Brexit: Where once was an empire-by Keith Hart

Separation from Europe has opened up the real possibility that the United Kingdom will break up. Scotland is already bent on secession and the two Irelands may resolve the problem of belonging to different commercial regimes by reunification. The London media portray such an outcome as unthinkable. My aim here is to recall the violent innovation of the United Kingdom’s formation 300 years ago, lest we forget where the ‘UK’ came from and how.

There was a lot going on in 17th-century England. A civil war was fought between a Catholic aristocracy and a Protestant middle class. The King was executed and then his son was restored to the monarchy. A European war of religions saw the Catholic monarchies of France and Spain opposed to a Protestant coalition led by England and the Dutch. Puritan settlers colonized North America. At one time four armies fought each other in Ireland. Commercial and scientific revolutions took off. Modern economics was born. John Locke sought to rescue the language and currency from corruption. His philosophy of possessive individualism sparked off the European enlightenment. The Dutch prince, William, led the Protestant armies and inaugurated the Glorious Revolution in England where he was gratefully installed as monarch with his wife Mary. On his way, he dealt a savage military defeat to the Irish, followed by the settlement of Scottish Presbyterians to keep the Catholic peasantry under control. Modern central banking in the shape of the Bank of England solved the problem of William’s war debts.

The Scots, who had merged monarchies for a time with the English, felt that they should join the race for overseas colonies. They selected Panama for its isthmus, which offered a bridge between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. They raised a third of the liquidity then circulating in Scotland for their ‘Darien’ colony. They expected to be fed by the English Caribbean colonies, but were starved out instead. The area was infested with malaria. Almost all the colonists died and the Darien venture collapsed with massive losses. Meanwhile the English put the squeeze on southern Scotland’s coal exports, imposing a 25 per cent customs tariff on their common border. This was the context for a proposed political union between the two countries. The Scots succumbed and the United Kingdom was born in 1707. The Scots proved to be enthusiastic and able servants of empire, sometimes relabelling themselves Northern British.

The 18th century culminated in a world war between England and France from the Caribbean to India. The English led an international coalition committed to abolish slavery, as part of the industrial revolution. The United Kingdom soon controlled the seas and became the world’s financial centre, with the gold standard as its instrument. The British Empire was the largest in history, comprising a fifth of the human population and a quarter of the world’s land surface by the 1920s. The Anglo-Indian super-state dominated 19th-century geopolitics and all its rivals were forced to respond – the French in North Africa, the Germans in Persia, the Russians in Afghanistan. The empire also benefited from some first-rate propaganda, including the notion that it was run according to principles of truth, justice and honesty, symbolized by the game of cricket. Even today I meet Europeans who believe that the English bring higher ethical standards to the conduct of public life. The history of empire has evidence enough of its opposite. The English have a talent for organized brutality that now takes the occasional form of soccer hooliganism. The empire was well served by such brutality.

The driving force of the 19th century was industrial capitalism but the British Empire was built on mercantile colonialism. Inevitably Germany, the United States and other industrial powers would replace Britain. Equally, Britain’s industrial north was sidelined to an antiquated colonial system, the legacy of which can be seen today in London’s relationship with its regions. The ‘second Thirty Years War’ (1914-1945) finished off the British Empire, with Japan supplying the coup de grâce in Asia and the post-war rise of the American empire triggering a sequence of successful bids for independence. The formation in London of the most left-wing government west of Moscow led the US to put an economic squeeze on the country. The British economy only regained its level in 1939 by 1956 – and 1939 was the Great Depression!

Since the 1950s the big question has been ‘What will become of the United Kingdom?’ For those who envisaged this as an opportunity for progress, the answer has so far been rather disappointing. There always seems to be an excuse for not coming to grips with historical reality: imperial bag-carrier to the US (‘the special relationship’, a role now taken by France); English as the world language, thanks to the American internet; xenophobic delusions; a series of world leaders in sport.

Because of its longevity and historical prominence, the United Kingdom has a reputation for being stable. I wish to remind readers of its revolutionary origins and to suggest that the unravelling of the UK after empire – despite the anodyne message of the daily television news – makes Britain potentially one of the most unstable polities in the world. Recent events linked to Brexit have set in train unforeseeable concatenations that could end up as the break-up of the UK. We have been witnessing a constitutional crisis composed of many elements, any combination of which could be catalytic of profound change. This is not just about the UK’s place in the European Union (EU). It is a whole series of institutional conflicts with roots in a country no longer held together by the glue of empire and global industrial leadership. Here is a short list of problems. Any three of these would combine to place the United Kingdom under severe strain.

