The Breakdown of Neoliberal Globalization Is the Root Cause of Britain’s Political Crisis

From Brexit to the Scottish independence movement and growing support for a united Ireland, the British state has been convulsed by the resurgence of nationalism. These overlapping crises ultimately stem from the decline of capitalist globalization after 2008’s crash.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson addresses the nation from the White Room of 10 Downing Street, London, United Kingdom, on September 22, 2020. (Number 10 / Flickr)

Boris Johnson’s resignation as Conservative leader means that the UK will have had four prime ministers from the same party in just over six years. However, this is just one aspect of the multipronged crisis of the UK state in the period since the 2008 financial crash.

While Brexit lies at the center of these convulsions, the rise of Scottish and Irish nationalism at its periphery threatens an even more striking constitutional rupture. Sinn Féin is now the most popular party in both parts of Ireland, north and south, while the Scottish National Party (SNP) has led the Scottish government since 2007, with pro-independence parties taking a majority of seats in three consecutive elections, and now has a popular mandate for a second independence referendum.

Meanwhile, the two main parties of the British state, the Conservatives and Labour, have both been engulfed in civil wars, the former over whether and how to deliver on the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum and the latter over the unexpected leadership of the party by left-wing outsider Jeremy Corbyn from 2015 to 2019. For the Tories at least, the downfall of Johnson shows that the conflicts tearing up Britain’s traditional parties of state are not yet over.

The “Nationalization” of UK Politics

What explains the UK’s era of turmoil, and how should we seek to understand the various projects that have defined British politics for over a decade now? Liam Stanley, a lecturer in politics and international relations at the University of Sheffield, seeks to answer this in Britain Alone: How a Decade of Conflict Remade the Nation.

Stanley’s thesis is that we can understand Brexit, Scottish independence, and even Corbynism as “nationalisation” projects — not in the sense of taking industries into public ownership but rather referring to a process whereby “the boundaries of the state are made more congruent with the boundaries of the nation.” Brexit is the only one of these projects to have been successful so far: one measure of this, according to Stanley, is the fact that “Britain’s formal boundaries of economic authority are as national as they have ever been.”

For Stanley, there are both conjunctural and epochal factors that have led to this “nationalising” era in British politics. Following the 2008 crisis, the austerity project of the Tory–Liberal Democrat coalition government from 2010 onward reshaped politics around the theme of “scarcity,” fostering a nasty politics of distributional struggles between the deserving and undeserving, defined along lines of class and race. Austerity was thus “nationalising in effect,” Stanley argues, because “by restoring to the state and society those British values of prudence and thrift, state and nation were made congruent.”

As such, David Cameron and George Osborne laid fertile ground for their pro-Brexit rivals in the Conservative Party. But whereas the nationalizing effect of austerity largely took the form of “punching down” against supposed benefit scroungers and migrants, the Brexit movement added the important element for any truly nationalist moment of having an enemy to “punch up” against — even if the nature of that opponent was “exaggerated or made up,” according to Stanley. The European Union and the UK’s own “metropolitan elite” provided such an enemy.

The Leave campaign depicted these targets as being ignorant of and uncaring toward a “left behind” group of low-income Britons, especially in the English North and Midlands. The left behind found themselves “rehabilitated” from the austerity era, having previously been savaged as the undeserving poor. Brexiters now argued that members of this social strata needed support against Brussels bureaucrats and liberal cosmopolitans. This British nationalist ideological framework — which Stanley argues was a “racialised” politics, whether in the form of opposing immigration or defending the “left behind” — was the basis on which the Leave vote was won.

More broadly, Stanley sees the nationalization of British politics over the past decade as part of a much longer transition starting with British decolonization in the postwar decades, leading to a “shift from an empire-state-nation to a nation-state.” It is this uneasy and ongoing development of Britain’s postcolonial identity that has opened up the space for alternative nation-state projects — those of Scottish and Irish nationalism most prominently — to emerge.

Avoiding False Dichotomies

The main strength of Britain Alone is the author’s refusal to collapse into false dichotomies between economic and cultural factors in explaining the transformation of British politics. Stanley quite rightly rejects the idea that analysis can be reduced to a game of reading opinion polls to establish what voters are most concerned about and drawing simplistic conclusions from there. While pollsters explicitly divide questions along economic and cultural lines, “there is no divide between economic and cultural factors in real life,” Stanley writes.

Throughout the book, the author demonstrates that there are always cultural factors at work in economic questions and vice versa. For example, austerity was clearly an economic project first and foremost — one that had real material effects by increasing inequality and poverty. However, it also had a major effect on British culture, with programs such as Benefits Street, which presented a hostile caricature of those who relied on social welfare, among the most watched in the country, while much of the middle class embraced an “austerity chic.”

