party. The Conservative Party (David Cameron) and Liberal-Democrat Party (Nick Clegg) formed their first coalition government, with low expectations.
In its first year, the coalition had little political capital for change and needed to work out many partisan contradictions. These tensions are smoothed by the personal chemistry between the leaders of the two parties. Together the two parties agreed almost immediately on severe public austerity to correct the Labour Party’s unprecedented peacetime overspending. They introduced more regulation of business, although this emerged slowly and has ended up weaker than most Liberal Democrats would have liked.
The Liberal Democrats are most opposed to cuts to education spending and most keen on constitutional reform, but a referendum on electoral reform (replacing a system that over-represents the leading party with a system of proportional representation) was defeated within a year of taking office and a plan (released in June 2012) to democratize the House of Lords is opposed by all the other parties in whole or part, if only because they have other priorities.
The Conservative Party’s instincts are to cut public spending, personal dependency on the state, and immigration, but in the first two years of this government it trod cautiously, while scrutinized by those who fear that the Conservative Party always favors the least vulnerable or even wants to dismantle the entire welfare state.
Before the national election, the Conservative Party had offered the false promise of a "big society", by which it means to encourage local communities to take over their own services. Such initiatives (if they succeed) do encourage local cohesion (and save public money when locals volunteer their services), but few volunteers have emerged, except to reinforce Blair’s trend to self-segregated schools: funded by the public purse, officially in compliance with national education standards, and not discriminatory against anyone, but inevitably favoring a single religion or community.
The coalition was left with few certain levers on social cohesion, so it has invested heavily in royal events (despite the cost to economic productivity of exceptional bank holidays). In April 2011, Britain was overtaken by unexpectedly collective enthusiasm for the wedding of the Queen’s grandson and future king, William, who then had only recently transitioned to official duties. This wedding was a triumph, expertly prepared by palace and government in order to stoke a more positive image of the second-in-line to the throne and of Britain. Under unseasonably warm sunshine, British and international press swooned. Many observers forecasted a resurgence in British culture. Foreign tourists surged into Britain that summer.
This resurgence was shattered in August 2011, as Britain descended into mass disorder. It started in London, nominally at first in reaction to the shooting of a black male by white policemen (still under investigation), but quickly exploded into looting and riots. Police initially stood by, mostly seeking to cordon off troubled areas in the interests of public safety rather than arresting law-breakers – they later blamed uncertain government policy or their long-term strategy to work through, rather than apart from, local communities.
Under the immediate observation of news media, this de-policing encouraged disorder everywhere. Coordinated by social media, it spread even to small, affluent market towns, until police and local communities grew tough, culminating in courts sitting all-night in order to clear the cells, often handing down maximum sentences after hasty hearings (since then, almost half of these sentences have been revised).
Most Britons welcomed the final judicial response, but the reaction would have been avoidable, if Britain had been more certain about what is right and wrong in Britain today, including what is the right way to police. For weeks, British authorities could not secure their own streets. Britain had no political or economic excuses: Britain was austere, but still boasted the seventh or eighth largest economies; and government – even when administered by a coalition – has almost unlimited capacity to respond to national emergencies. The agencies of government, however, lacked some legitimacy after the heavy handed policing of political protests, during which police contained (“kettled”) large groups of people within a certain street against their will and sometimes assaulted passers-by (on at least one occasion with fatal results – a policeman is now on trial for manslaughter), and after post-Blairite exposure of their collusion with journalists or politicians. Some police commanders chose to resign in the following months. The judicial system is also to blame: most crimes do not lead to convictions, most convicts do not go to jail, and most prisoners go on to reoffend. Nevertheless, prisons are full, because Britain has been late to institutionalize many alternatives to prison. Police have been judged by the number of crimes, and the seriousness of crimes so police are incentivized to caution minor criminals without referring them to prosecutors, and courts are under pressure to issue suspended sentences.
British ethnic tensions too were revealed during the riots, as some communities organized their vigilance along ethnic lines or around religious centers, leading to sometimes lethal clashes that in other jurisdictions could have been prosecuted as crimes of prejudice. On 8 August 2011, Richard Mannington Bowes, aged 68, died after being punched while he was trying to put out a fire lit by rioters in West London. Police and news media did not report the murder as a racial event, although cameras had filmed striking images of a tall well-dressed elderly white man casually strolling into an energetic crowd of young non-whites to correct the fire, shortly before he was struck. (After his attacker’s arrest, a judge banned reporting because of the attacker’s young age. On 13 March 2012, Darrell Desuze, aged 17, pled guilty to the manslaughter of Bowes.) On 10 August 2011, three British South Asian men were killed by a speeding car after running battles between largely black and largely South Asian groups. This time the news media reported a racial murder and devoted considerable attention to the potential for racialist revenge, fortunately mitigated by dignified appeals for calm from the father of one of the victims. Several men await trial for the deaths. Incidentally, Britain was reminded of race crimes again in early 2012 when some men, all second-generation Pakistani or Afghani immigrants, were convicted of sexual exploitation of local girls, all of them white, some of them below the legal age of consent. Police and prosecutors improbably claimed that the crimes were not racial, while some whites sort to exploit racial tensions. Some representatives, including Baroness Warsi (herself a second-generation Pakistani immigrant) have warned otherwise.
The riots exposed Britain’s socio-economic tensions too, as deprived communities blamed lack of opportunities, while others were caught thieving, smashing, and fighting despite well-paid jobs and generous public benefits.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Read the second part of this series on Saturday, July 14.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.
Support Fair Observer
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.
Will you support FO’s journalism?
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.