The EU and national sovereignty (where we came in); the pound sterling versus the euro and the dollar; Scottish independence; the reunification of Ireland; the concentration of power and wealth in London; regional devolution in England and Wales; the monarchy and growth of republican sentiment; the absolutist powers of parliament and an irrational electoral system; the Lords: parliament, the law and feudal property; the merger between Church and State; loss of empire and of global influence; racist paranoia over immigration; the ‘special relationship’ with the American empire; corporate dominance and the collapse of the public sector; the rise of the internet with English as its lingua franca.

The overwhelming issue is decentralization. There are powerful forces anxious to maintain London’s monopoly of politics, administration, finance, global plutocracy, commerce and media. But British history has a strong decentralized tendency – the municipalities and shires. Alexis de Tocqueville, in Journeys to England and Ireland, contrasted England with his native France. The latter had a strong administrative hierarchy, but a weak state, meaning a low ability to project power inside and outside the country. England had a weak, decentralized administration, but the strongest state in Europe. In the 20th century, these roles have been reversed, especially since Thatcher’s reforms of the 1980s. Britain is now a weaker state than France while the country is more administratively centralized in London.

The gap between Scotland and England over the EU and the integrity of the UK has never been wider. Scotland’s secession will have seismic repercussions well beyond the question of territorial union. Eire, as a member of the EU, now has a land border with Northern Ireland which is no longer part of the common market. Historical conditions are less polarized than when the split between the two Irelands occurred a century ago. Several regions could take advantage of political turmoil to push for greater devolution: the West Country, Wales, Yorkshire, Tyneside and others. More than three decades of neoliberal economics and austerity have stripped much of the legitimacy from national government. Hence the commonplace observation in the referendum that support for the populist parties allowed neglected areas to disown rule by remote elites. But there will be some surprising institutional victims without whose presence the modern UK would be hard to recognize.

In the last general election I asked which party’s demise would have the most devastating effect on the political landscape. The Labour Party was still run by a Blairite faction of MPs offering Tory-lite policies as the only safe route to power. Soon after the election, which Labour lost, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader with the support of half a million new members. Ever since, the two sides have been at each other’s throats, with the Blairite parliamentarians withdrawing from Corbyn on the grounds that Brexit won because of his lacklustre leadership.

This claim is hard to credit, given that the main Labour cities led by London – Bristol, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle – supplied the largest majorities in favour of remaining in the EU. It is hard to see that the Labour Party will survive this conflict, whatever the leadership outcome. Remember that Labour became a serious national contender in the late 19th century and represented a historic class compromise between capital and workers. The same Labour Party built a radical welfare state after 1945. That kind of history does not just melt away.

The political forces confronting each other in the years to come will bear no resemblance to 20th-century history. Scottish and perhaps Irish nationalism would be beneficiaries of a weakening of the UK’s centre. These are not separate issues. Recall that Scotland was Labour’s heartland until very recently and is now a virtual desert for them. The referendum demonstrated that London is not just the City of London; but the latter undoubtedly hopes to gain from escaping the regulatory clutches of the EU. The dream of financial empire is alive in the City. Having lost a colonial empire, they built an illegal offshore empire in a residue of small islands from the 1970s onwards. Under Thatcher the liberalization of the London Stock Exchange in 1987 (‘the Big Bang’) hinged on the legalization of gambling in stocks. The City has been free of legal restraint by Westminster for 600 years and it still represents a shadowy leader in the world’s grey and criminal economies.

There are many possibilities for reconfiguring relations between the public and private sectors, between government and the corporate world. Britain’s curious mixture of feudalism (the House of Lords) and freebooting finance could yet spawn some unusual developments. Some would like to see London as an independent city-state, the Hong Kong of the West. Internationally, after Brexit, many commentators forecast a close and less equal client relationship with the United States. Not many imagine that Britain is going to be a more prosperous and comfortable place to live in. But if the United Kingdom’s back is broken, many interests would welcome it. After all, the EU has become an undemocratic bullies’ club and maybe a decentralized Britain could do better than that.

Keith Hart is an Economic Anthropologist and the International Director, Human Economy Programme, University of Pretoria and Centennial Professor of Economic Anthropology, London School of Economics. He has taught at a number of universities, for the longest time at Cambridge. He contributed the idea of an informal economy to Development Studies and has written extensively on money. His recent books include The Human Economy (2010) and Economic Anthropology (2011).