From Empire to Blair England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 created a framework of compromise between monarchy and Parliament.
It was followed by the union of England with Scotland of 1707, which joined two different countries while preserving their distinct legal traditions.
Since then the narrative of British history has been the adaptability and flexibility of its political system.
This provided a framework for the evolution of democracy without rupture or revolt at home, allowing the middle classes and then the working classes to be incorporated relatively peacefully into it, while all enjoyed the material and psychic benefits of a violent empire.
In his new, pioneering study of democracy in Britain since 1918, David Marquand identifies the two dominant paternalisms that oversaw the final stages of this domestic process.
Not that anyone should deny the achievements of the past three decades: the unprecedented development of what was before but now is no longer simply known as the “third” or under-developed world; the immensely welcome lifting from poverty of hundreds of millions; the greater equality implicit in this; the emancipating productivity released by new technology and its transformation of communications; the material realisation that we are indeed in important respects “one world”.
At the same time the decades of talk about “globalisation” are now been revealed as a panglossian deception.
A boondoggle of vast fortunes was unleashed, justified because benefits would “trickle down”.
Instead we seem to be witnessing a fearful waterfall of cascading misery, cutbacks, foreclosures and job losses on the middle and working classes in the global north, whose elites meanwhile are bailed out by governments they hitherto pretended to despise.
And before we turn to the fate of the British state with which this essay is mainly concerned, we should spare a thought for those outside the European welfare system.
It seeks to sketch roughly how the UK came to be a neo-liberal Kingdom and address some of the issues posed for UK politics, while hoping they have a wider relevance internationally.
And when we use the terms “social democracy” and “progressivism” at points in this essay, we do so with a sense of reluctance, recognising both that they are unsatisfactory and that a “call” unsure of its name is one without a sure sense of itself.
Progressives and centre-left politicians need to develop a better-shared sense of collective memory about the lessons of capitalism and how best to learn and relearn these lessons in the current context.
While we are in a position to criticise we are hardly in a position to lecture the world on the best way forward.
So while this essay primarily focuses on the possibilities of transforming the British state and space, it does so in the context of international politics and now political economy undergoing a planetary confrontation with the fruits of deregulated capitalism.
The freedom it offered in its place, however, had its own form of authoritarianism. We had to be fatalistic and grateful and our standard of living would grow.
Forces more powerful and wise than you and I had already determined “the official future” (1). The toxic mix of popular powerlessness, market inevitability and the glorification of leadership vindicated by the ever-rising value of property, was pioneered in Britain by Margaret Thatcher and deepened by Tony Blair.
Here indeed, it is sad to report, Britain “led the world” - in the direction of uncritical subordination to Washington, DC.
In the process, the United Kingdom became - perhaps more than anywhere outside some city-states and micro-nations - a neo-liberal state.
This essay is offered, therefore, at a moment of hope as well as danger.
Recently a Chinese toy manufacturer employing 7,000 people shut his factory in Dongguan overnight as exports collapsed.
The pride of globalisation, that rural misery was reduced for so many, is under threat with no state provisions in place for them.
The political and even military consequences could well be dire.
Nonetheless we should celebrate the possible defeat of one aspect of neo-liberal domination.
It cheered the destruction of a communist world that was oppressive and unfree.
Gerry Hassan is a writer, commentator and academic.
He is co-Director of Scotland's Festival of Ideas and was awarded his Ph D on political and cultural contemporary debate in the public sphere of Scotland.
Gerry is the author and editor of numerous books including ‘The Strange Death of Labour Scotland’ and the just published 'After Independence' (co-edited with James Mitchell).
His most recent books are 'Caledonian Dreaming: The Quest for a Different Scotland' and 'Independence of the Scottish Mind: Elite Narratives, Public Spaces and the Making of a Modern Nation'.
The global financial crisis exposes anew the flaws of a British polity that resists democratic modernisation.
In a long, sweeping overview, Gerry Hassan & Anthony Barnett declare the United Kingdom state unfit for purpose.
The world we have lived in, created from the twin oil-price shockwaves of 19 and validated in the eyes of many by the events of 1989, is at last suffering its own crash.