The British State: a warning

Chris Nineham’s The British State argues that the left must confront the entrenched power of the British state to achieve radical change, writes Alex Snowdon


Chris Nineham, The British State: A Warning (Zero Books, 2019), 121pp.

Chris Nineham’s new book could not be more timely. Published at the start of a general election campaign that could put Jeremy Corbyn into Downing Street, it is above all about the massive obstacles that the British state would put in the way of a left-wing government. It draws on the last two centuries of history to examine the nature of the British state, the influence of its institutions and their role in preserving the wealth, power and privileges of the ruling class. 

The British state is rarely discussed explicitly. It is often obscured by a focus on parliament, giving the impression that the unelected institutions of the state are either unimportant or neutral. Even in parts of the Left we find the idea that the contemporary state is of little importance, or certainly not a major obstacle to left-wing aspirations: Paul Mason, for example, is quoted to this effect. Even if the past influence of the state is acknowledged, the suggestion is that it is now more transparent or perhaps even toothless. 

The state – from the civil service to the security services to the police – is often viewed as part of our democratic system, together with parliament, but this ignores the crucial fact that it predates anything resembling democracy in this country. There were extensions of the franchise in 1832, 1867 and 1884, but universal suffrage was not a reality until 1928. A unitary and cohesive state developed much earlier than even the start of that slow process of expanding the suffrage.

The myth of British gradualism 

The gradualist view of British history continues to dominate. This emphasises order, stability and continuity, with any change only happening very gradually and overwhelmingly as an elite process. Rupture and revolt are not part of the account at all. 

This partially reflects the reality – for instance the piecemeal nature of voting reform – but neglects the pressures exerted by popular revolts and downplays the contested nature of so much that has happened in British politics. This notion of gradualism is almost always closely linked with the idea that moderation is integral to the British character. A recurring theme of Nineham’s book, which engages seriously with historical change, is the importance of clashes and conflicts, socially and politically, in shaping history.

Part of the explanation for the power of these orthodox views – gradualism, moderation, elite control – lies in the distance between the English Revolution and the development of industrial capitalism (and the gradual extension of democracy that followed it). While the turmoil of the 1640s was in many ways influential on the development of British capitalism, and the political sway of the bourgeoisie, the distance in time has meant that it has not been commonly understood in that way. The American and French revolutions, well over a century later, were obviously influential on those countries’ development economically and socially, but the process in Britain was slower and less obviously informed by major social conflict. 

The idea of British gradualism and stability, juxtaposed to the revolutionary and tempestuous French, was promoted by the likes of Edmund Burke, whose influential writings in response to the French Revolution became the intellectual bedrock of modern Conservatism. Order, tradition and the rule of law were reified and treated as British characteristics, with such institutions as parliament, the constitution and the monarchy framed as eternal verities (not subject to historical change or conflict).

The state abroad

Nineham, to his credit, takes the vitally important imperialist role of the British state very seriously. There has been considerable neglect of the centrality of colonial expansion to the formation of the British state and to the development of a modern capitalist ruling class. This is traced back to Ireland in the 1650s and, of course, Ireland continued to be a vital locus of exploitation and oppression by the British ruling class for centuries. 

Later the scope of British territorial ambitions grew considerably, peaking in the late-Victorian scramble for Africa. It was during the great era of empire building, roughly from the 1840s through to World War One, that the civil service expanded enormously. This violent history – from the slave trade to the crushing of independence movements – means that the use of brutal force has always been part of the British state apparatus and that the expansion of that apparatus has been closely tied to imperialism. 

Foreign policy has always been a rather secretive affair – where politics has been at its least open and transparent. It has also been where politics has tended, at least in the Westminster mainstream, to be at its narrowest and most consensual. Labour has (since first forming a government in 1924) hardly ever challenged the permanent civil service in the Foreign Office or Ministry of Defence, the armed-forces chiefs or the senior spooks in the intelligence services.

Consider the way that Attlee and Bevin, Labour prime minister and foreign secretary respectively in the post-1945 government, kept the establishment of a nuclear weapons programme a secret even from their own cabinet colleagues. The existence of the secret intelligence services was not, rather ludicrously, officially acknowledged until fairly recently. It is only recently, too, that the idea that parliament should vote on matters of war has been established. Important matters of state have been kept as far away from democratic accountability as possible.

Labour and the ‘neutral state’

Whitehall has never been politically neutral, as Nineham demonstrates. It has always been very hierarchical and has drawn its upper echelons from the fee-paying ‘public schools’ and Oxford and Cambridge universities. These personnel have tended to share a distinct and fairly coherent worldview, interwoven with the interests of the ruling class to which they belong. They operate as a way of preserving the status quo, resisting any changes that in any sense challenge the established order. 

Tony Benn’s voluminous published diaries, especially those documenting his years in the Cabinet in the 1960s and 1970s, provide numerous examples of him clashing with (and being undermined by) permanent secretaries, whether on matters small or large. The ‘Yes, Minister’ view of the Civil Service has much documentary evidence to support it. 

The neoliberal era, starting in the late 1970s, has done much to reconfigure the workings of the state. It is a myth that neoliberalism requires a much smaller or weaker state. It is in some ways a different sort of state that is required: more geared towards facilitating private capital and its search for greater profits and power. 

It is also more coercive and authoritarian, as seen most obviously in the policing of the Miners’ Strike, though it’s also noteworthy that the British state has been more interventionist abroad – mostly in a subordinate role to the US – in recent decades. Invasions, occupations and bombing campaigns abroad have been accompanied by complicity in rendition, torture and abuses of human rights, not to mention the erosion of civil liberties and a ramping up of state-sanctioned racism at home. 

