Fragments in a Setting Sun
A Review of Satnam Virdee’s and Brendan McGeever’s Britain in Fragments: Why Things Are Falling Apart
November 15, 2023
“Declinism about Britain is just wrong. It’s always been wrong in the past, and it’s wrong today.”11. Jeremy Hunt, “‘Declinism about Britain is Just Wrong’—Jeremy Hunt,” Sky News, January 27, 2023. These were the words spoken by Jeremy Hunt, the seventh Chancellor of the Exchequer to govern Britain’s economy in thirteen years of Conservative rule. In this speech, delivered earlier this year, Hunt launched a defensive tirade against the nation’s critics, denying Britain’s grim future prospects.
During the past fifteen years, successive British administrations have been rocked by shock after shock. There was little substantive recovery from either the 2008 financial crash or the COVID–19 recession, the latter of which saw the Tories preside over the deaths of more than two hundred thousand people as a result of a poorly handled pandemic response. Britain’s relationship with its largest trading partner, the European Union, was severed by civil war in the Conservative Party, and its outspilling into the general population.
This multinational state came teeteringly close to witnessing its second largest nation, Scotland, declare independence. Hunt’s predecessor, Kwasi Kwarteng, alongside then-Prime Minister Liz Truss, were overthrown in less than two months, as their high-spend, tax-cutting mini-budget met the fury of the global markets and the Bank of England. Now Hunt, alongside current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, preside over an economy which continues to show higher, more sustained rates of inflation, and lower, less consistent rates of growth than either the EU or US.22. Darren Dodd, “UK ‘Global Outlier’ as Inflation Dails to Dall,’” Financial Times, June 22, 2023.
Satnam Virdee and Brendan McGeever’s new title, Britain in Fragments: Why Things Are Falling Apart, is a serious attempt to grapple with the existential dilemmas facing British capitalism. They have no time for the banal platitudes which usually pass for political commentary. Virdee and McGeever contend that what we are currently witnessing is the slow demise of Britain’s democratic settlement as we know it, arguing that this process has been underway since the demise of empire itself.
Both authors are scholars of the relationship between capitalism, class, and processes of racialisation. Virdee is the author of Racism, Class and the Racialised Outsider, a phenomenal analysis of the emergence of racism as a structuring force in British class society, and the antiracist resistance of both “racialized outsiders” and “proletarian internationalists.”33. Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (London: Bloomsbury, 2014). Utilizing a kindred theoretical framework, McGeever’s breakout book,Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution, takes a similar tact, analysing the constitutive role that anti-semitism played in worker and peasant uprisings of early twentieth century Russia, paying close attention to the contradictory and often ineffectual response of leading Bolsheviks.44. Brendan McGeever, Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
It is with the heuristics developed in these volumes that both authors approach Britain in Fragments. It portrays a double movement across the course of British history. On the one hand, the multiracial, multinational British working classes engaged in explosive cycles of class struggle, challenging the power of capital and empire. On the other hand, the rulers of British imperial capitalism, under the threat of insurgency, regularly sought to stymie popular radicalisms by expanding the democratic settlement and absorbing strata of popular society into the orbit of the national community. This process was borne out episodically in moments like the Chartist upheaval of the mid-nineteenth century.
Part of their argument, drawing critically upon the Nairn–Anderson thesis, is that the raw materials which enabled the absorption of layers of the popular classes into the national community already existed in the traditions, cultures, and lifeworlds of the English working classes.55. Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, “Origins of the Present Crisis,” New Left Review I–23 (January/February, 1964): 26–53. According to the authors, this was in no small part the consequence of Britain’s archaic political structures—the result of an incomplete bourgeois revolution—which held it back from completing its capitalist development.
As the nation is modernity’s political form, one has to develop a sense of its ideological valences and structuring effects. The stringent separation between the political and economic spheres which would become the common sense of Labourism, and sections of the extra-Parliamentary left, was only realizable alongside racisms which “could secure the acquiescence of parts of the subaltern class.”66. Satnam Virdee and Brendan McGeever, Britain in Fragments: Why Things Are Falling Apart (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2023), 22.
As Virdee and McGeever write, racism was pivotal to “symbolically and materially revaluing some parts of the population while simultaneously devaluing others,” and it was deployed by elites with the intent of “engineering a chasm within the working class.”77. Ibid. This chasm would bolster a separation within working class consciousness between economics and politics, obstructing a broader critique of the British social formation as a racial, national, and imperial force.
