Sunday, December 29, 2019

England’s Dreaming (2019)

Book Review from the June 2019 issue of the Socialist Standard

Mike Wayne: England’s Discontents: Political Cultures and National Identities. Pluto Press. 2018.

This is an attempt to make sense of political cultures and national identities with a particular focus on England in the light of both Brexit and moves towards Scottish independence. It is influenced heavily by the Italian quasi-Marxist Antonio Gramsci and his concept of hegemony. As such, much of the book is concerned with the formation of political cultures and identities – and how these inform national identity and political movements.

It is full of phrases like ‘highly multi-accentual’ and ‘counter-hegemonic organic intellectuals’ and so if you have an aversion to this sort of academic ‘discourse’ the book is not for you. Nevertheless, there are some good points within it and it is generally worth persevering. Much of it is concerned with the identification of ideologies and their key characteristics, mainly conservatism, economic liberalism, social liberalism and social democracy. Wayne explains the differences that characterise them and the relationships between them, including how they have often interlinked to form dominant ‘hegemonic blocs’ in various periods of modern British history. The most recent and notable has been the alliance between conservatism and economic liberalism, an alliance which is now facing various challenges as well as internal contradictions.

These inherent tensions between conservatism and economic liberalism are brought out well and mean that economic liberalism periodically finds common cause with social liberalism instead (as under Blair). This is because conservatism finds expression in three important strands of identity that the market economy of capitalism tends to undermine or contradict as a matter of course – ethnic/religious identity, national identity and ‘deep-history’ identifications (ie, tradition, routines and rituals, etc). As Wayne explains rather neatly:
  ‘Together these three strands attempt to create a moral framework for an economic system that does not have one, a point of national identification for a mode of production whose expansionary logic cannot be contained within the nation-state and a slowing down of historical change for a revolutionary change-obsessed mode of production’ (p.69).
These are the types of tensions he sees as having helped (among other things) fuel populism in recent years and it’s difficult to disagree. Sadly, as a counter-balance Wayne seems to be a calling for the recreation of the historic bloc that was based, in his terms, on the alliance of social liberalism and social democracy that dominated the post-war period in the UK until it started to break down in the 1970s and was rolled back in the 80s. He sees leftist Scottish nationalism as a potential vehicle for rekindling this and seriously underplays the negative role that nationalism plays in countries like Scotland where it is not as overtly right-wing and conservative as it typically is in places like England. But it is interesting too, that much polling evidence shows that the ideological make-up of the Scottish population is actually rather less different than is often supposed to that of England and Wales, especially on major left/right issues – and this goes unmentioned.

Also unmentioned is any real sense of what socialism might mean. It is a word used occasionally in historic contexts but it is never really made apparent what this is or how it might relate to (or seek to oppose) the other ideologies – or, for that matter, the tendencies some of them have helped foster that Wayne finds abhorrent in modern English political culture.
Dave Perrin

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