New Labour, Old Britain: the failure of the Westminster consensus

Between the cash for peerages affair and the ending of the Al-Yamama investigation, its been a black couple of days for British politics.

British politics, not just the Labour Party, because the Conservatives are themselves vulnerable over peerages and, naturally enough, they support the decision over Al-Yamama.

Indeed, the fag-end of the Blair premiership is demonstrating more clearly than ever, how far Labour is beholden to a very conservative consensus about Britain’s place in the world. The nature of that consensus was neatly summed-up in a 1999 article by Robin Ramsay:

Although Britain is a democracy in some senses, the ‘will of the people’ has never been extended to cover the key areas of interest to a state which was developed to run and service an empire. Defence, foreign policy, security and intelligence policy – in none of these areas can MPs or their constituents have access to official information or have any input into policy. (The Wilson plots, Variant issue 8)

Stephen Dorril makes the same point in his history of MI6, originally published in 2000:

Questions concerning these major foreign policy issues and the status of an intelligence service in what is a medium-ranking state are carefully avoided. British policy circles are still obsessed with the country – as Douglas Hurd put it – ‘punching above its weight’ which requires extensive intelligence-gathering capabilities. They have never shaken off the all-too-accurate jibe of  former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson that Britain had lost an empire but had not found a new role. (MI6: Inside the Covert World of Her Majesty’s Secret Intelligence Service, P780)

Tom Nairn expresses the same idea in his 1988 critique of the monarchy:

the aim of Greatness in retreat can only be to cling to a ‘crossroads’ location and status for as long as possible. The Royal Bomb was created for this political purpose alone, like the rest of the post-war U.K.’s relatively huge Defence budget…

… British political life exists to service Greatness. This is its origin, the logic of its evolution and the condition of its survival. A functional mercantile centrality forged the long duration of its history, and imagined centrality remains its idealogical lifeblood. (The Enchanted Glass: Britain and its Monarchy, P253-254)

The limits of that consensus are particularly visible at the moment, in the Al-Yamama deal, in the drive to replace Trident, in the prospect of a British Prime Minister indulging his delusions of grandeur in the Middle East fifty years after Suez, and above all, of course, in the Iraq debacle. On none of these issues is there a straightforward party divide between Labour and the Tories.

Even the SNP, the only major party in Britain which is consistently challenging this orthodoxy, has some voices that would like to take it into the ‘Westminster consensus.’

Nevertheless, it is the SNP which has made the running on cash for peerages, and latterly on Iraq. An SNP victory in the Scottish elections next May might be the one thing that could overturn the Westminster consensus.






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