Immigration is an issue typically cited by the likes of political scientist Matthew Goodwin to defend what Stanley calls the “cultural backlash thesis” of Brexit. Politicians and media outlets politicized this question in a new way during an austerity era marked by scarcity (or at least the perception of scarcity), where distributional struggles were more intense and more racialized. Immigration has since fallen down the rankings in opinion polls as an issue of concern for Britons, not because the whole country has suddenly warmed to migrants, but because the Leave vote took the sting out of the issue and the austerity narrative no longer dominates public discourse.

We always need to supplement the study of opinion polls with analysis of the broader political and ideological trends at work. Those trends are primarily shaped by shifts in the economic base. A dynamic reading of how political consciousness evolves will help tackle dogmatisms on all sides of the Brexit debate, from ardent Remain supporters who dismiss Brexit as the victory of irredeemable racists to the “Blue Labour” Leave partisans who believe that anyone who defends immigration is hopelessly out of touch with the working class.

The ideas that people hold are a complex reflection of their lived experience and are always in flux, especially during periods of crisis. However, although Stanley’s methodological approach is commendable, the analysis he constructs on that foundation is flawed in a number of important ways.

Austerity and Nationalization

First, it’s quite difficult to work out what type of governance would not qualify as “nationalising” in Stanley’s schema, since all governments seek to reproduce hegemony through binding the state to their projection of the nation. This is a rudimentary part of governance in a nation-state, which the British psychologist Michael Billig called “banal nationalism.” As Billig put it, “The metonymic image of banal nationalism is not the flag which is being consciously waved with fervent passion; it is the flag hanging unnoticed on the public building.”

Stanley appears to endorse this view implicitly when he writes of “nationalisation as statecraft.” He depicts Johnson’s Conservative government as nationalizing only “to the extent that it keeps the party in power.” But that expands the concept to the point where it becomes redundant to Stanley’s argument, which is that the past decade of British history has been defined by a “nationalising” politics that is exceptional rather than standard.

This invariably leads to the next question: What was especially “nationalising” about the coalition government of 2010–15? Stanley argues that this government “mobilised the nation” in a “war-like way” to respond to the financial crisis and the rise in UK public debt via a program of austerity. He dedicates a chapter to the manner in which Cameron and Osborne successfully deployed World War II narratives to win the country over to the idea that “by living within our means, the nation could rediscover itself.”

Stanley somewhat overplays just how “powerful” these narratives truly were. There is no doubt that the austerity story was compelling enough to convince Labour to trash its own record in government and buy into an entirely false tale that public-spending profligacy was what caused the financial crash. Polls also show that for years, there was a majority of the British public in favor of austerity (although not in favor of cuts to specific services).

But there is little evidence that public opinion as a whole was so taken in by Cameron and Osborne’s agenda that it unified the nation behind it, as Stanley suggests. To the extent that the public supported austerity, they did so on a passive basis. We saw what something akin to a “war-like” atmosphere really looks like at the very start of the pandemic, when huge numbers of people in every town and city were on their doorsteps “clapping for carers.” The ambience of the austerity years was nothing like that.

Far from serving as a unifying narrative, bringing the nation closer to the state, the main effect of austerity was to entrench divisions both politically and economically. Anti-austerity sentiment was a key part of the late shift in support toward the Yes camp in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum. Public-service cuts hit the poorest regions of the UK hardest, widening the enormous socioeconomic gulf between London and the South East on the one hand and the rest of the country on the other.

Moreover, the real effect of austerity on the British state was to make it more internationalized, as it became ever more reliant on foreign capital for investment. That was why Osborne eagerly sought to boost foreign direct investment, especially from China, during his years as chancellor. Looked at in that way, it’s by no means clear that the austerity years were nationalizing in any sense of the word.

New Labour and Iraq: The Missing Element

Perhaps more important, by locating the start of the nationalizing agenda in the austerity period, Stanley almost entirely excludes the Tony Blair–Gordon Brown New Labour years from responsibility for what came after. There are exceptions to this rule: the author does make it clear that many of the anti-immigrant policies that the Tories implemented from 2010 onward were pioneered under Blair’s rule, such as denying asylum seekers access to the National Health Service. But he never examines the Blair-Brown years in their own right. If he had done so, this would have given us a very different sense of the drivers behind Brexit.

It was, after all, these years of neoliberal entrenchment that created the conditions for the 2008 financial crash. Brown in particular was an active supporter of financialization and deregulation in his role as chancellor. As he promised the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) in 2005, “No inspection without justification, no form filling without justification, and no information requirements without justification — not just a light touch but a limited touch.”

Inequality expert Danny Dorling was scathing in his assessment of the Labour government’s record: “Tony Blair was the king of income inequality: No British prime minister since Stanley Baldwin had seen the bottom 90 percent take so little as they did under New Labour.” It was the New Labour years that laid the groundwork for Brexit as much as the period from 2010 onward.

