North of Birmingham, East of Suez and the Uses of Declinism

Posted in: Brexit, Democracy and voter preference, Political history, Political ideologies, UK politics

Professor Nick Pearce is Director of the Institute for Policy Research (IPR) and Professor of Public Policy at the University of Bath. 

The Prime Minister’s decision to cancel the extension of HS2 North of Birmingham to Manchester has symbolic dimensions, as much as practical and political ones. It registers both the denuded capabilities of the UK state, falling at the hurdle of building major infrastructure, and its over-centralisation, bestowing the power to determine the fate of an inter-generational national project on a temporary occupant of high office. It encapsulates, with dismal inevitability, the failure of the UK to ‘level up’ its deep and persistent regional economic inequalities, and it parades the political impotence of its elected city leaders in the face of the power of the Treasury and No10. Above all, the cancellation of HS2 to Manchester speaks to a wider sense of national decline, of an era in which nothing works and the UK is in retreat. It is a recessional moment, a domestic if less historic version of the Wilson government’s announcement in 1968 that the UK’s world role East of Suez would be brought to a close – only this time, the territory in question is the home soil itself, and it is not ‘far called’ navies that melt away, but diggers and earth moving machines.

Declinism in the study of the British economy has been thoroughly debunked by economic historians in recent years, at least insofar as the UK’s twentieth century economic record is concerned. But myths of decline have been mobilised by political parties repeatedly since the late 19th century. As Andrew Gamble puts it in a typically erudite and thoughtful piece in the New Statesman, for ‘over a century decline has been one of the organising frameworks shaping perceptions, debates and policy choices in Britain.’ For Gamble, the question of decline comes to the fore whenever there is a significant change in geopolitics and burgeoning debate about Britain’s role in the world: first, with the late Victorian social imperialist response to the rising power of Germany and the USA, then again at the end of British financial supremacy and liberal world order in the 1930s, and in a third phase after decolonisation, entry to the European Community and the crises of the 1970s paved the way for the New Right assault on the nationally managed economy.

In this schema, contemporary declinism accompanies Brexit and the national disorientation that has followed the upending of the consensus that the UK’s post-imperial role had been settled within the European Union. Prior to Brexit, the Conservative Right mobilised declinist discourses against the European Union. For insurgent Brexiteers, remaining in the EU ‘shackled the UK to a corpse’. Leaving the EU would enable the rebirth of a global and oceanic power, trading with the rising economies of Asia, not wedded to an over-regulated, sclerotic European bloc. Boris Johnson decried the Wilson government’s decision to call time on the UK’s East of Suez defence commitments as a moment of national defeatism. ‘Global Britain’ would restore optimism, purpose and vigour to the national polity.

For a while, Johnson’s ‘cakeism’ could paper over the manifest divisions between those who supported Brexit in order to limit immigration, re-regulate the national economy and increase regional public spending, and those for whom leaving the EU would enable the completion of a global, neo-liberal project for the UK (This division had an obvious North-South inflexion, as reactions inside the Conservative Party to the cancellation of HS2 North of Birmingham demonstrate.) To ‘Get Brexit Done’, Johnson mobilised an anti-declinist, optimistic account of Britain’s future.

But post-Covid, the political economy underpinning Johnson’s project has come apart and a new politics of Conservative declinism has emerged in its aftermath, for the most part incubated on the Right of the party. For nationalist elements, it is mobilised around culture wars and takes its cue from Trump and the European Far Right on immigration, the liberal ‘woke’ elite and perceived threats to national identity. For the Thatcherite Right, the animating drive is economic decline and the lack of economic growth, which motivate the case for cutting taxes and public spending, and deregulating planning and the labour market.

For obvious reasons, the Prime Minister cannot readily affiliate himself to either of these declinist accounts, despite his forays into the culture wars and his downgrading of Net Zero ambitions. So he has chosen instead to focus his account on the decline of politics and decision-making, castigating his predecessors for failing to act in the long-term national interest. Yet devoid as this is of any account of the economy or society, it falls largely on deaf ears. It generates a somewhat arid and marginal, if worthy, policy agenda. It does not speak to popular anxieties or diagnose the state of the country in a way that can renew the Conservative Party’s claim to be agents of change.

That leaves open the question of whether the Labour Party will marshal a more convincing account of national decline at its conference next week; that is, whether it will supply a convincing framing of the UK’s economic malaise, the withering of its public services and social security, and its precarious place in the world, and then articulate these challenges to a new project of national renewal. Thus far, it has chosen the path of modesty and caution instead, foreswearing larger accounts of decline and revival in favour of plausible and achievable change. In the long, drawn-out grind of a cost-of-living crisis, grandiose claims to national revival may fall on stony ground. But that approach has political risks too, and unless it can secure the mantle of change, the Labour leadership may yet find that the current crisis goes to waste. That, at least, is what the Prime Minister is betting on.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of the IPR, nor of the University of Bath.

Posted in: Brexit, Democracy and voter preference, Political history, Political ideologies, UK politics


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