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In this edition of Foreign Affairs Unedited, author Matthew Johnson discusses the British election and his recent article "Empire at Sunset," with Foreign Affairs Deputy Web Editor Brian O'Connor.
O'CONNOR: Matthew, thank you for joining me.
JOHNSON: I'm very grateful you've had me on here.
O'CONNOR: I think to start things off, you know, I feel like I should really address the elephant in the room. With only days to go, what's your outcome prediction for the election?
JOHNSON: Well, I'm probably just going to follow everybody else and say that it will be a hung parliament and it looks like there will be some coalition government or minority government, probably a Labour minority government, unless they absolutely get over themselves and agree to the kind of formal coalition deal that really ought to be developed with the SNP or with other minority parties.
Labour haven't put forward the kind of cohesive, effective program of action that you would've seen under Blair to try to shift the groundswell of opinion in their favor. They've had so many opportunities to do so and, in some respects, I suppose they've been stifled by the failure of the last Labour government economically to deal with the crisis and to just foresee the crisis and have been much more reserved and conservative in their outlook. They haven't been able to present the kind of progressive vision that middle England bought into back in 1997 and 2001. So, I think it's probably going to be a very unsatisfactory state of affairs in the next parliament.
O'CONNOR: There's one thing that stood out to me in the piece, I think, specifically, is the idea that between the north and the south there is a growing divide. How do you see those dynamics changing, both in sort of recent memory and then how do you see them sort of altering in their own way going forward?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I think this idea of a north/south divide is still salient, but it's becoming increasingly complex in ways that I think we're only beginning to grasp. People are starting to revert to more parochial identities, the kind of identities that people, I guess in some respects, had pretty much in the 1950s and '60s, when people developed this kind of national consciousness with regard to the development of nationalized industries, the NHS, these national projects.
So I think in one sense, people are reverting to these parochial, often regional identities. But in another sense, those regional identities have been disrupted in lots of interesting ways, by de-industrialization, by privatization, by increased mobility, by immigration, all of these sorts of things. So people are striving for local identities, without necessarily having the kind of cultural underpinnings that their ancestors had 100 years ago, for example, when local identities made more sense.
So they're portraying a sense of Englishness that is like a 1980s football hooligan caricature. And I suppose this has been highlighted by the idea of white van man, the U.K. voter who's proud of his Englishness, who sees himself as traditional working class, who sees himself as being alienated by migration and all these sorts of things, but hasn't necessarily got a coherent response to that in policy terms.
So I think the U.K. in general is more complicated than we often give it credit for. Scotland's more complicated than we give it credit for. This Independence project has emerged as a unifying force in lots of different respects. But the regions are coming up with or are trying to come up with unifying ideas at the minute as well. I think that's very uneven. In the southwest of the country, where we've got Celtic revivalism, people will talk about going to England. Politicians will say, “oh, I've spent the last five years in England, in London, in Westminster, and now I'm returning home to Cornwall.” And that highlights the historically fractured nature of the country in ways that people outside may not understand.
I suppose to give it some sort of American context, the UKIP-supporting working class might often be compared to this idea of people from the Deep South who are proud of their identity, proud of the fact they're from former Confederate states
Now I suppose the difference is that this is very much a recent development in the UK, whereas I guess in the Deep South of the US there’s an organic trajectory to it.
O'CONNOR: Well, that's interesting too, I think. In speaking with friends and scholars that are studying the U.K. elections, it seems as though that UKIP and the Tea Party and sort of if not related then sort of distant cousins or ideological sort of cohorts, so to speak. Now do you find that that's -- first of all, is that true? Is that too much of an assumption for an American audience to make or does it have some salience?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I think it's natural to draw parallels between UKIP and the Tea Party. I think they're responding to similar kinds of concerns about disillusionment within those who subscribe to national culture or mainstream cultures. I think whether they're [UKIP and Tea Party] ideologically influenced by one another is less the issue.