If we are to consider Cameron’s austerity government “nationalising in effect,” as Stanley argues we should, then we must surely also think of Blair and Brown as nationalizing both in effect and in ideological terms. Brown oversaw perhaps the largest state intervention in the economy in the history of British capitalism with the bank bailouts after the 2008 crash. The financial crisis precipitated trends toward the deglobalization of all major economies, including Britain’s, as capital retreated to the comparative safe haven of its domestic economy.

As for Blair, what could have been more nationalizing than his response to 9/11, sending Britain into the Afghanistan and Iraq wars abroad and ramping up Islamophobia at home? As far back as 1997, Blair sought to reenergize British imperialism in a speech that lambasted the previous Tory government for cutting the military budget, using words that would not have been out of place in the colonial era:

Century upon century it has been the destiny of Britain to lead other nations. That should not be a destiny that is part of our history. It should be part of our future. We are a leader of nations or nothing.

As with Cameron and austerity, the effect of these narratives was divisive, carving a line through British society between pro-war “patriots” — a word that people who don’t want to be called nationalists use to give positive connotations to nationalism — and anti-war “peaceniks.”

One of the legacies of that turn was to drive support away from Labour in Scotland. Many of the voters who rejected Blair’s military adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq went first to the Greens or the Scottish Socialist Party in the 2003 Scottish Parliament election before passing on to the SNP. We cannot understand the SNP’s success in becoming the largest party at the next Scottish election in 2007 without factoring in the context of the Iraq War.

This is all missing from Stanley’s account: in the whole book, he only mentions Iraq once in passing, even though the rise of Islamophobia forms an important part of the book’s exploration of racism. Here Stanley is following a trend within British academia that seeks to identify the roots of contemporary racism almost exclusively within the field of domestic politics. One of the authors he cites, Sivamohan Valluvan, includes just two brief references to Iraq and none at all to Afghanistan or Libya in The Clamour of Nationalism, a book-length consideration of the vices of British national identity.

This trend ignores what we already know from a wide array of scholarship — not least Linda Colley’s work Britons — which shows that Britishness has generally been defined against geopolitical enemies. Stanley, in search of a “post-imperial Britishness” to strengthen his concept of a shift from “empire-state-nation to nation-state,” has missed the key link between modern-day British imperialism and racism.

The Contradictions of Britain’s Nationalisms

This points to a wider failure on Stanley’s part to grasp that the rise of various nationalisms at both the center and periphery of the British state is directly related to the crisis of neoliberal globalization since 2008. He does not say anything about the trend toward deglobalization in Britain Alone, not even in the chapter on the pandemic, although disruption to global supply chains has been a key driver of the current inflation crisis.

That might explain why Stanley refuses to take critical positions toward the EU seriously. The EU took its current form during the peak years of globalization in the early 1990s, when it was widely seen as representing “the end of history.” It has struggled to cope with the economic and political pressures that have resulted from the breakdown of that era. Stanley dismisses opposition to the EU as “exaggerated or made-up” in order to create an enemy, “mythical or otherwise,” for Brexiters to “punch up” against.

There is no question that both the official Leave campaign organized by Dominic Cummings and Nigel Farage’s more explicitly racist alternative did foster some monstrous myths about the EU and its impact on Britain. However, you don’t have to be a Brexiter to recognize that the eurozone crisis — in particular the brutal treatment of Greece by the Troika — has raised serious questions about the EU and democracy that are being debated in countries across the continent.

While Britain always stood outside the eurozone, it is not scaremongering to ask if it is possible to defend working-class interests at the EU level when significant powers lie beyond any meaningful form of popular, democratic accountability. Nor is it outrageous to question whether the opaque nature of the EU serves as a useful excuse for prime ministers and presidents in the capitals of Europe to absolve themselves of responsibility for issues that are within their power to address, thus eroding democratic scrutiny at the national level.

More important, by dismissing Leave sentiment in 2016 as the product of nationalist mythmaking, Stanley misses the extent to which millions of working-class people, who did not benefit from the boom years of neoliberal globalization and have paid the biggest price from its collapse, saw voting Leave as a unique opportunity to express discontent at their own country’s establishment. The long-established tendency of the UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system to provide agency only to middle-class swing constituencies produced a form of politics where millions of voters in safe seats felt entirely ignored by both Labour and Tory governments.

In a referendum, on the other hand, every vote carries the same weight. Many voters in England and Wales, especially those from a Labour-voting background, decided to use their newfound democratic agency to give the UK establishment, which was overwhelmingly pro-Remain, a bloody nose. Viewed from this perspective, the Leave vote was less a matter of British nationalist narratives duping the masses into believing in a fabled British national sovereignty and more an expression of discontent over the lack of popular sovereignty — the ability of the public to hold politicians to account.

