The Golden Country: the organic myth of the British constitution

The nostalgic appeal to ‘the spirit of 45’ is embedded in a long myth of ‘public services’ propagated by the culture of Britain’s unwritten constitution.

The British left is packed with voices demanding an unreflective defence of ‘public services’. This public is frozen beyond any evaluation of commonality, is held to be equalising even as its bases fall away to reveal the private ownership concealed within them. The barrage is triggered in part by the Great Recession, but also in part by the sovereignty challenge being felt in the UK, concretely in Scotland in 2014. Now is a good time to reflect that the British sovereignty behind these public services has always in fact defined itself as a defence against popular sovereignty, a defence projected as timeless inheritance which is intuitive and ‘just there’.

If the nationalism standing behind the ‘British public’ throughout the press and left commentary seems oddly transparent, this transparency derives from Britain’s unusual licence to exist ‘beyond’ the national. For this is less a nation than it is a rationalisation of credit. The British union arises from the import of the Anglo-Dutch financial system after 1688, its guarantee in perpetuity by the Hanoverian crown, and central banks which supported it from the 1690s. As Daniel Defoe was describing at exactly the time of the Acts of Union in 1706-07, Britain’s raison d’état is as an investment entity, a guarantor of global money. As has been described in many accounts of the close of the seventeenth century, in this new state citizenship is understood in terms of naturalised property and the avoidance rather than the promotion of shared action. Reform it as much as you like, but collectivity is not within the scope of the British constitution.

After the financial eighteenth century and scuffles with rebels from Jacobites to American and Irish seceders, citizenship as property, inaction, and inheritance would be recast into nature itself by the Romantic writers who fell behind Edmund Burke to react to the French Revolution, after which the imperial ground would be opened for the export of a universalism based not on human rights – implying an action – but on heritage – implying informal rules which were eternal and out of reach. This left us with the familiar and canonical mid-Victorian constitution (Dicey, Bagehot), for which the empire was even, financial, and constantly vigilant against popular challenge. Of course, industrial imperial expansion eventually meant diminishing returns for empire, and the commodity constitution had to be modernised, a moment we now often associate with World War One.  

The British settlement took on its most durable form, the form to defeat fascism, with the modernisation of the 1920s and ’30s, culturally ruled by new whigs including J.M. Keynes (economics), John Reith (broadcast), and F.R. Leavis (literature), with fiat currency taking much the unifying authority metal money had once had, and which aimed to send a message of inherited civility into every home. The massification of the modernised settlement was again enabled by defence against a terrifying Europe, and the need to demonstrate a greater permanence.

Throughout the 1940s, George Orwell described how fascism would be laughable to the British, but also how the answer which came was a deeper totalising vision for which the new continuity raised the performance of the public over history and experience; Karl Polanyi described a Great Transformation which linked the anti-Jacobin era of liberalism to modern consensus, and Hannah Arendt described the projection of a universal constitutional culture as the impossibility of a genuinely shared action and the opening of a potentially unlimited bureaucratisation. Since, Antonio Negri and John Holloway in particular have described how fascism seems simply primitive compared to the more resilient and totalising form of parliamentary sovereignty represented by the Keynesian consensus. The price of the material benefits of the welfare state was a strengthening of the commodity constitution – the postponement of the reckoning of ever widening inequality.

This modernised constitution therefore found its moment in War Keynesianism – Military Keynesianism as J.K. Galbraith would call it – with the state’s massive ‘public’ investment, as wartime defence pointedly referring back to 1790s fears of revolution to create a strengthened combination of progressiveness and continuity. As the diminishing returns of imperial industry were followed by a turn to immaterial labour (including what would later be called ‘knowledge economy’), this constitution was particularly strong in appreciating how the personal itself was the new ground of expropriation. So for the ’42 welfare state, all human time, including leisure and other ‘personal’ time, was to be measured in terms of labour.

The ‘public’ demand for perpetual self-improvement was both modern and familiar. While seeming a new and even ‘revolutionary’ form, it went straight back to eighteenth century anti-Jacobinism. The possibility of a challenge to the unwritten constitution is still answered by a refusal of any affective experience in the here and now, while the self-defined, in commodity terms, comes to seem oddly moral. (This is hinted at through Polanyian echoes of writing in the 2000s in particular the work of David Marquand and Colin Crouch, who describe the projected good of the state franchises which would now be known as public services). An instinctual way of life was ‘preserved’ in perpetuity, and during wartime privation the entire British press and new state broadcaster would line up behind it. But if this had been brought about by a crisis of accumulation in imperial industry, exactly the same should be expected of a crisis of accumulation in post-industrial immaterial labour, or the performance of a bountiful welfare Britain. As late as 2013 these images of bounty look antique and unfeasible, but as early as 2013 we hang onto them as if we had no idea where else to go.

We now live with an uncanny relationship to the era of the adaptation and modernisation of parliamentary sovereignty which ran from the 1940s to the 2000s. The signs of this era are all around us, we still feel bound to them by strong moral ties even as they are attenuated and outsourced; paid to queue us, charge us, and give us customer satisfaction surveys. Financial sovereignty means that the nesting of the private inside the public is perhaps stronger in the UK than anywhere else, meaning that the cherished ideals of welfare easily flip over into surveillance-saturated disenfranchising nightmares (indeed, the question of who public services really speak for was being asked by the New Left as early as the mid-1950s).

