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Satnam Virdee & Brendan McGeever. Britain in Fragments: Why things are falling apart

Nicolas Sigoillot
Bibliographical reference

Satnam Virdee & Brendan McGeever. Britain in Fragments: Why things are falling apart, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2023, ISBN: 978-1-5261-6459-9.

Full text

1The greatest beauty in the field that is history, to a materialist, is the unravelling of the threads that lead to contemporary situations. Britain in Fragment is doing just that. This book, published in the Manchester University Press by Satnam Virdee, professor of Sociology at the University of Glasgow and Brendan McGeever, senior lecturer in Sociology at Birbeck at the University of London, takes as a starting point the two most recent referendums of British History : the 2016 Brexit Referendum and the 2014 Scottish Independence one as proofs of a racial, social and democratic fragmentation of the country as well as the expression of nationalistic secessionism. From that point they decide to unravel the reasons for this situation. But instead of looking at the main figures of the event, the debates in the houses of parliament, and the actions/decisions of main political leaders, McGeever and Virdee decide to reexamine the periods of the build-up of the democratic settlement in Britain. They proceed to do so by demystifying the conventional wisdom one might have about those periods, by looking closely at the cracks under the mythical varnish associated with them, with a precision that only sociology can bring.

2The introduction of the book maintains conciseness without compromising academic expectations, while also catering to non-academic readers, as the authors intended. It clearly delineates the questions addressed in the book, primarily focusing on the nature of the democratic settlement established in Britain in the mid-19th century and the factors contributing to its unravelling. Each chapter is introduced with a brief summary, elucidating its connection to the book's overarching theme. While the authors' theoretical framework could have been articulated more clearly in the introduction, they consistently provide references and lucid explanations of their approach throughout the book. The introduction addresses potential criticisms by explaining the authors' decision to focus on England and Scotland, where the expression of the United Kingdom's frailty is most crucial, despite acknowledging that fragmentation processes are also occurring in Ireland and Wales. From a historian's perspective, it is understandable why they needed to focus on England and Scotland, indeed, while there is definitively a lot of reasons to see Northern Ireland as being fragmented, those are the expression of different historical events and Brexit ripples are only adding to the consequences of these events.

3The first chapter of the book, entitled “A flawed democracy”, deals with the process of democratisation in Britain throughout the late 19th century, through the second and third reform acts of 1867 and 1884 and the beginning of the formation of the political expression of the Trade Unions through the formation of the Labour Party by the end of the century. Those two iconic moments of the democratisation of the country are carefully deconstructed by the authors. The reform acts are shown to be political calculations, rooted in the perspectives of deeply racist and aware individuals, with numerous quotations of Gladstone and Disraeli provided to illustrate the fact that they made clear the process of democratisation of the country was limited and confined to the making of what Karl Marx would call an aristocracy of the British Proletariat, described in the book as being anglo-saxon, and excluding racialised workers, of whom the Irish Celts were part of. The quotes provided are accurate and on point, some well-known (Gladstone explaining that enfranchising a part of the workers would prevent having “one class combining against other classes”), some less known and more confidential (Disraeli explaining that “[Britain does] not, however live – and I trust it will never be the fate of this country to live – under a democracy”. This is put in perspective in the chapter with the genealogy of the Labour Party, explaining that its imperialistic nature finds its roots in nationalistic and Christian sentiments, Fabianism. The authors further elaborate on this by showing how the Labour Party contributed to the maintenance of the empire by reinforcing the narrative of British exceptionalism where “the class struggle would be confined within the borders of the nation-State” making the working-class “an integral member of the superior race that rules the world”.

4The second chapter of the book, entitled “the underside of the welfare state” is dedicated to a reappraisal of the period of the democratic settlement of the Post-War consensus. In this chapter the authors proceed to explain that the equation of the development of a strong welfare state combined with an important economic growth for nearly 30 years was possible only through first of the exploitation of the Empire and then of an racial underclass at home to the point where the authors conclude that “racism formed a constitutive feature of this final phase of the democratic settlement”. They then go on by showing how the Labour Party played an integral role in this development, notably by defending the Empire and fostering anti-immigrant narratives. The evolution of the Communist Party of Great Britain towards a more nationalistic logic is also evoked in a subchapter. Interestingly, the role of the trade unions in this period is reassessed and the authors show how the unions moved from an initial logic of clear racism (with the example of the use of the closed shop principle to bar the entry of racial workers to certain jobs) which was caused mostly by the use of immigrant workers as a reserve army of cheap labour by the capitalist class, towards a more frontist and broad-class logic that integrated the struggles of racial minorities when pressure on the working class as a whole increased, for example, after the passage of industrial relations act of 1971 by the Heath Government.