I think that the main thing we're talking about here is the gradual alienation of certain groups from the forward trajectory of society. And it's quite interesting in this respect that there is this convergence of two very, very different groups of people in the same movement. So you get often quite wealthy people who are backers of the UKIP or the Tea Party for economic reasons. They believe in a low tax agenda, they believe in a laisse faire liberal economics. But you also get people who just feel alienated by migration and cultural change.
The concern is that other people are benefiting from the state and they [UKIP voters] feel that it's not right that they [migrants] should benefit from the state – that they were there first and should have the benefits of that state. And they feel, for the want of a better word and without wishing to buy into the language of Tea Party and UKIP, alienated by this liberal “elite” notion of a multicultural society where anybody can have entitlements to welfare, to benefits, to the kind of support that the state offers.
So it's about unfairness. And in that respect, I think we have to be sympathetic. A lot of these people have been thoroughly alienated. I'm from the northeast of England and I would never wish to suggest that I'm in any kind of difficult circumstances but I've got family members who live in quite difficult circumstances. And when they see people whom they perceive to be receiving preferential treatment from the state, when they see recent migrants being given houses, when they see recent migrants receiving benefits that they've been denied or they perceive to have been given benefits that they've been denied, it does feel unfair, you know? It does.
O'CONNOR: You had mentioned, actually, how people in your family had -- coming from the north and meeting people from, you know, the midlands or the south, who basically felt as though you were on sort of a cultural journey when World War II broke out, that there was not necessarily that cohesion right off the bat and that people were almost learning about their countrymen for the first time as though they had no other sort of prior contact.
JOHNSON: Yeah, it's very difficult to get your head around the kind of national identity that people have had, historically, in the U.K. I mean, we assume that when you come from a nation state you feel part of that nation. And I think it's quite important the way in which, historically, people would talk about fighting for king and country. And that really was about fulfilling some kind of post-feudal obligation to a king.
I remember asking my granddad about his father and fighting in the First World War, and I was just generally interested why people went off to fight in that war. They knew that they were going to face serious danger in a war that had no real purpose or end. So I was asking him “did he feel some kind of patriotic duty to fight for his country and would he be willing to die for his country?”
And his response was - and, he was quite an articulate guy, my granddad – “well, he knew he had an obligation to fight for his king and that obligation was on pain of death or serious suffering.” If you did not fulfill your obligation to fight, as your ancestors had to fulfill their obligations to fight for their superiors, you would suffer.
And so I said, well, “what kind of national identity did he have?” And he said, “he knew that there was a king. So there was this kind of chain of command and you knew that you had obligations to people.” But when I asked him about his national identity, he said “he was a guy from the north of Durham who worked as a miner in a mining village, who had obligations to his kin, had obligation to his friends.” He was from that place; he wouldn't necessarily have had any thought of British identity. This was a guy who I suppose was meeting his countrymen for the first time, certainly in the First World War, and people were very different. He'd be coming across Scotsmen for the first time. He'd be coming across people from the South West, from the Midlands, all of these sorts of places. These were very exotic places.
You have to remember that for a large part of Britain's history people were immobile because of feudalism. They couldn't move and the feudal and post-feudal settlements meant people just couldn't move. Land was already parceled up and you were obliged to work on that land. So people weren't used to having this much larger conception of national identity that we might associate these days with a modern nation state.
And certainly, that carried on for my grandfather. So when he was in World War II, he was sent to fight in Egypt and he was saying that they basically spent the first three months of the conflict trying to get used to each other, trying to understand each other. He was there with Welsh guys. He was there with people from Cornwall, and he was saying it was a struggle. He had a whole series of quite hilarious anecdotes about confusion about dialect terms which sounded similar but meant completely different things. I can't think of any off the top of my head but it was this great kind of cultural interaction.
And I suppose at the time when the Empire was still in some functioning form, you would come across people from Britain, but you'd also be fighting alongside Sikhs. You'd be fighting alongside Indian Muslims. You'd be fighting alongside people from all over the Empire really. And it's in that sense that you get an idea of Britishness, that you're kind of fighting on the same side and you had some kind of imperial identity by default; you're all fighting for the same team, basically. But it wasn't the kind of coherent national identity that you would have today in some other countries, certainly potentially in the Republic of France or something like that.