The odd doubled experience of the privatised public, the capitalist realism in which Britain has carved out an unusual advantage, has allowed for the almost seamless conversion to what would later be called neoliberalism - although of course the Keynesian consensus of the 1940s was itself the new liberalism. This is the Golden Country: the compulsory public defended by white cliffs, flotillas, intuition, pluck, the Anglosphere which runs from the Tudors’ vindication in 1688 through the whole empire, the land of ideal futures made only of ideal pasts.

The Golden Country is the country of Orwell’s party members, and of Tom Nairn’s bourgeoisie whose early primitive accumulation always draws them back into heritage. Before this it is also the country of the anti-Jacobin Whigs and Romantics who sharpened an inherited ‘way of life’ to keep it away from popular determination. It is bracketed by two moments of austerity, and two moments of war Keynesianism: in 1940-42 a new military economy makes the state enough of a mass player to reinvent citizenship; in 2008 Alasdair Darling, later leader of the campaign against Scottish independence, orders the renewal of Trident as an urgent matter of public investment. The first moment seems a necessary renewal; the second a deranged addiction to the past.

We should consider the importance of this 1940s-2000s timeframe, the long era of modernisation which is now passing. The British left story of things going terribly wrong right at the inception of Thatcherism will no longer do. Thatcherism did aggravate the class struggle by turning to credit and outsourcing, but Thatcher was, despite Labourite received wisdom, a consensualist, an arch-meritocrat, and, as Peter Clarke and others have shown, a believer in an ‘original’, state-capitalist Keynes. Thatcherism can also be seen as a cleansing of the 1940s renewal: the British Union has always been made of and made for capitalism, and has always been willing to interpolate whatever public would retain it as a principle of continuity.

The wrench here is to get over the idea that the public allowed by the financial British constitution is ‘ours’ to protect. As healthcare is reduced to queuing, as universities move from an educational role to a social cleansing one, as the unemployed become immaterial labourers tasked with recreating the conditions of inequality, how long can the’40s state retain its extraordinary pull? How long can the unionist press describe a Golden Country which has drifted off track, but whose foundational principles are permanent?

But, placed in positions of power by the post-war meritocratic regime of testing, Golden Country nostalgia-mongers will turn on any possible threat of popular sovereignty, as we see in the campaign against Scottish independence. Ken Loach gets a season ticket to the Guardian Lifestyle pages, and the ‘public’ defined by commodity time remains the only possible mode of the commons, since, for the British left as well as the right, There Is No Alternative. The anti-independence campaign shows that arguments against self-determination will tend to return to old models of fear and defence, even though we are already pretty sure of the fate of public services under the UK constitution.

We also have to understand that this is not only or even primarily a Scottish question. Nonetheless, Scotland is now the main the sovereignty trigger (as once was Ireland for Dicey): a legal tradition rising more or less along with the New Left stressed that Scotland has not been incorporated into British parliamentary sovereignty by the Acts of Union; only retrospectively and through the sleight of hand of ‘heritage’. The same is true of the whole of the UK, though the arguments vary. Indeed, as Michael Keating and others have shown, a civil society relatively discrete from the state has centralised Scotland for constitution sceptics throughout the UK. To localise this, using terms of pride or ambition or what is ‘best for us’, is to wilfully ignore it as a wider question of democracy. And this is the question against which Golden Country ideologists are now setting themselves.

Of course, scepticism over public services on any level is easy to present as being against free access, and a whole industry of Labourite emotional blackmail has grown up around this syllogistic understanding of the public. But although the 1940s form of the welfare state retains great emotional hooks, it has nowhere to go: the expropriation of the personal is now well past its crisis of accumulation, and we are just learning to let go. What has been growing since the late 2000s is not a ‘spirit of ’45’, but a refusal in the name of something more genuinely popular. The Golden Country’s form of the constitution has exhausted itself. Will it discover some new form of expropriation to save itself? We can only try to prevent it.

It is tempting, and misleading, to say that services like the NHS, the BBC, or the universities, are ‘ours’ to defend. We might see this defensive reaction for what it is. The British public is and always has been double-edged, yielding gains but underscoring the form of inequality generation specific to the present needs of financial government. In time we might see that failing public services and failing sovereignty go together, but anyone who cares about equal and common access should now be giving this sovereignty a push, rather than defending it. As the modernising cycle reaches its end, we can see that Westminster parliamentary sovereignty has only ever held an unusually distanced version of equal access, but also that its perpetual expropriation reveals a duty to prevent equal access. If it was once possible, facing fascism and industrial crisis, to present the Golden Country as mutual and beneficial, it can only be seen now as a country over which the sun has set.

A version of this article first appeared in The National Collective

About the author

Michael Gardiner is Professor of English and Comparative Literary Studies at The University of Warwick and author of fiction and non-fiction, including short-story collection Escalator (2006) and critical work At the Edge of Empire: The Life of Thomas B. Glover (2008).