Britain has two competing traditions – one that’s humanist, devoted in ideas of freedom, equality, democracy and Bertrand Russell liberalism, and another that’s Tory ethno-authoritarian, seeing these words as mere rhetoric to be trotted out at will, utilised as a propaganda tool and violated whenever it serves the Machiavellian purposes of exploitation and the preservation of their generational power.
The permanent privilege of Anglo-white cultural hegemony has undergirded the basic assumptions of British ruling-class ideology for hundreds of years. The core presumptions of English progenitors are baked into American (and Australian, Canadian) society too. Despite the locus of global Anglosphere power shifting to the United States, no lesson was learned from the ultimately destructive violence of European colonialism. Generational power and status in the United Kingdom has faced no revolution, no dissolution, no period of exclusion, no significant revocation of legal or dynastic privileges.
Indeed, the worst aspects of British wealth and privilege remain hand-in-glove with America’s ruling elite – united by a shared entitlement, both woven into the dominance structures of entrenched power, both implacably hostile to their own citizens – and while today’s “United Kingdom” expresses its Weltpolitik economically and militarily subordinate to the “United States” behemoth – the per capita reach of 300 years of Anglo-American cultural lineage has barely missed a beat in the transition from 20th-century empire to 21st-century post-industrial post-colonial capitalism.
The paradox in the collective British identity of the 70 million plus citizens of Great Britain and Northern Ireland can be confusing, especially as the public face of its media is an almost exclusively incestuous club of stenographers to elite power. Is it evil or good, inhuman or humanitarian, civilised or barbarous? The truth is: both. There has been a fundamental dichotomy for centuries. It can be illustrated with a few contemporaneous examples: Fascist versus Fabian, Pankhurst versus Moseley, Orwell versus Churchill, Jeremy Corbyn versus David Cameron, Extinction Rebellion versus the Rotary Club, Socialist Workers versus Soccer Hooligan Crime-Gangs.
HEART OF DARKNESS?
Great Britain was the modern progenitor of imperialist racism, the force majeure exporter of capitalism and contract law to every continent. English trading companies backed by a highly effective military systematically plundered vassal (protectorate) states while, back home, mostly ignorant but privileged directors got rich, safe to express contempt for both poor, uneducated foreign working class “savages” and poor, precariat home-grown working class “peasants”. These neo-feudal conceits persist in the conservative ruling class today: anti-intellectual, xenophobic and committed exclusively to rapacious acquisition of power and wealth.
Anglo-American elites are responsible for a long line of genocides – for which nobody’s ever held accountable – and since the defeat of Napoleon in 1815 have been fulfilling an insatiable, hegemonic appetite for exploitation, pillaging people of every colour and creed, stealing resources, cannibalising cultures, ruthlessly competing for power at home and abroad. And yet – despite the cruelty of the white imperialists, Britain (and the United States) is the well-spring of a deep-rooted humanism that’s been a uniquely civilising influence, abolitionist, secular, universalist and anti-imperial. English convention is the basis for rule of law, trial by jury, the first modern codifier of universal rights and the earliest de facto society of the sovereign individual, seeding these precepts in dozens of countries across the world.
In spite of the crass parochialism of its conservative elites, the United Kingdom is disproportionately home to many of the world’s largest secular charities and greatest research universities, a culture of liberal collegiate education and open-minded freethinking conviviality the recipe for a quarter of all Nobel laureates. It has nurtured generations of ground-breaking scientists, academics and iconic genre-defining artists: Shakespeare, Newton, Darwin, Dickens, Turing, Hume, Dirac, Keynes, Huxley, Orwell, Woolf, an exceptional share in the world’s creativity in music, art, literature, political thought, philosophy, economics, technology, architecture. The canon is remarkable by any standards; especially as the British Isles make up only 0.16% of the planet’s land and less than 1% of the world’s population.
Consider the following.
Britain’s relative global power declined markedly through the latter half of the 20th-century. Its empire contracted – mostly peacefully, insofar as such a description is possible for a withdrawing colonial occupation – and with it the loss of hegemonic economic advantages. Coupled with disastrous world war debt, the flow of easy prosperity to the nepotistic merchant-aristocracy back home was briefly at risk. Briefly. It didn’t take long for Britain’s privileged class to pivot, following its natural ethno-sympathetic inclinations, to tag-nut onto American adventurism and keep the money spigot flowing.