I guess where you get modern British identity from is this 1950s project, I think, of building a nation, rebuilding a nation, getting people to buy into this nation-building project, and I think that's gone the distance as well because God knows what's going to happen in the future.
O'CONNOR: Yeah. I mean, do you see anybody right now out of the very sort of crowded pool of candidates of parties, do you see anybody really being able to pull off such a grand vision?
JOHNSON: You know, I think it's really difficult. The most impressive thing in recent years has been the way in which Scottish identity developed despite all of its flaws. The SNP, has consistently endorsed dodgy economic projects. They tried to model themselves on Ireland; that went bankrupt pretty much. They tried to model themselves on Iceland [pre-Finance Crisis]. Well, good luck with that.
Now it's not to say that there isn't a vision of Scottish Independence which is economically viable and vibrant and dynamic and all the rest of it. It's just to say that despite all of the dodgy thinking, they were still able to develop some kind of coherent narrative about a nation's future, and that stems from viewing Britishness as being synonymous with Englishness. So the U.K. Independence Party ought to be representing the U.K. But actually, it represents quite a narrow section of England at best. And it frankly doesn't give a toss about the Scots.
And there is this sense, in Scotland, that Westminster is against them and that draws a lot of people together who wouldn't necessarily be in the same boat. And I think that when we're thinking about the kind of national project-building that the SNP have managed to pull off, I think it's very, very difficult to mirror in an English context and certainly impossible in a British context. I think that's just too big a project.
I think the best we can hope for is some progressive notion of people working together within the country to build something of national importance, to restore some of our national institutions, some of our public services, these sort of things, and to regard the state as being benign and beneficial and benevolent. But I think that, if we're talking about nation-building on a grand scale, those days are long gone, actually.
O'CONNOR: I think a lot of research has gone into the idea that Thatcherism sort of created or was the catalyst for a lot of this disillusion. How does that hold up? Is that an argument that still carries water?
JOHNSON: Yeah, I think the big problem that neoliberal governments face is that they don't understand the way in which national identity and national cohesion is created by national projects and, by national projects, of course, I mean state projects. States are often the driving force behind the development of national identity. When we think about the development of identities within the U.K., they've all pretty much been driven by the state.
I guess one of the problems that this country is facing is that its politicians really haven't thought about the consequences of stripping back all of its services. Why should we identify as a country with one another when we have no connection with each other on a daily basis, when we have no reciprocal relationship with the state, when we feel that the state actively objects to us, when a state propagates demeaning public discourses about us?
I think that the effects of Thatcherism go beyond the hardships created by economic change and I think that, like a lot of the reforms that were introduced, the consequences of putting people out of nationalized industries, the consequences of reducing the activities of the state are much greater than anything we possibly could've expected really and point in the direction of there being a further diminution of identities if we continue with this idea of a night watchman state that doesn't do much else than defend us against invasion or public disorder.
O'CONNOR: It seems as though there are a lot more questions than answers.
JOHNSON: Yeah, I think so. Britain in the 1970s was a dysfunctional place, and as a man who comes from a family which didn't really have much money and were in heavy industry and all the rest of it, I am incredibly grateful for the life I've got now. And that life would not have come about, I think, without the kind of economic reforms which were developed.
But for every person like me who has benefited from some of these reforms and also not benefited from some reforms as well, I think there are lots of people in this country who have seriously, seriously suffered. They suffer on a daily basis through loneliness, through having their communities dissolved. They suffer on a daily basis from lifestyle diseases, like diabetes, these things. They suffer a bit on a daily basis from hunger. I mean, can you think in 21st century Britain that so many people would have to rely on food banks for their subsistence? That's an outrage, an absolute outrage. And yet, we persist with policies which punish people who've been successively punished by a range of different reforms over the past 40 years. And I'm not entirely a woolly liberal but I do think we must think much more clearly about the harms that have been created by some of these reforms.
O'CONNOR: Matthew Johnson, thank you so much.
JOHNSON: Thank you.