5The third chapter, entitled “anti-racism, socialism and the neoliberal reaction” deals with the rise of an intersectional socialist progressive movement in the country and its subsequent destruction by Thatcherism. It thus explores the neoliberal consensus in the late 1970s and 1980s and its breakup of the democratic settlement and of the post-war consensus around the welfare state that began after World War II. This chapter offers an interesting perspective as it re-examines the rise of neoliberalism through the lens of anti-racism. Examples of events that brought to the forefront multiethnic resistances that became integrated into the class politics of the Labour movement are given, such as the Grunwick strike of 1976 led mostly by Asian women or the development of cultural movements such as Rock against Racism, which emerged the same year. The chapter then proceeds to explain that the capitalist assault on the working class during the Thatcherian era managed to dismantle those multiethnic resistances concurrently with methodically dismantling the organized labour movement. This occurred both structurally, through neoliberal reforms of the state, and culturally, by imposing a new narrative. In this narrative, enemies such as socialists, feminists, or militant anti-racists were portrayed as obstacles to the neoliberal revolution, which the authors characterise as a counter-revolution.

6The fourth chapter, entitled “New Labour and remaking class”, explores how the New Labour project aligned itself with the neoliberal revolution in that it pursued the same free market-oriented politics and also rejected the socialist interpretation of class. The authors show that the rhetoric of Tony Blair, Philip Gould, Gordon Brown and other New Labour figures replaced the class dialectic based on capitalist exploitation with a new one, that of those who play by the rules, accept the new neoliberal settlement, work hard, and are considered deserving, and those who don’t fit in, are not hardworking and reject the new settlement and are considered undeserving. The creation of this powerful narrative, that of “middle England” served to impose what the authors term “social neoliberalism”, which rewards those who conform to market logic and which relies on workfare rather than welfare. This social-neoliberal state is one that is described by Virdee and McGeever as excluding and stigmatising the most vulnerable in society. More importantly, the compromission of New Labour with the neoliberal settlement its failure to deliver social support to the most vulnerable increased resentment among the lower classes and their sense of exclusion which would ultimately led them to reject what they perceived as a false choice between two parties that ultimately did not contribute to their social inclusion.

7The fifth and final chapter, “Austerity, Scottish Independence, Brexit” is the culminating point of the opus, in which everything that was tackled on in the previous chapters provides insight into recent events. The authors demonstrate how the destruction of socialist and progressive resistance under the conservative governments of 1979-1997, and the Labour Party's inability to break from this paradigm while in power, combined with the austerity implemented by the Conservative governments after the 2008 crisis, paved the way for the current fragmentation of Britain. The Scottish independence referendum was caused by the slow and steady rise of the SNP, which the authors argue appeared (but according to them, was not) a social-democratic alternative to New Labour, as it recaptured the Old Labour rhetoric (while failing to address race issues), and garnered support as a conduit for class expression in a nation traumatized by the anti-Scottish narrative of Thatcherism, where Labour had previously dominated. A parallel is then drawn with the Brexit vote, which evolved into a nationalistic expression of disenfranchised groups, those abandoned by the Neoliberal counter-revolution. These groups were swayed by narratives promising to restore Britain's greatness, protect its workers from external threats (such as immigration), and reclaim control such as those of Farage or Johnson. The subsequent shift of traditionally Labour constituencies to the Conservative Party in 2019 serves as further evidence of this nationalistic withdrawal.

8McGeever and Virdee’s book is a well-crafted work, which is both easy to read and follow. It also possesses a pedagogical quality, guiding its readers back to the 19th century and systematically explaining, decade by decade, in a simple yet comprehensive manner, how Britain arrived at its current unstable, fragmented state in the 2020s. Every concept is elucidated, from the undemocratic nature of the late 19th-century reform acts and the imperialism of Fabianism and Labour up to the 1960s, to the rise of the New Left, the politics of race and blackness, and the neoliberal settlement, including New Labour’s commitment to it.

9The book is uncompromising in both its academic quality, with numerous academic references and primary sources, and its educative value. One could easily delve into this relatively short book without a deep or detailed knowledge of the period and still learn a great deal while grasping the authors' points. This makes it a valuable read for both students and those seeking a better understanding of the current situation in the early 2020s. As a historian myself, I found it highly enjoyable; it challenged me by approaching familiar subjects from new angles, particularly those related to race, and taught me many new things on these topics. It will now feature in the bibliographies I provide to my political science students for both advanced and beginner British Political history classes. I strongly recommend it to anyone reading these lines.

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References

Electronic reference

Nicolas Sigoillot, “Satnam Virdee & Brendan McGeever. Britain in Fragments: Why things are falling apartMiranda [Online], 29 | 2024, Online since 19 April 2024, connection on 22 June 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/58767; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/miranda.58767

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About the author

Nicolas Sigoillot

Professeur Agrégé - Histoire politique de la Grande Bretagne /Docteur en Civilisation Britannique
SciencesPo Lyon
nicolas.sigoillot@sciencespo-lyon.fr

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Copyright

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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