Stereophonics, ABBA, and the future of British society. How we as a country can transform ourselves with a new economic and social model based on community, positive liberalism, and benevolent nationalism.
It was a rock band from Wales who in 2001 presciently revealed a growing tension within British society. A tension that two decades later would come to dominate our politics. In their single ‘Have a nice day’, Stereophonics recount their meeting with a cab driver whilst on holiday in ‘San Francisco Bay’.
‘It started straight off, Coming here is hell, That’s his first words, We asked what he meant. He said, We’re going wrong, we’ve all become the same, We dress the same ways only our accents change. So have a nice day.’
The grievance is clear: globalisation has replaced local identities with international conformity – ‘we’ve all become the same’. The solution though is not forthcoming. Instead, whilst the frustration is palatable, the cab driver wishes the band ‘a nice day’. Exasperated at the scale and power of change that surrounds him, he is left utterly powerless and able to muster only mechanical platitudes.
This tension between a potent grievance, and a powerless capability for a solution, can be explained by the consensus that existed amongst the ruling elite at the time. Within a period that began with the election of Blair and Clinton, and ended with Brexit and Trump, a rare aligning of three forces occurred: technological, political, and economic. These powerful and structural forces led Tony Blair to describe globalisation in 2005 as inevitable: ‘You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer’.
Behind the consensus of this period, lay these three structural changes, each mutually enforcing the power of the other, and whose total sum was seen as insurmountable. What was unique about this period was that all three changes were at their most advanced stage.
A new economic view had taken hold founded in the benefits of free trade and the global market. When Blair repealed Clause IV from the Labour Party Constitution, which had previously affirmed the party’s commitment to socialism, it meant both Labour and the Conservatives were now firm believers in the capitalist market. Whereas Labour had once promised ‘to secure common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange’, it now accepted ‘the global dynamic economy as a reality’.
Britain’s two major parties were consequently as close as ever to an economic consensus. This was reflected when contrary to some expectations, ‘New Labour avoided any active industrial policy’, claiming ‘government could not or should not pick winners’. The Labour government refused to support a declining manufacturing sector made uncompetitive by the monetarist policies, overvalued currency, and high interest rates from the Thatcher era.
Whilst refusing to prioritise manufacturing, government policy at the time of the Financial Crash and in the subsequent coalition government, revealed the supremacy of the banking sector and financial services in British economic thinking. In June 2007, Gordon Brown argued the banking sector will unleash ‘an era that history will record as the beginning of a new golden age for the City of London’. It was this prioritisation of services that has since led to significant regional inequality across the UK: London produces 49% of the UK services output and is home to nearly half of the jobs in the sector.
This economic consensus occurred at the same time that advances in technology made such a global economy possible. With the invention of the internet, cheaper energy and more efficient means of travel, multinational companies, and complex international trade routes were able to form. This led to a growth in just-in-time manufacturing and resulted in a movement of industry eastwards towards Asia. It can be debated which came first, but rapid technological advancement alongside the prioritisation of services within a global free-market economy, allowed globalisation to accelerate.
The third and final structural change was political. This was the transformation of liberalism as a political ideology.
The economist and philosopher Friedrich Hayek feared that after World War Two, governments would be forced into controlling society and the market. Hayek argued, this was because of technological determinism, where only ‘big state’ governments would be capable of managing the industrial and economic forces that would be required.
Rather than technology determining today’s form of government, the changes technology produced fitted perfectly with the post-Cold War conception of ‘liberalism’. Leaving the destruction of WWII and entering the context of the Cold War, the ideology of liberalism lost its historical founding in a celebration of the collective and became individualised.
This was down to thinkers such as Hayek and Waldemar Gurian, who argued that the collectivism of liberalism was the cause behind Europe’s totalitarian regimes. To Gurian, a totalitarian state was liberalism’s ‘last and most radical consequence’.
Helena Rosenblatt argues that as a result, liberalism redefined itself within American individualism. This was reflected in Isiah Berlin’s lecture ‘Two concepts of Liberalism’, delivered in Oxford in 1958. Berlin divided liberalism into two strands – positive and negative. The latter being defined as the freedom an individual has to act – the right to go to university – whilst the former being whether an individual has the capability to act – the economic or social resources that would enable them to go to university.
Berlin argued that positive liberalism should be avoided because it led to totalitarian regimes, and thus negative liberalism formed the framework for Britain’s political consensus within this period.
A significant difference between negative and positive forms of liberalism is that to successfully implement positive forms, society is required to come together as a collective. Only then can the resources of welfare and aid be mobilized to free people from economic constraints. In contrast, negative liberty leads to deeply individualised and private lives where citizens retreat from the public sphere and the obligations associated with it.