Labour has always seen its job as managing the state, not confronting it. Even in its earliest days there was a profound conservatism on matters of war and empire. The great reforming government of 1945-51 harnessed the state to the ends of public health, housing and the running of what became public assets. Nationalisation, it should be recalled, went so far and no further: the result was a mixed economy in which greater weight was given to the private than the public. Other branches of the state were deployed to suppress strikes at home and independence movements abroad. Participation in the US-dominated Nato alliance began, as did the nuclear weapons programme.

There have always been contradictory elements to Labour’s relationship to the state when it has been in office. At no stage has Labour attempted any serious reforms to state institutions. And in more recent times the changing economic context – recurring crises rather than the post-war boom – has unsurprisingly tilted the balance from mass house-building and public ownership to the authoritarian, coercive and violent functions of the state. 

The conventional Labour Party attitude has not gone unchallenged in the labour movement, with the workplace-based syndicalism of the pre-World War One period, the growth of the Communist Party in the 1920s and – in recent decades – a series of powerful extra-parliamentary movements, including against war, racism and aspects of imperialism, providing more robust challenges to the state, accompanied by alternative ways of seeing it. Yet the dominant attitudes to the state have persisted. 

Conflict, consent and coercion

In the course of charting the evolution of the British state, Nineham provides some marvellously succinct overviews of important episodes in British history in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Much of this concerns the major milestones in the popular struggles for democracy and the varied responses of the ruling elites, with co-optation combined with coercion in different ways at different times. There are some inspiring glimpses into major working-class struggles, fusing democratic demands with economic imperatives, from Peterloo to the Chartists, the lesser-known revolts of the 1860s, on to the unemployed demonstrations and New Unionism of the 1880s and then the big class conflicts of the twentieth century.

Examples of cruel repression by the state are documented, but so are the more subtle methods of incorporation and mediation. The so-called Great Reform Act of 1832 is shown to have been an attempt at thwarting revolt by granting a very limited extension of voting rights, but its limitations can also been seen in the emergence of Chartism as a mass, largely working-class, response to the failures of predominantly middle-class reform movements to satisfy the growing proletariat. The ruling class would go on, for several decades, to attempt skilfully to incorporate wider social layers into the parliamentary system while not allowing any real threat to its power or wealth. Consent and co-optation were crucial, but violent coercion was never far away.

Alongside this, Nineham traces the role of the state in fostering the development of industrial capitalism at different stages – a role that has always been downplayed, or even ignored outright, by ideologues of free-market capitalism. The proactive part played by the state in forced enclosures in the first half of the nineteenth century, for example, was indispensable for capital accumulation and the formation of a growing urbanised proletariat. This was never an uncontested process and there was ferocious resistance from working people. State violence could be remorseless – in contrast to the myth of benign, moderate authorities and the notion of peaceful, gradual change. 

The nature of the ruling class itself evolved during the nineteenth century. The industrial bourgeoisie grew in stature, while the traditional aristocracy declined. However, the shrewder elements of the ruling class grasped the ideological value of an aristocratic veneer. Think of the way in which modern royalty embodies notions of tradition, stability and timelessness. A re-invented version, or image, of aristocracy became an important part of the ruling ideology.

The police, meanwhile, evolved out of the need for a force that could be viewed as ‘above society’, capable of executing ruling-class power and suppressing the working class while appearing to be neutral, apolitical and benign. The Peterloo massacre in 1819, which generated enormous disgust and opposition, made it obvious that a more stable, permanent and professional force, combining coercive functions with apparently benevolent crime-related functions, was required. So, London’s Metropolitan police force was founded a decade later and other city forces soon followed. The police grew out of the repression of popular revolts in the period from the 1810s through to Chartism. 

The state as barrier to social change 

Nineham is very insightful in his accounts of the disappointments and failures of previous Labour governments, in particular the 1974-9 administration which disastrously paved the way for the ascendancy of Thatcherism. It is a refreshing and radically different narrative of the 1970s to the trite version peddled by the media and much of the political class today. 

This is an account that locates the emergence of neoliberalism in the capitalist crisis of the 1970s and the acute contradictions that made the Labour government of the era unsustainable, caught as it was between the aspirations of working-class people and the pressures of international capital. Labour was swept to office on the back of a wave of workers’ struggles, with a genuinely left-wing manifesto, yet it was battered and broken five years later. The role of the state in all this is carefully examined, but the hopelessly inadequate ways in which the Labour government reacted are also an essential part of the account. This is where the lessons for today’s politics are most obviously present. 

Nineham observes that distrust in, and hostility towards, state institutions has grown for a number of decades. There are also – and this is not totally unrelated – ways in which the old ruling ideologies have become more frayed and vulnerable, from a greater public willingness to oppose British military interventions to the declining influence of print media, from a general decline in deference to the shakier hold of British nationalism. Imperialism undoubtedly helped pacify the working class in the Victorian age, partly through crude biological racism (that saw the colonised as inferior) and partly because the material rewards of empire-building helped neutralise working-class discontent, especially in times of economic boom. Its power today, though, is not what it once was. 

The issues discussed in this book are of general importance. But they are becoming especially pressing and topical because there is the prospect of a socialist prime minister heading a government that could genuinely challenge the entrenched wealth and power of the establishment. The potential challenges are not acknowledged, still less seriously discussed, nearly enough on the British Left. 

This book is on one level a marvellously succinct history of the British state over two centuries, on another level a highly perceptive examination of the state today, and on another level a warning – as the title suggests – about the dangerous, obstructive power of the state. It is essential reading and its core arguments ought to be taken seriously across the Left.

Alex Snowdon

Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union.​ He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).