Underlying Virdee’s and McGeever’s intervention is a concern that “the working class had been invited to forget the contentious history of class war” and reimagine “themselves afresh as integral members of an imperial nation united by race.”88. Ibid., 35. The period inaugurated after the second world war reflected this concern. As the authors detail, in office, the post-war Labour government was committed to preserving the British empire. As Ernest Bevin, former trade union leader and Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in the post-war Atlee-led government made clear, “I am not prepared to sacrifice the British Empire … because I know that if the British Empire fell … it would mean the standard of life of our constituents would fall considerably.”99. Ibid., 44. The claim that the working classes of the Global North benefit from imperialism is contested among Marxists.
Out of power, the DIY trade unionism of the Fordist factory floor was accompanied by a DIY racism too, as shopfloor workers practiced a form of “social closure” against newly arrived Caribbean and Asian workers, reimagining themselves as white in the process.1010. Ibid., 47. Before Enoch Powell’s racist “Rivers of Blood” speech against the Race Relations Bill inspired dockers and porters to strike in support, unionized workplaces were already using closed shops, quota systems, and the threat of wildcat strikes to ensure the exclusion of Caribbean and Asian workers.
The backdrop to this racially hierarchized class system was a shift in the locus of British capitalism. Contrary to the perspective articulated by Virdee and McGeever, Britain in the sixties was gripped by what David Edgerton in The Rise and Fall of the British Nation has described as an “economic nationalism” channelled through a “developmental state.”1111. David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History (London: Penguin Books, 2018). While Virdee and McGeever see the period as one characterized by “archaic imperial structures no longer fit for purpose, over-dependence on finance capital and signs of a decline in the productivity of British industry,”1212. Virdee and McGeever, Britain in Fragments, 52. Edgerton argues that in fact manufacturing had become the productive hotbed of a British national capitalism, secured by “national and nationalist policy … [such as] protection, support for investment, discriminatory taxes and nationalistic procurement.”1313. Edgerton, Rise and Fall of the British Nation, 311.
This national capitalism was structured around the birth of a specifically “proletarian whiteness,” as coined by Alastair Bonnett.1414. Alastair Bonnett, “How the British Working Class Became White: The Symbolic (Re)formulation of Racialised Capitalism,” Sociology Lens 11, no. 3 (September, 1998): 316–40. Unmistakably bound up with Britain’s imperial decline, the shifting spatial scales of its territory, and the desire on the part of its ruling class to renovate the social formation in the wake of empire, this historical shift matters for three reasons. First, it allows us to see how whiteness is crystallized in post-war Britain around a nationalized and racialized class politics defined against postcolonial migrants. Second, it informs us of shifts in class formation and a racialized division of labor, as migrant workers from the former colonies took low wage, labor-intensive jobs in declining industries such as textiles, transport, and healthcare, while white workers were often employed in higher paid, capital-intensive manufacturing jobs. And third, it breaks from a linear perspective on British history which sees every next crisis as the result of Britain’s incomplete bourgeois revolution and subsequent political backwardness.
This is not to imply that Britain was shorn of issues, particularly in the 1960s and 1970s. Overly dependent on the USA as the new global hegemon, and particularly vulnerable to the global bout of manufacturing overcapacity which would structure the political and industrial arena over the next few decades, successive British governments would try and fail, in the face of deindustrialisation, to stem the increasing militancy of workers.
In this respect, a critical strength of Britain in Fragments is its vital retelling of working class history during these crisis years. It neither detracts from the forms of racism reproduced by white workers, trade union leaders, or Labour politicians, nor does it scoff at the complicated ways in which proletarian internationalists sought to pry racism apart from the workers movement. The authors write of the disproportionate effect that Thatcherism had on Caribbean and Asian workers, the first to be thrown onto the dole queue, which left surplus to the requirements of capital.
But they also think through the reconstitution of the racial politics of Thatcherism and the New Right, aware of how “she and the neoliberals around her understood that the socialist anti-racist politics of the 1970s had rehumanised black and brown Britons.” Splits in the opinion of white Britons meant that “repatriation was no longer a viable political option” and so an “ideological renovation” was required in order to “distance themselves from the fascists while at the same re-inscribing racism afresh through nationalism.”1515. Virdee and McGeever, Britain in Fragments, 87. As Virdee and McGeever write:
This was reflected powerfully during the 1983 General Election, where a poster of a young man of Caribbean descent dressed in a suit was underscored by the strapline ‘Labour says he’s black, we say he’s British.’ It signalled to the wider population that black and brown Britons were here to stay, particularly if they assimilated and lived by the dominant cultural norms.1616. Ibid., 52.
Though one could question the long-term success of such a pivot by the Conservatives, it was certainly made more conducive by the defeats they were visiting upon the British working classes. The “spirit and combativity of large sections of the multi-ethnic working class” were devastated as “the technical decomposition of class” was imposed through this neoliberal counterrevolution.1717. Ibid., 90.
