There is a three-word description of Britain that has done the rounds for a decade on the British left, coined, appropriately, by an anonymous twitter account: ‘Rainy Fascism Island’. Since December 2019, it has been hard to deny the truth of the last two of these, although we’ve had to wait until late August for the rains. Confected outrages over everything from Nuneaton’s statue of George Eliot to the right to bellow ‘Rule Britannia’ at the Last Night of the Proms, to the alleged threat of cold, terrified families arriving at Dover in dinghies, dominate non-coronavirus coverage.
As for the virus itself, well, like the US, a country that insists on its world-beating status is world-beating mainly in its rate of excess deaths per capita. Dysfunction seems to be everywhere, as Serco run test and trace centres in retail parks and town centres fall into what might be their final dereliction. It is startling to remember that for two years between 2017 and 2019, an insurgent, anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist left seemed on the verge of taking power on this island, and that in 2017 your actual Jeremy Corbyn really was inches away from occupying the position currently taken by an Etonian conman journalist.
So, is this a particularly unpleasant country? Is it uglier, more racist, more unequal, worse-run, or nastier? To assess what Britain is, and the ways in which it is or isn’t unique, it makes sense to compare like with like. And here, the comparator is obvious – the rest of North-Western Europe, those other long-established nation states that lost their colonial Empires between 1918 and 1975 – France, Germany, Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark.
So while Britain is, by and large, a racist country, it is hard to say it’s an outlier in the region. The government has deported Windrush migrants who have lived here most of their lives, public opinion barely blinked at the killing of 72 largely non-white Londoners in a tower block coated in flammable cladding, and we have a vehemently and trollingly inflammatory press and public sphere, from the Daily Mail and the Sun all the way up the BBC and the Times. To say that Britain hasn’t passed explicit racial laws, as has Denmark with its ‘ghetto list’, that it hasn’t banned burqas, as has France, and that it hasn’t recently had a party founded by SS officers in its government, as has Austria, is not to exonerate, but to say that we are an intolerant, racist country in an intolerant, racist region.
Seen as a landscape, it’s senseless to see Britain as uniquely grim for its region. Of course, there are the preserved historical townscapes, and while some, such as Stratford-upon-Avon and Oxford, are silly fakes aimed at gullible tourists, many more, such as Bath, Durham, Edinburgh or Lincoln, are very much as visually astonishing as their reputation suggests. The big cities are seldom given the credit they deserve. Liverpool is at least as dramatic architecturally as Marseille or Hamburg; Newcastle is far more magnificent than Rotterdam or Lille; Glasgow is vastly more imposing architecturally than Munich.
More conventionally, the sheer diversity and richness of the rural landscape is almost unrivalled – and it’s worth remembering that the demand to be able to explore it freely originally came from the revolutionary left, with the Communist-led Kinder Scout mass trespass in the Peak District. Although the weather can’t be helped, if money were no object and infrastructure ran smoothly this would actually be one of the most interesting, and perhaps the most uncomplicatedly beautiful, country in its part of the world. And that’s where the real problem lies.
In terms of inequality, both in terms of class and in terms of regional wealth, Britain is by far the most unequal country of its peers. According to 2018 statistics, nine of the ten poorest regions in Northern Europe were in Britain, and only one of the richest ten – London, of course. Regional wealth inequality figures, though a crude measure (that the lowest disposable income is in London is missed by it, for instance) show that there is now a wider gap between the North and South of England than there is between East and West Germany. Our housing is the smallest, oldest and least energy-efficient in the region, and is apparently paradoxically by far the most expensive, especially in the south-east.
There is also much less local democracy. Cities like Berlin, Vienna and even Paris have carved out local settlements some distance to the left of their right-wing central governments, but here, our only equivalents are the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, which have been far better at stopping some of the worst (prescription charges, NHS privatisation, the Right to Buy, and in Scotland, tuition fees) than they have been at any kind of positive counter-programme.
In England, Scotland and Wales alike, austerity has decimated basic public services from libraries to public toilets. Decent architecture is considered an luxury by developers, and by councils when approving new buildings – a power that the new planning laws will remove from the latter. Public infrastructure is appalling, with an overpriced and often antiquated train network, a sadistically disorganised bus system, and monstrously inept outsourcing companies and private operators – only here could wholly parasitic companies like Carillion, Capita, Serco, Stagecoach or Virgin thrive to the degree they have.
But while you might think something like Britain’s expensive, naff, baffling and technologically backward privatised rail network would serve as a cautionary example in its region, it doesn’t appear as such to the European Commission, who regard our railways as a model to follow, and have legislated accordingly. That’s because if you’re a fervent supporter of capitalism, Britain is the European country that has followed your prescriptions most faithfully, and ideology will always trump the sweaty, ugly and faecal-smelling reality.
Debates on the left about the unique badness of Britain – particularly England – go back to Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn’s famous writings of the early 1960s in New Left Review. Claiming that Britain’s capitalism was backward and aristocratic in Europe because of its ‘incomplete bourgeois revolution’ in the 17th century, the ‘Nairn-Anderson thesis’ may have acutely diagnosed a certain retrograde sentimentality in British culture, but its economic accuracy has been picked to pieces by historians in recent years to the point where there’s barely anything left.
But if Britain has been just a normal capitalist country, how do we explain its extremes – the inequality, the poor infrastructure, the untouchability of the outsourcers, the ineptitude, the Travelodges in the town centres, and the creation of such grotesque objects as Birmingham New Street? The most penetrating critique of Nairn-Anderson came in the 1990s, at the hands of the Marxist historian Ellen Mieksins Wood, in her book The Pristine Culture of Capitalism. She agreed that Britain’s public sphere was grim, retail-dominated, cheap and nasty. But she ascribed that to the completeness, not the backwardness of British capitalism. Britain was the first capitalist country, and it has much deeper roots here than anywhere else. The absence here of, say, advanced research and development or innovative manufacturing doesn’t necessarily indicate ‘backwardness’ in capitalist terms – capitalism is about making money; making things is an optional extra.
British capitalism was always as much the project of the aristocracy of a centralised state as much as it was one of the commercial-industrial bourgeoisie; towns have never had the independent power here that they had in the city states of Germany. And after a 20th century interlude where it was challenged by the labour movement, British capitalism went back to business as usual from Thatcher onwards. A lot can be learned from this.
The civic architecture, clean streets and civil society of the Netherlands or Denmark are not the result, Wood argued, of a more advanced capitalism, but of the survival of a pre-capitalist burgher culture of guilds and town halls; a similar explanation applies to France’s legacy of Absolutism, the root of its culture of grandiose planning. By association, the greater cycling infrastructure and more extensive tram and metro networks of our neighbours reflect the greater influence of non-capitalist influences in public life, from trade unions to social movements to town planners. Bar the unions and the battered remnants of the British welfare state – which was in some ways radical even in the region (housing and health, for instance, were for a time more completely decommodified here than in France or Germany), there are not the same countervailing forces here.
Starting from Wood’s work, we can understand much more easily when we’re looking at a more general European problem, and when we’re looking at a real basket case. And in this, we appear not so much as a dysfunctionally nostalgic island, but as a vanguard, the country in Europe where the market has most fully let rip, where even those suffering from the results dare not vote against it in case the price of their house falls. Britain today is what Macron would make of France, Kurz make of Austria, or Rutte make of the Netherlands – if they thought they could get away with it. A success of the most miserable kind.