The British nation is at a crossroads. Deeply polarised and socially disunited, the United Kingdom (UK) is devoid of serious and thoughtful political leadership. Both major parties are very much in crisis. The Conservatives, historically one of the most electorally successful political parties in Europe, if not the world, is fighting for its very existence. After suffering a net loss of 1,330 councillors in the local elections, the party finished fifth in the European Parliament elections – failing to win a single local authority as it won a paltry 9% of the popular vote. Following Theresa May’s tearful but long-anticipated resignation, Tory parliamentarians are falling over one another in the quest to become the third Conservative Prime Minister since the June 2016 referendum on European Union (EU) membership.
But Labour look anything but a government-in-waiting. Losing control of councils in Leave-voting places such as Hartlepool, Stockton-on-Tees, Darlington, Burnley, Middlesbrough, Bolsover and Ashfield, the party’s embarrassing fudging of Brexit resulted in a distant third-place finish in the European elections, behind the victorious Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats. To make matters worse, the party is now being formally investigated by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) – ironically a body created under a Labour government – over claims of institutional anti-Semitism.
Brexit was not only a shock to the system – it presented an opportunity for national revival. It could have been seen as a catalyst for national democratic, economic and social reform. It was an opportunity for a distant Westminster establishment to reconnect with remote parts of the country, which have not fared well under the rampant market forces of globalisation, as well as left-behind social conservatives who find it difficult to relate to relaxed metropolitan attitudes towards immigration and multiculturalism. Political ‘homelessness’ and ‘voicelessness’ were hugely implicated in the Leave result delivered in the EU referendum. This does not only include the economically disadvantaged in Labour’s industrial heartlands, but also social conservatives – culturally left behind – in affluent Conservative-voting constituencies across much of Southern England.
The response of those who dominate the London-based political establishment and media commentariat has been disappointing to say the least. Instead of making calls for deep and mature introspection and viewing Brexit as an opportunity for national economic, political and social renewal, the result was greeted with a certain metropolitan infantilism from those who are frightened of their status quo being subject to change. They have castigated fellow Britons as ‘racist’, ‘bigoted’ and ‘xenophobic’ – uneducated simpletons who were duped by what was written on a big red bus or who were acting primarily on their irrational jingoistic tendencies. This attitude of patronising superiority cuts across party colours, encompassing patrician peers in the House of Lords and attention-seeking, ultra-identitarian – ‘woke’ –parliamentarians.
Make no mistake, the political right and left are both directly complicit in the degradation of the British democratic national community. By aggressively promoting materialistic individualism, the political right has actively ‘atomised’ people – celebrating greed and encouraging selfish instincts which undermine bonds of social responsibility. Meanwhile, by indulging in identity politics and championing difference over integration, the liberal-left has sowed the seeds of group-based social division. This has resulted in a country without any real sense of common purpose or shared destiny, hollowing out the civic British nationalism that bound England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland together. At the same time, the ‘balkanizing’ effect of state-sponsored multiculturalism and the ‘atomising’ implications of market individualism show that both the cosmopolitan multicultural canon and neoliberal economic orthodoxy look increasingly dislocated.
It is admittedly a concern that many of the Conservative leadership candidates continue to believe the free market is the answer to all of the UK’s social problems.
Economically, decades of runaway neoliberal globalism – spanning across governments of various party colours – must give way for a fairer economic model. It is admittedly a concern that many of the Conservative leadership candidates continue to believe the free market is the answer to all of the UK’s social problems. Alternatively, Labour, the opposition party, has flirted with the re-opening of the coal mines and nationalising large utilities such as the National Grid. Such economic policies are firmly rooted in past ideological beliefs, which completely fail to address the more pressing economic issues for the wider British public – which largely opposes both unbridled market fundamentalism and an unhealthy and impractical obsession with public ownership.
What Britain needs is more economic democracy and security. The balance of power in the British labour market needs to be recalibrated in favour of the worker. During their time in government, the Conservatives have consistently pointed to favourable employment figures. But are they failing to miss the bigger picture here? How secure is employment among the ‘employed’? Does it provide a consistent flow of income which allows for a reasonable and growing standard of living? Do workers feel they are being treated in employment with dignity and respect?
Meanwhile, there has been a metropolitan leftist obsession with securing a certain level of female and minority ethnic representation in the nation’s boardrooms. Rather than empowering such groups, measures based primarily on quotas and targets, while well-intentioned, would only serve to undermine the authority of women and ethnic minorities within their own companies. What should be encouraged is the decentralisation of power and influence in both the public and private sector. Moving towards a more democratic ‘bottom-up’ model of economic governance, elected worker and trade union representatives should sit on boardrooms. This ‘shop-floor economic democracy’ would see workers being given the right to participate in the management of the firms and companies they work for. In turn, this would cultivate a greater sense of belonging, with workers feeling more valued and respected by having more of a say on the conditions under which they provide their labour.
Strongly overlapping with economic factors, immigration will remain a salient issue for much of the British public for some time to come – and holding concerns over immigration and border security does not automatically mean someone is a xenophobic bigot. Leaving the EU should not be seen as a step towards isolationism, but rather a strategic realignment where relations with important partners – including those in the Commonwealth who have close historical ties with the UK – are better prioritised. The strengthening of ties with friendly nations, such as India, Australia, Canada, New Zealand (CANZUK) and South Africa, can be reflected in both the development of closer military and security alliances involving the UK and the workings of future British immigration policy – one which is free from the EU’s freedom of movement principle where predominantly white European migrants are the beneficiaries of preferential treatment.
A post-Brexit Britain should develop a regimented immigration system which welcomes those who can make a genuine difference to the economic and social spheres of British life. Socio-cultural and economic integration should lie at the heart of the nation’s immigration system. Educated, well-skilled individuals from liberal democratic Commonwealth countries with functioning parliamentary democratic systems – such as Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa and Caribbean countries such as Jamaica and Barbados – should be prioritised under such an immigration regime. With these countries having English as an official language, it is important that language skills in the destination-country (in this case, the UK) facilitate social, economic and political integration. This post-Brexit immigration system represents a pro-integration regime which is sensible, outward-looking and internationalist.
Any vision of post-Brexit Britain must be one which understands the importance of internal cohesion. A civic model of British nationalism is needed more than ever.
Any vision of post-Brexit Britain must be one which understands the importance of internal cohesion. A civic model of British nationalism is needed more than ever. Diversity is only a strength if people of different ethnicities and faiths can come together around shared goals, often national causes, for the common good. The British model of multiculturalism has not facilitated national cohesion – it has undermined it. And however uncomfortable it may be for some to digest, British society remains utterly stratified by class. This would not be such an issue, if the UK did not have an economic framework where power and influence is so heavily skewed upwards. Britain needs to cultivate a culture of co-determination and co-operation – moving away from the confrontation and adversity which has come to characterise its economic, social and political spheres of life.
The UK should be an aspirant, outward-looking, cohesive union of nations, which is underpinned by a strong sense of civic nationalism. This should be based on equality of opportunity and mutual regard; one which values self-governance but also engages with parts of the world which it has close historical and cultural ties with. That should be our vision for a New Britain.