Large battalions of workers were defeated by Thatcher’s determination to break the labor movement with all the economic, physical, and legal might at her disposal. The defeat of the working class was also “accompanied by its political decomposition, as measured by the defeat of once powerful cultures of solidarity and socialist infrastructure built up over the course of the twentieth century.”1818. Ibid. Although in England this may have led to an increased “class disidentification,” in Scotland the opposite occurred: “At the 1979 General Election, Labour won twice as many seats in Scotland as the Conservatives (44 to 22), and by 1987 they held five times as many (50 to 10).”1919. Ibid.
Another strength of Britain in Fragments is the assessment of Tony Blair’s and Gordon Brown’s New Labour. Virdee and McGeever take a sober approach to the “Janus-faced nature” of Blairism, identifying its early embrace of multiculturalism while taking seriously the contradictions of such a commitment and the failure of its key representatives to live up to the promise. In practice, New Labour’s commitment to multiculturalism was tested when a report on multi-ethnic Britain, which was initially welcomed by Home Secretary Jack Straw, was lambasted in the right-wing press, “who took umbrage at the report’s anodyne observation that Britishness was still associated with whiteness.”2020. Ibid., 101.
After The Sun and The Daily Mail had denounced the report, the latter as “an ‘offence to Britain’s indigenous population’,” Jack Straw speedily rejected the report’s findings, “declaring his and the New Labour government’s commitment to patriotism.”2121. Ibid. Jack Straw would later remark that “we should not allow so much as a cigarette card to come between the Labour party and the Tory government on immigration.”2222. Ibid., 109.
The class politics of New Labour were not much better. As well as overseeing an increased share of capital in the hands of the top 10 per cent of income earners, the doyens of Blairism were keen to reformulate class politics as a contest pitting those “aspirational” and “hardworking families” against the lazy skivers of Britain’s dole queues, kicking “away the pillar of class that had sustained the democratic settlement, removing not only a key source of its own historic legitimacy, but that of the British state as well.”2323. Ibid., 102–3. In the wake of New Labour, thirteen years of Conservative rule have devastated the living conditions of the vast majority of the British population.
The frailties of Britain’s democratic settlement, and the increasingly frustrated sense of its working classes towards it, have shaken the British social formation more times than our rulers will have liked. While the radicalism of the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum was firmly absorbed into the Scottish National Party’s political machinery well before Nicola Sturgeon’s fall from grace in a corruption scandal, these energies may be refracted in another form. Furthermore, while Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings were able to cohere the 2016 Brexit vote into a battering ram to both destroy Jeremy Corbyn’s radicalization of the Labour Party and win a Conservative majority, that moment is well and truly over, scuppered by Johnson’s own hubris in the Partygate scandal, and the subsequent Truss debacle.
This brings me to a slight disagreement. The thesis laid out in Britain in Fragments is a decidedly one-sided account of “why things are falling apart.” In some respects, there is a benefit to this. It is tragically rare for historians to take so seriously the role of subaltern classes in the determination of history. Yet, if one wants to understand the decline of Britain as a multinational polity, one must also consider the decomposition of its ruling classes.
Through several waves of privatization, state capacity has been severely scaled back. The fact that the country’s infrastructure is breaking at the seams is in no small part because of the austerian choices made by the British political classes. This ruling class has become shorn of its ability to cohere a “collective capitalist” that can reproduce both the nation’s stability, and healthy conditions of capital accumulation as well.
The national capitalism of post-imperial Britain was succeeded by a globalized neo-liberal capitalism of which Britain was a small component. As I have written elsewhere, the contemporary ruling class is less internally cogent, absent forms of collective association, and remarkably more global in character.2424. Jonas Marvin, “The Tory Crisis Didn’t Start With Liz Truss and It Won’t End With Her: The Rot Runs Deep,” Novara Media, October 26, 2022. The interactions between this elite and the Conservative Party do not represent an organized power bloc constituted by captains of industry and their political bedfellows.
Today’s captains of industry are the financial capitalists who bear the primary relationship between state and capital. Far more short-termist than industrial capitalists, financial capitalists are perpetually “fomenting in constant, chaotic change [such as] mergers, downsizing, the immediate maximisation of shareholder value, takeovers, and restructures.”2525. Duncan Thomas, “The Long Conservative Decline,” RS21: Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century, November 21, 2019.
Additionally, as the late Neil Davidson detailed, while the elected political wing of state managers has become increasingly depoliticized—such as Gordon Brown’s granting independence to the unelected Bank of England—so too has the unelected, non-political wing of the government, the civil service, become increasingly politicized. These factors, combined with the closing political space between the two major parties and the relative absence of class struggle, have played a major part in British capitalism’s decline and its decaying democratic settlement.2626. Neil Davidson, “Neoliberalism as the Agent of Capitalist Self-Destruction,” Salvage, May 4, 2020.
