The British state is enveloped in crisis more than at any point for 30 years. One more push could topple this government, argues Chris Bambery
“I’ve been active in politics for 30 years – elected politics – and I’ve never seen the British state in a state of more disorientation and chaos… The structures of Westminster politics are decaying before our eyes. “
That was the claim of former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond addressing the Scottish Independence Convention. Given his experience goes back even further to our shared involvement in Scottish student politics in the 1970s it’s a bold claim. But I think he’s right. Right because there have been major crises in those years but usually the British ruling class, government and state have faced a challenge on one key front, and generally concentrated their forces and won that fight.
Think back to Mrs. Thatcher and the Falklands War and the 1984-1985 Miners’ Strike. In the latter case she made temporary concessions to the dockers and left-led Liverpool Council in order to put them to one side until later.
What we have today is a crisis of the May government, a clear lack of strategy for UK PLC around Brexit and a stench of decay, as Alex Salmond says, around the very institutions of the British state, particularly Westminster. All of that set against the backdrop of the UK’s relentless decline from its great power status.
The obvious starting point is Theresa May. After Priti Patel’s departure various commentators were trotted out on the BBC Today programme to reassure us Theresa May was going to stay in Downing Street for the foreseeable future. The trouble is no-one in Westminster, on the Tory back benches and around the Cabinet table believes that. After the debacle of her snap general election, in which she lost her majority after promising a land slide, May is a political cadaver waiting to be interned.
She is widely seen as ineffectual, incompetent and indecisive. The divisions within the Tory Party did not go away as a result of the referendum; they remain, as deep and toxic as ever. Her own Cabinet reflects that. She had to replace Patel with another Leaver to maintain its balance and she dare not sack Boris Johnson. The very dogs on the street know in any time approaching normality he would have been sacked over his statement made before a parliamentary select committee over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, currently in jail in Iran. That he hasn’t just demonstrates the limits of May’s control.
Incompetence is on display too over the government’s handling of Brexit. Last month, Brexit minister David Davis confirmed the existence of 58 studies on the impact of leaving the EU on different sectors of the UK economy and society. Last week there was a vote in the House of Commons on whether they should be published. Tory MPs were told that vote was not binding on the government so they did not turn up nor vote against. The motion was carried and then it was discovered it was binding! Brexit Department officials then tried to claim that these studies were not the finished item, but no one believes that. May and Davis will try to ignore the vote claiming it will weaken their negotiating hand but losing such votes, following on from Labour’s 299-0 win over stopping the rolling out of Universal Credit (that was non-binding), weakens the government further and adds to back bench jitters. We are now approaching a Budget and it’s hard to see how Philip Hammond can roll out any ground-breaking measures to a fix a shaky looking economy.
Brexit is turning into something that makes the UK look a farce on the international stage. The EU senses weakness and is ramping up the price of Leave.
Whatever stand you take on Brexit the referendum on EU membership was only called by David Cameron in a cynical effort to assuage his back benches. He and the British elite did not expect to lose and had no Plan B. Cameron’s resignation at breakfast time following the result was the most craven act of any British leader since Neville Chamberlain gave away Czechoslovakia to the Third Reich. Cameron was the most inept prime minister in my lifetime, until his replacement took office!
There is still no plan. The European Commission have now given the UK government a deadline of paying some €20 billion to the EU prior to December’s summit of European leaders. Despite Johnson having said the EU can “go whistle” for that money, May looks set to pay up. The deadline reflects the fact that in Brussels and Berlin no one think May will last long and they don’t believe anyone is really in charge in London.
Meanwhile there is very little actual government going on. Certainly, there is little legislation going through Parliament.
The allegations of sexual harassment by MPs, which led to the departure of May’s key ally in Cabinet, Michael Fallon, is just the latest to lap around the green benches of Westminster. The expenses scandal has never gone away and all of this just heaps further discredit on an already discredited parliament. Here Salmond is right. Public faith in the institutions of the British state is at the lowest any of us can recall.
The British ruling class may have thought the very unity of the British state had been secured by the No vote in the 2014 Scottish independence referendum but they were wrong. The Brexit vote has placed the whole question of Ireland’s partition back on the agenda because there is no UK plan to deal with how the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and indeed the whole of the UK, will function post-Brexit. At Westminster there is a growing sense that Irish unity is now in sight.
And the position of Scotland within the UK is not resolved. The SNP-led Scottish government is hardly inspiring and a Corbyn-led Labour Party should recover ground north of the border in a fresh UK general election, which will happen sometime in the next two years, but support for the SNP is not the sum total of support for independence. Many young people who might vote for a Corbynista Scottish Labour Party also voted for independence. Scotland voted to Remain in the EU and how Brexit plays out will impact on its position in the Union, as would any fresh economic downturn or a major shock to the Westminster system and the British state. The quote from Alex Salmond which starts this article comes from a speech he made to an audience of 1600 at the Scottish Independence Convention, which demonstrated supporters of independence haven’t gone way. If anything events in Catalonia have reinvigorated them.
In the background to all this is the fact that the UK economy is at best sluggish.
The UK’s low productivity, bottom of the league among developed economies, is a tribute to the lack of investment and training. This is nothing new, it stretches back to the very start of the last century, but there is no strategy to reverse it, just lots of empty flannel about a non-existent industrial strategy and a Northern power house. The UK remains a low wage, low skilled economy which relies on sweating more out of its workforce for less return than its rivals.
The Cameron-led Tories won the 2015 UK general election in large part because their support was buoyed up by rising house prices. They are now in reverse.
The British state faces a growing number of challenges to which it has no easy answer. It has no clear, strategic vision and it has a government in Westminster which is weak and divided rather than “strong and stable”, as May promised in April. Ruling circles seem to accept that Jeremy Corbyn is on course to enter Downing Street. That is tribute to their own frustration and demoralization. Of course, they believe they can sabotage his government but the very fact they believe he is going to win – think of the hysteria that prospect would have thrown up even 12 months ago – shows the weakness of the British elite and state.
Like Alex Salmond I go back a long time. I said the UK state usually ensures it faces one crisis at a time and resolves it. But I can remember when it lost, in both 1972 and 1974 to a miners’ strike, in the last case one that forced Edward Heath’s government out of office. There can be no miners’ strike today but it’s worth recalling, as is the fact that Margaret Thatcher was brought down by the poll tax revolt, because extra-parliamentary action could finish off Theresa May and be the guarantee that Corbyn could enact his programme.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.