In past centuries such forms of negative liberalism would have been a danger to the state. But, with the advent of technology and state surveillance, no form of life is truly private and as a result, an individualised society was not prevented from forming out of security concerns.
Technology has also accelerated this individualised form of society. Previously, communities were defined by a sense of place, human contact, shared memories, and history. These produced socially rich communities where even the rhythm of time was shaped by shared endeavours. In Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles, both the celebratory May Day dance and the hard toil of the harvest occur at times of the year conditioned by a collective memory of past customs. A modern example is the community of football fans supporting their team, each with the knowledge that 3pm on Saturday marks a moment to come together.
Social media and primarily Facebook have over the last two decades undermined this meaning of community. It has replaced rich social contact, with thinner and less meaningful forms. Whilst individuals have been able to communicate across the world and share common causes, these bonds lack the human intimacy and closeness that past communities once offered. Ask anyone who’s social life has been transplanted onto zoom for the last six months, and all will agree human to human contact is preferred.
Whilst deindustrialisation removed the locales and bonds of communities once built around industry, a political consensus was formed which shunned community for an individualised outlook.
Proof of this comes in the phenomenon of identity politics. A consensus built on negative forms of liberalism by extension leads to the celebration of the individual. That is a celebration of the individual as themselves. ‘I’ rather than ‘we’. The danger this presents are found in the fragmentation of political discourse today.
Rather than urging for history syllabuses to include more ‘black history’, some campaigners wish for ‘black history’ to be taught as a standalone topic. A society that sees black history as separate to white history, and one that wishes for each to be taught separate of the other, is a society that has forgotten its common roots and thus become heavily individualised.
The paradox that ultimately results in negative liberalism’s downfall is that when it leads to identity politics, society requires each individual to have something to celebrate. Whereas previously common achievements could help pacify individual grievances, in an individualised society, the part of our souls that the ancient Greeks called Thymos (the spiritedness that craves recognition) becomes uncontrollable.
Thomas Hobbes argued that without a collective recognition of authority then humans will tear each other apart under the ‘Laws of Nature’. Without recognition of collectivism, individuals today threaten to tear society apart as each fight to be recognised on a purely individual basis.
These three mutually enforcing structural changes produced a Britain that was becoming heavily individualised and because of global market changes deeply unequal. The Brexit vote in 2016 was a powerful rejection of this form of society and was motivated by economic and cultural grievances.
Throughout this period Westminster comforted themselves that increasing GDP figures meant all was well. This narrowness of view was exacerbated by a geo-centric focus on the south-east, and the belief that because citizens had the right to a job or to buy a home then capability would inevitably follow. The reality though was deeply troubling.
In the 2019 ‘State of the North report,’ regional inequality in the UK was found to be the worst of any ‘comparable developed country’. The report concluded London and the southeast accounted for ‘30% of the country’s net increase in jobs since 2010’, and that the disposable income divide was growing. In 2017 it was £16,000 per head in the north-east but £28,000 in London, with productivity and health similarly divided.
Whilst Westminster looked at national figures, inflated by London’s exceptional performance, millions of voters did not see such a rosy picture on their streets. It was not deprivation which caused the economic motivations behind the Leave vote, but rather relative deprivation – a powerful feeling that can cause revolution.
Ted Gurr explains how political violence occurs when ‘people become angry that the gap between valued things and the opportunities they feel entitled to and the things and opportunities they have got’ increases. Skocpol thus argues that revolutions occur because of ‘widespread, intense, and multifaceted relative deprivation that touches both masses and elite aspirants in a society’. It was this form of relative deprivation that was behind the Brexit vote. Whilst groups were being told they had the ‘right’ to a decent job and saw that others in particular areas succeeded in doing so, they were not ‘able’ to – being let down by the shunning of economic support that comes from positive liberalism. A lack of capability rendered any basic right meaningless.
A secondary factor was that voters were revolting against the cultural changes that had been produced as a result of this new societal settlement. In contrast to the individualised outlook that now dominated the political and cultural elite in Britain, much of the population remained in favour of a community and its associated sense of belonging. This was not a feeling which surprisingly reared its head in 2016 but was present throughout this period, as Stereophonics reflected in 2001.
People’s belief in community and the culture associated with it explains the aversion many Britons have towards uncontrolled immigration: ‘63% of people think that immigration into Britain in the last ten years has been too high’. Eric Kaufman argues that this aversion is primarily down to cultural reasons, with many communities historically preferring migration from countries they find it easier to associate with or are more similar to. Although this may be described as ‘racist’, instead, this is a rational human defence mechanism in an attempt to preserve a community that one identifies with.