Finally, I want to build upon a brief note of optimism conveyed by Virdee and McGeever. They argue that “the ‘wages of whiteness’ no longer deliver the scale of material advantage they once did.”2727. Virdee and McGeever, Britain in Fragments, 52. I’ll go one further. Survey after survey shows that the British public is becoming increasingly more progressive over race. According to the latest British Social Attitudes Survey, 45 percent of the public—up from 25 percent in 2000—thought that equal rights for Black and Asian people “had not gone far enough.”2828. Patrick Butler, “Majority of UK Public Agree with Liberal Views on Race and Sexual Identity,” The Guardian, September 22, 2022.
In a similar vein, according to the UK in the World Values survey, British attitudes towards immigration are among the most positive internationally.2929. The Policy Institute, King’s College London, “UK Attitudes to Immigration: How the Public Became More Positive,” The UK in the World Values Survey (February 2023), https://www.kcl.ac.uk/policy-institute/assets/uk-attitudes-to-immigration-1018742pub01-115.pdf. This is not to suggest complacency. The country is led by a Home Secretary who would not feel out of place on the far right. The fascists, while disorganized and small, have the capacity to instigate riotous moral panics, such as those recently witnessed in Knowsley.3030. Diane Taylor, “Far-right Protesters Clash with Police at Merseyside Hotel Housing Asylum Seekers,” The Guardian, February 10, 2023. And the murderous treatment of refugees is reaching new heights as the Rwanda Asylum Plan and prison boats become the go-to resorts of this nativist government.
Yet, there is an opportunity for socialists and antiracists to throw our efforts towards directing the majoritarian antiracist impulses of the British public against the ever-growing actions of this racist government. The challenge lies in figuring out how we can do so in a period of relatively low social struggle, of which the current strike wave and the inspiring Black Lives Matter protests were welcome ruptures.
In that spirit, Britain in Fragments is an indispensable, timely, must-read contribution. Virdee and McGeever provide us with a rigorous analysis of processes of racialization, an immersive knowledge of British history, and a keen sense of antiracist and socialist principles. As we prosecute the struggle for a liberated world, I’m sure we will find ourselves regularly returning to this book for vital lessons and analysis. ×
- Jeremy Hunt, “‘Declinism about Britain is Just Wrong’—Jeremy Hunt,” Sky News, January 27, 2023.
- Darren Dodd, “UK ‘Global Outlier’ as Inflation Dails to Dall,’” Financial Times, June 22, 2023.
- Satnam Virdee, Racism, Class and the Racialized Outsider (London: Bloomsbury, 2014).
- Brendan McGeever, Antisemitism and the Russian Revolution (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019).
- Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, “Origins of the Present Crisis,” New Left Review I–23 (January/February, 1964): 26–53.
- Satnam Virdee and Brendan McGeever, Britain in Fragments: Why Things Are Falling Apart (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2023), 22.
- Ibid., 35.
- Ibid., 44. The claim that the working classes of the Global North benefit from imperialism is contested among Marxists.
- Ibid., 47.
- David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History (London: Penguin Books, 2018).
- Virdee and McGeever, Britain in Fragments, 52.
- Edgerton, Rise and Fall of the British Nation, 311.
- Alastair Bonnett, “How the British Working Class Became White: The Symbolic (Re)formulation of Racialised Capitalism,” Sociology Lens 11, no. 3 (September, 1998): 316–40.
- Virdee and McGeever, Britain in Fragments, 87.
- Ibid., 52.
- Ibid., 90.
- Ibid., 101.
- Ibid., 109.
- Ibid., 102–3.
- Jonas Marvin, “The Tory Crisis Didn’t Start With Liz Truss and It Won’t End With Her: The Rot Runs Deep,” Novara Media, October 26, 2022.
- Duncan Thomas, “The Long Conservative Decline,” RS21: Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century, November 21, 2019.
- Neil Davidson, “Neoliberalism as the Agent of Capitalist Self-Destruction,” Salvage, May 4, 2020.
- Virdee and McGeever, Britain in Fragments,
- Patrick Butler, “Majority of UK Public Agree with Liberal Views on Race and Sexual Identity,” The Guardian, September 22, 2022.
- The Policy Institute, King’s College London, “UK Attitudes to Immigration: How the Public Became More Positive,” The UK in the World Values Survey (February 2023), https://www.kcl.ac.uk/policy-institute/assets/uk-attitudes-to-immigration-1018742pub01-115.pdf.
- Diane Taylor, “Far-right Protesters Clash with Police at Merseyside Hotel Housing Asylum Seekers,” The Guardian, February 10, 2023.