This understanding of the way that social class and democratic agency intersect with “the national questions” is absent when Stanley compares and contrasts the Leave vote to the Yes vote in Scotland. The author is correct to point out that Scottish nationalism “can mobilise without recourse to racism,” a necessary counter to ignorant “Little Scotlander” stereotypes in the liberal press, which Stanley rightly criticizes for treating the Yes movement as “fascists in disguise.” However, he fails to explain what the motivating factor behind Scottish nationalism actually was, if not racism, or how, if the Brexit campaign was “racialized,” we can nonetheless interpret both campaigns as representing “the same kind of phenomena.”

Stanley ends up in this muddle because his theorization of nationalism creates a sharp divide between ethnicity and class. In Stanley’s understanding, nationalism mobilizes the former but not the latter. Thus he writes:

Uneven distribution requires a comparison point; it is relative to something else. If that uneven distribution can be compellingly shown to be drawn down ethnic lines — especially in contrast to down class lines — then the times may be ripe for nationalist mobilisation.

This overly didactic formula makes it difficult for Stanley to explain Scottish nationalism, which obviously does not fit into this conceptualization, as he himself implies. Not only did the entirety of the Scottish independence movement in 2014 define itself explicitly against the racism of the British state, but it was also a movement that, especially on its left flank, articulated a class politics, with independence seen as a route to tackling inequality and poverty. One prominent slogan of the Radical Independence Campaign, which organized mass voter-registration drives in working-class communities where many people have not voted for decades, called for “a Scotland for the millions, not the millionaires.”

Rather than attaching conceptual and moral absolutes to nationalism that do not make sense in practice, there is a better way to hold it up to critical scrutiny. Nationalist politics does tend to hit upon real social divisions, but it obscures the fundamental roots of these conflicts by framing them along national lines. It then channels that discontent toward the creation or reinvention of nation-state hegemony — a project that may be politically successful, but which tends to reproduce the very same problems it originally identified.

We can see this in the case of Brexit and its aftermath, where the Leave campaign channeled the discontent forged by rising inequality, intensified distributional struggles, and alienation from the political class into a nationalist narrative. That narrative convinced many voters, but the outcome has not resolved any of the underlying issues.

Johnson’s post-Brexit government reproduced all of the same problems, including constitutional incoherence (as is evident in the farcical Northern Ireland Protocol), only with added sleaze. While it may be true that Britain’s “formal boundaries of economic authority are as national as they have ever been,” as Stanley argues, the reality is that the UK’s economic model remains just as it was pre-Brexit: heavily reliant on the City of London’s role as a center for international banking and heavily exposed to global financial turmoil as a consequence.

In a different way, Scottish nationalism also displays this contradictory dynamic. The Scottish government lays all the blame for the country’s deep economic and social problems at the door of the British state. At the same time, however the SNP-led government in Edinburgh is a part of that state’s machinery and governs in a way that largely reproduces the same neoliberal orthodoxy as the UK government.

As with the Tories at Westminster, this version of nationalist politics has been very successful for the SNP. But it’s not clear that it is bringing Scotland any closer to winning independence. Nor does the SNP’s vision for an independent Scottish state make it likely that the country would be able to tackle the problems it identifies within the UK.

The British nationalism of the Tory Brexiters is in many ways very different from Scottish nationalism, not least on the question of racism. Yet they do share the practice of channeling grievances that are rooted in the failures of neoliberalism through nationalist frameworks. This has proven to be a politically potent formula, but it has done very little to actually address the multiple crises of the neoliberal era.

The Left and the National Questions

The task for the Left, then, is not to abstractly counterpose class to nation — an approach taken by the left wing of the Scottish Labour Party for years, with negative results. Nor is it to argue that nationalism is always a “slippery slope” to xenophobia and racism: there are countless examples beyond Scotland that prove this to be obviously false. Instead, the Left needs to take the rise of national questions seriously, realizing that it is not some kind of aberration or interlude but rather a largely predictable response to the breakdown of neoliberal globalization.

This will involve the Left in England grappling with its own national question. Here I agree with Stanley that “English nationalism is regressive — albeit historically so rather than inherently.” While the Left should be wary of the ways in which nationalist projects tend to channel grievances into little more than effective electioneering, this task becomes much easier for nationalists when the Left abandons this political terrain. We thus need to engage with nationalism in a thoroughgoing but critical way.

In doing so, the Left should follow the approach that Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels took to the national questions of their day, which was to address the issue broadly along strategic lines, by identifying what side was likely to strengthen the hand of the working class and what impact it would have on the international order of states. The alternative — functioning as little more than a passive observer of Britain’s constitutional and political breakdown, as Labour has over the past decade — is the road to nowhere. Britain Alone illuminates some of the key features of Britain’s “nationalising” moment, without putting all the pieces together into a coherent whole.