This nuance is evident in findings from the European Social Survey which show that consistently from 2002 to 2012, the British public is less open to immigrants of a ‘different race/ethnic group’. Robert Ford has found clear evidence of an ‘ethnic hierarchy in public preferences. Kaufmann uses these attitudes to explain why no populist reaction has occurred in South East Asia against immigration there. Whereas in Japan and South Korea ‘proscriptions against intermarriage and tight ethnic boundaries coexist with immigration policies designed to maintain majority ethnic predominance’. Comparatively, the number of people moving from the ‘global south to Europe and America more than doubled between 1990 and 2015’.
If the problem was negative liberalism combined with a damaging economic consensus, and the reaction was Brexit, then what is the solution?
It’s time to reinvigorate ‘positive national liberalism’
What follows existential crises are reconditioned societies, moulded in the shape of what the electorate now needs and what voters and politicians now realise is possible. After the Franco-Prussian War Germany inoculated its population against disease, realising its protected military was a reason for victory as French forces fell ill. The Crimean and Boar Wars revealed to Britain that the education and health of its population were insufficient. Whilst the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War Two revealed the need for a welfare state, something which both Churchill and Atlee agreed upon with their commissioning of the Beveridge report in 1942.
Coronavirus is no different and thus an opportunity to reshape Britain will follow in the years to come.
Within the months of March and April, a new reality crushed through the economic consensus of the previous two decades.
Britain’s PPE supplies that had been outsourced to manufacturers in China were requisitioned by the Chinese state. Masks that arrived from Asia into France ready for export to the UK were prevented from leaving the country by French authorities. As global supply chains ‘resembled the Wild West’ national solutions were needed.
In the UK thousands of factories turned their labour towards making PPE and Ventilators. At the same time, businesses were unable to export to a global market. Production and consumption became national.
Whilst this sudden breakdown of globalisation was admittedly caused by an unprecedented event, it revealed a startling truth: that in times of crises or stress global supply chains cannot be relied upon. The UK should look to increase its self-sufficiency in industries that would be vital to any future existential threat: whether that be another pandemic or climate change. Following this policy, the Government would have an opportunity to re-invest in the UK’s deindustrialised areas – the very places relative deprivation was so strongly felt.
An argument against such ideas is that globalisation is unstoppable, and in turning away from the world we will lose the opportunities offered. But this is undermined by evidence from the late C19th and an acceptance that Covid-19 has significantly damaged the building blocks behind global trade.
Globalisation has before been reversed. At the end of the C19th integration between America and Europe was increasing at a rapid rate. Under the gold standard regime, ‘national currencies could be freely converted into fixed quantities of gold and capital flowed without hindrance across borders’.
From the 1870s however, a decline ‘in world agricultural prices produced pressure for a resumption of import protection’. This led to all European countries except Britain to raise agricultural tariffs. Tariffs on manufactured goods soon followed. At the same time, immigration limits began to appear, with the US Congress in 1882 passing the Chinese Exclusion Act.
The economic crash caused by Covid-19 is on a scale that dwarfs the 2008 crash, where ‘a banking crisis in 11 advanced economies’ left Chia resilient enough to pose as a prosperous alternative. In comparison, the World Bank estimates that 60 million people will be pushed into poverty in 2020, with the virus leaving no economy untouched.
As a result, the World Trade Organisation predicts global trade to fall ‘between 13% and 32%’ this year. This provides extra incentive for UK manufacturers to export into a domestic market, and to ensure supplies can be produced nationally.
But this doesn’t mean globalisation will simply dissolve into an economic model of complete national self-sufficiency. Rather trends that were already present in the emergence of ‘regional’ supply chains and interconnected economies will increase. In 2016, ‘Asia’s intraregional trade rose to 57.3%’ and FDI within Asia increased its share from 48% to 55%.
The mistrust and uncertainty that will linger from the pandemic, will only accelerate movement towards trading with regional partners that nations and their peoples will be able to trust more.
Whilst the economy moves away from a reliance on global supply chains, the UK should use this opportunity to reshape its social contract and crucially the relationship between people and state. If one casts their mind back to April, there was a growing communitarian spirit (on a local and national level – reflected best in the weekly 8 pm clap for the NHS/Carers), alongside a ‘big state’ form of government – paying the wages of over 9 million furloughed workers.
Emanating from this time was a strong feeling of communitarianism, that helped foster and went alongside acts of welfare by the state and its institutions: whether that be the Treasury or the NHS.
This link between the state and people, which in essence was a Hobbesian need for protection, was built on a form of benevolent nationalism. That combined local acts of charity with the national welfare support provided by the government. Many remarked on the sense of national unity felt in these months, something in marked contrast to the political divisions of the last four years.
