Literature and Theatre
When Britain left the European Union in January 2021, it set out on a new journey. Shorn of empire and now the EU too, Britain’s economy is as national as it has ever been. A decade or so since globalisation seemed inevitable, this is a remarkable reversal. How did this happen?
Britain alone argues that this ‘nationalisation’ – aligning the boundaries of the state with the boundaries of the nation – emerged from the 2008 global financial crisis. The book analyses how austerity and scarcity intensified and created new conflicts over who gets what. This extends to struggle over what the British nation is for, who it represents, and who it values.
Drawing on a range of cultural, economic, and political themes – immigration and the hostile environment, nostalgia and Second World War mythology, race and the ‘left behind’, the clap for carers and furloughing, as well as SuperScrimpers and stand-up comedy – the book traces the complex nationalist path Britain took after the crash, demonstrating how we cannot explain nationalism without reference to the economy, and vice versa.
In analysing the thread that ties the fallout of the crash and austerity, through Brexit, and to the shape of lockdown politics, Britain alone provides an incisive and original history of the last decade of Britain and its relationship to the global economy.
The conclusion explores the implications of the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown for the nationalising thrust in British politics. It argues that the future of Britain will be defined by shifting the configuration of state and nation rather than just by state and market.
Chapter 4 shows how a particular meaning of inequality became salient in the post-crash years. Scandals over undeserving poor and rich groups, coupled with new evidence of increasing income and wealth inequality, gave sense that a majority ‘squeezed middle’ were suffering and losing out from a rigged system. This imagined hierarchy created the conditions for the racialising ‘left behind’ representation that helped justify the Brexit project and coalesce its unusual coalition of support – an essential move in the nationalisation process studied in this book.
Chapter 5 compares the two most significant nationalisation projects to emerge from this context: the referendums on Scottish independence and Britain’s EU membership. The chapter shows that it is not simply a coincidence that these two key questions of Britain’s constitution – Scotland and the EU – became urgent enough for referendums within eighteen months of each other. Both projects were nationalist backlashes against the British state, one from England, the other from Scotland. The chapter explores what an English revolt against the EU through nationalising Britain means.
The Introduction outlines the key puzzle of the book: how and why has Britain found itself with its formal economic authority as limited and national as it has ever been? The chapter outlines the main concept that the book uses to address this puzzle: nationalisation. The term is commonly used in a limited way to refer just to the public ownership of industry, infrastructure, utilities, etc, but here it is used to characterise the process in which the state is made more national. Through this lens, we can start to see how Britain was historically an empire-state-nation and only starting looking like a nation-state in the post-war era. That nationalisation process, however, looks quite different to the nationalisation seen in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
Chapter 7 explores how the lockdown in response to the coronavirus interacted with these nationalising moves. The key debate of the initial lockdown period saw the health of the nation pitted against the wealth of the nation, which ended up in unprecedented interventions such as furloughing that brought together nation and state. Coupled with displays of patriotism – clapping for carers, and rallying around that classic symbol of post-imperial Britishness, the NHS – one might expect this to be nationalising. Yet the response also further exposed the tensions in Britain’s constitutional set-up, pushing it further towards break-up.
Chapter 1 starts with the initial post-crash austerity era. The chapter provides a rereading of this period through nationalisation. In doing so, it shows that although austerity was justified through a ‘negative’ and economically dubious story of Labour’s fiscal irresponsibility, it was also justified through a ‘positive’ story of national renewal. To ‘live within means’ was also an implicit promise to restore the nation after a debt-fuelled moral decline. This was framed as restoring some of the values associated with Britain’s supposed historical glories and national values, thereby making the state more congruent with the nation.
Chapter 2 asks why the glories and values around the Second World War were such a prominent source of inspiration in the initial austerity period. The chapter shows how the nation was mobilised – as in, the informal boundaries of Britishness were made clear, and then people were compelled into policing those boundaries – around a nostalgic and disciplined vision of Britain. This entailed political conflict: rounding on those who refuse to commit to that vision and living within one’s means by adequately suppressing their appetites for food, sex, and shopping.
Chapter 6 analyses the Johnson government’s nationalising vision for post-Brexit Britain. By ‘unleashing Britain’s potential’ and ‘getting Brexit done’, the Johnson government promised national renewal. The chapter shows how post-EU nationalisation differs from post-imperial nationalisation: not as inward-looking in terms of global capitalism, as policies such as freeports show, and more divisive through stoking culture wars issues over the moral character of the nation.
Chapter 3 uses the recent ‘hostile environment’ changes to the NHS as an exemplar of nationalisation to explore how and why the formal and informal boundaries of British nationhood have been drawn inward. In doing so, the chapter tells the story of post-imperial and post-war British nationhood, its relationship to race and immigration, and the role of the NHS – and how these became problematised in the context of austerity and scarcity.