Meanwhile the 20th-century saw Labour movements coalesce into bases of political power and in the post-war decades, a landslide election victory, the first socialist government, universal suffrage, flourishing social democratic institutions filled the spaces vacated by the retreat of establishment conservatism. Liberal humanists took advantage of the opportunities of post-imperial society to embed socialist democratic provision at the heart of public expectation: national health service, universal free education (up to and including college), union legitimacy, dynamic immigration, etc.
By the end of the Thatcher/Reagan 1980s Britain had redefined its own self-serving role as bastion and defender of everybody-wins free market ‘Anglo-globalisation’. As the world’s clearing house, London rejoined New York atop the financial order, thriving on legacy-of-empire internationalism. Whatever the sordid reality of its willing participation in the America-led abuses of US dollar hegemony, back at home the transition from British Empire on which the sun never sets to European United Kingdom at the nexus of global influence was carried out with no major civil disruption, no fundamental schism in Westminster, and, despite the progress of social democracy, no significant redistribution of wealth or power or privilege.
Until Tony Blair’s New Labour government of the 1990s, the influence and status of Britain’s post-imperial conservatives was mostly concurrent with the humanist social democrats. In fact, the liberals – if polled in 2000 – would have cautiously remarked the “good guys” were slowly winning the fight for the nation’s heart and soul, that the future was brighter because eventually the brutal ethno-imperialists will have entirely fallen off the map. Most educated Britons had become accustomed to taking the progress of liberal social democracy as a simple article of faith. Recently, however, the two opposing traditions have been undergoing a paradigm shift. Brexit was the wake-up call in the United Kingdom just as the election of Donald Trump was a wake-up call in the United States. Both may have come too late.
For various geopolitical reasons the exponents (and profiteers) of Anglo-white imperialism – conservative and neoliberal alike – had run out of easy marks by the time the 2008 Financial Crisis shook the dollarized world economy to its core. Deregulation in the 80s and 90s had shifted the rules of the game from old-fashioned capitalism to financialization and, as opportunists and risk-takers with no conscience for the suffering of the weak (losers), the wealthy reactionary class responded to the aftermath of the crisis with brutal alacrity.
New battlelines were drawn between the long-standing traditions. Wealth and newly-empowered techno-futurist authority on one side. Social democracy and old-fashioned liberal tolerance on the other.
Capture of government, public bailouts without accountability and surprising public passivity – despite austerity bullshit previously reserved as an IMF punishment for defaulting third world nations – rapidly restored confidence to the exploiter class. And patience with the anti-capital anti-authoritarian humanists came to an end. For the first time since the end of the Second World War, the liberal-social democracy class has become a direct obstacle to the perceived well-being – and authority – of the conservative ruling caste.
The evils of bigotry, racism, prejudice, isolationism, unadulterated capitalist greed: surely these were so obvious, so zero sum, so worthy of extirpation, nearly everyone was on the same page? Wasn’t the British Empire a thing of the past? Hadn’t the Blair Labour landslide shown the nation rejected the little Englander ideals of right-wing Thatcherism? Hadn’t Americans twice elected Obama? Hadn’t the battle for equal marriage rights been won? Wasn’t Europe – as a whole – building towards transnational free movement of people with universal human rights, a changed landscape maturing into the 21st-century having rejected forever centuries of idiotic wars home and abroad? Wasn’t the United Kingdom one of the key signatories, defining force and central participant in this fundamentally optimistic project?
We had thought these questions settled.
We had assumed the questions were settled by having reached – as a society – clear, natural consensus on the objective principles of human society: equality, liberty, fraternity. We had thought bigots were an anachronism, on the way out.
We were wrong.
“The Anglo-white imperialist momentum in both Britain and the United States are approaching a profound and potentially permanent reckoning. The most egregious excesses of imperial plunder continue, despite the so-called end of Empire. Child labour, proxy wars, regime change, resource theft, impoverishing the Global South: all are more prevalent year on year. Why should this be? Perhaps it has been judged a necessary evil, to keep the neoliberal model in place, to prevent a disastrous crash in the American-led world order. Perhaps it will end, once the British and American and European ruling elites have silenced the civil libertarians, disempowered the liberal-humanists and completed construction of the permanent techno-carceral state.” — Howard Moon