It is this national mood that should be used by politicians as an opportunity to meet the grievances both Brexit and Covid-19 revealed, as well as preparing the UK to combat the oncoming climate change threat. To succeed, ‘benevolent nationalism’ has to be built on a communitarian spirit founded in positive liberalism.
Benjamin Constant wrote that the ‘Liberalism’ in Ancient Rome was essentially a celebration of the collective, where to be free you had to be a citizen and be recognised in the public square as one. This form of liberalism has always been one closely associated with nationalism; in the sense, it excludes those not part of the ‘collective’. Something Robespierre took to the extreme in the Terror of 1793 as he murdered those who refused to be part of the ‘nation’.
Whilst his methods were abhorrent, his cause was noble and one that has been used throughout history. To be part of the nation meant you were free. To be part of the nation offered rights, otherwise not available. To be part of the nation provided economic support. This is best reflected by the Italian revolutionary Giuseppe Mazzini who rejected the idea that man was born immediately with rights, but rather that one had a duty to earn these rights through being part of the nation.
Whilst such ideology may appear exclusionary, it offers great potential in uniting groups that currently feel let down by or not part of the nation. If 2016 exposed millions of leave voters who felt ‘left behind’, the recent Black Lives Matters protests showed the extent of fragmentation in the UK and thus the need to re-establish common bonds between groups.
The role benevolent nationalism has in achieving this is found in the Italian unification movement of the 1860s. The use of nationalism in Italy was used to unite diaspora groups across the nation and to integrate Jews and Protestants into Italian society.
The integration of the Protestant minority into the country, and thereby the extension of rights to them, was helped by increased nationalism when after 1860 the ‘Waldensian began to adopt Italian and not French for religious sermons’ as well as the Church propagating the patriotic duties expected of citizens. The success of this was reflected in how there began a ‘conscious re-writing of history’, as Italian Protestants’ highlighted their impressive ‘loyalty to the Savoy monarchy’.
As the House of Savoy turned from autocratic and largely Christian into a more liberal and secular state, in pursuit of gaining support for unification, Jews, who had previously been part of the secret revolutionary societies after losing their rights at the end of the Napoleonic era, quickly participated in the armies of Garibaldi. Proportionally(based on population), there should have been one Jewish volunteer to every 1000 non-Jews and instead, there were 115 by 1860, helping to drive forward a successful creation of a unified Italy. The reflection of their importance can be seen in how the ‘the Risorgimento had many Jews’ in charge of numerous ministries and past restrictions on their rights were quickly relaxed.
A sense of national pride, which helped incorporate minority groups into the freedoms of the state, is reflected, for the Jewish case, in the Moritz Oppenheim Panting of 1834. It was this movement of minority groups becoming part of a unified ‘nation’, that helped increase their rights.
Whilst it is valid that one may argue these groups were only prepared to share in the nation because of the future rights that were promised, this is something our new British state should offer too.
This social contract, built on communitarianism and national pride, would offer the virtues of positive liberalism in the form of welfare and state support, to all those who wished to join the British state. Evidence from America reflects the pride many ethnic minorities have in the history of the US, and thus undermines the counter-argument that the British state cannot unite such groups until it shuns its past. In the US ‘70% of nearly 300 polled Latino and Asian Trump voters agreed that whites are under attack in the country and 53% endorsed the ideas that the country needed to protect and preserve its white European heritage’.
For such a bond to form between people and state, on such an unprecedented scale as in the UK, maximum transparency would need to be ensured. Modern technology can provide the solution. When the evidence for a lockdown was clear, the public followed the advice. When it was not, or advice from Government was contradictory, then frustrations grew. Technology of the kind used in Hong Kong where every found Covid-19 case can be located on a publicly available online map, is something the British state should look to use. In the Government providing regular and open evidence for where welfare and support are focussed and the reasons behind it, ensures positive liberalism does not lead to feared totalitarianism. What distinguishes today from the period Berlin, Hayek and Gurian wrote in, is the increased accountability technology offers.
A new societal settlement based on these ideas is not just what is needed today as we slowly emerge from Covid-19 but also what will be required to fight the next existential crisis: Climate Change.
Combatting climate change will require similar ‘big state’ forms of government, in welfare and infrastructure building, as well as a considerable amount of sacrifice from the public. Whole populations and towns will be submerged underwater and forced to migrate elsewhere. Such sacrifice will only be possible if it can be seen by those forced to move, that they are playing their dutiful part in protecting the nation, and in return can be expected to be supported by the British state.
It is worth remembering that it’s not human nature to live fragmented and individualised lives. Whether out of love or protection, peoples throughout history have come together as united groups. As ABBA once sang ‘When you’re gone / How can I even try to go on?’ The bonds of community have fragmented, Britain now has an opportunity to reshape them in a form that can unite the country. Otherwise, we will indeed be crying ‘SOS’.