Your support keeps us publishing. Follow this link to subscribe to our print magazine.

Thatcher’s Island

Britain is going through both an identity crisis and a process of political disintegration – both of which can trace their roots to the great national project of recent decades: neoliberal reform.

Something seems to have gone horribly wrong in Britain, though there are variety of theories as to exactly what. Who to blame for its bigotry, its venal media, its generational nihilism, its spivvery, its nasty public sphere, its damp little houses, for Serco and for the new Spitting Image? Four new books agree that a terrible wrong turning has taken place, and they try to take some time to understand exactly what has happened — with results that are sometimes complementary, sometimes not.

The grandest in scale is the economic historian David Edgerton’s Rise and Fall of the British Nation. Rejecting out of hand explanations for the malaise that root it in the British Empire, in the incomplete nature of the revolutions of the seventeenth century, or in a sudden collapse into madness circa 2015, his study is proudly revisionist. Britain was invented in the 1940s. It was a heavy industrial power, scientifically advanced, centred on a strong, developmentalist state, with its base in the factories of the Midlands and the south of England, but basically the same whether you were in Luton, Newport, or Glenrothes.

It wasn’t particularly social democratic — NHS aside, this was a ‘warfare state’, not a welfare state, run ‘by  businessmen, not socialist planners, soldiers rather than public health physicians’. This almost autarchic island machine was then dismantled without any logic or explanation between 1979 and 2005, by Tory and Labour governments, leaving its population confused, impoverished, and ignorant. It is a brilliant, but perverse book at times. A reader on the left is likely to alternately want to cheer and to throw it across the room — especially in its downplaying of the power of the City of London.

Edgerton’s dismissal of the notion of British ‘decline’ — until, perhaps, the Thatcher–Blair years — sets it against the ideas developed by the New Left Review in the 1960s around the backwardness of British capitalism and the British state. A confident new iteration of that line comes in The Northern Question, by Tom Hazeldine, one of the journal’s current editors, trailed recently in these pages. It’s a synoptic book, taking on a thousand years of England’s North/South divide before eventually arriving at the apparent political secession of large swathes of the North to the Tories.

Its general argument is that a historically impoverished area was very suddenly made wealthy and powerful by the Industrial Revolution, but its leaders weren’t independent enough, and simply assimilated into London’s old networks of power.  Reading it alongside Edgerton, you can nuance this somewhat — yes, the English North did decline, but ‘industrial Britain’ simply moved to Coventry, Oxford, Park Royal, Slough, Southampton, and Bristol. Meanwhile, rather than a socialist holdout, Hazeldine shows a North with a long history of political conformism, latterly through the Labour right’s grip on the place.

Another good corroboration of the NLR line that Britain is distorted by the power of London-based capitalism comes in Brett Christophers’ Rentier Capitalism. From North Sea oil to the railways to water and electricity, this is a damning book about what successful British firms actually do — bid for privatised contracts, charge large rental fees, and sit back and let the profits come in from poor-quality, monopolised services. Though the profits overwhelmingly go to a tiny minority, through housing and pensions a large proportion of ordinary people are given just enough a stake in this corrupt system to keep them voting for it — ‘to all intents and purposes, today’s petit financial rentier class is identical with the pensioner “class”’ — though the benefits they get from this are meagre.

This has some overlaps in Will Davies’ This is Not Normal, a breathless compilation of blog posts from the last five years. Davies seems to be trying to occupy the sort of space usually taken by liberal analysts of ‘Populism’, but unlike them, he roots Britain’s problems in the effects of neoliberalism, a phenomenon they tend to dismiss. So unlike a Jan-Werner Muller or a Carole Cadwalladr he acknowledges our long history of compulsive political lying, so obvious in figures like Boris Johnson and Keir Starmer — but he’s still essentially in the game of explaining liberalism’s collapse to liberals.

What makes it worth reading is Davies’ ability to explain difficult concepts and add a verbal flourish — such as in Corbynism promising a ‘truth and reconciliation commission on 40 years of neoliberalism’, New Labour building ‘a shadow welfare state that was never publicly spoken of, coexisting with a political culture that heaped scorn on dependency’, in noting how one report showed Britain’s only global competitive advantage was in ‘finance and biscuits’, or in the immortal claim that ‘Thatcher wanted a society of people like her father, but produced a society of people like her son’. It seems clear that the issue most can agree on is that we live on Thatcher’s island, still.

David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: a Twentieth Century History (Penguin, 2019)

Tom Hazeldine, The Northern Question: A Political History of the North-South Divide (Verso, 2020)

Will Davies, This is Not Normal: the Collapse of Liberal Britain (Verso, 2020)

Brett Christophers, Rentier Capitalism: Who Owns the Economy, and Who Pays For it? (Verso, 2020)

About the Author

Owen Hatherley is the culture editor of Tribune and is the author of Artificial Islands.