The British State: A Warning
By Chris Nineham

Review by Anna Arnone 

Parliament, the State, and the People
We are certainly living in very interesting times politically.Is the recent election result, having delivered a massive majority to a Tory government headed by a privileged Eton/Oxford educated man renowned for his mendacity and buffoonery, a sign of real political change in how democracy UK style operates? Or is this more of the same: a supine Parliament, regardless of the Party in charge, running the country in the interests of the establishment, capital and neoliberalism, and those so rich that they effectively pay little to no tax? It appears to be business as usual. But can things change?

Author Chris Nineham

Chris Nineham (writer, founder member of the Stop the War Coalition, and activist on both a national and international stage) certainly thinks so, he says: “…my argument is not that it’s impossible to get any change, far from it. My argument is that we have to be very clinical and very honest and realistic about how you get change. And we have to understand that voting in a Left-wing government is a good thing to do; but it’s the idea that just by getting a few different people in Number 10 or in Parliament is enough in itself to take on the power of the banks and the corporations and the judges, it’s just a utopia. Sometimes people talk about the revolutionary Left as being utopian. It’s the people who think that just by getting a Jeremy that you’re going to change the world. They’re the real utopians, cos that’s fantasy.”

Nineham’s most recent book, The British State: A Warning, pulls together the key strands of how our parliamentary, state, and establishment structures have all evolved over the last couple of centuries in order to mitigate, dilute, and absorb the gains of the labouring classes. Since the Industrial Revolution and Empire, there have been a series of populist struggles to gain democratic structures which reflect and implement a society which has the needs of all its citizens central to its ethos. Despite some key gains (the NHS, welfare, improved working conditions and better wages, housing rights, nationalisation of key industries) these are being steadily clawed back. Past Labour governments have bowed to the pressure of state machinery, anxious to do the establishment’s bidding. The results for the majority of people have been devastating, as neoliberalism and globalisation have become the establishment tail wagging the UK societal dog. We have now returned to workplace exploitation and lack of workers’ rights that would make an early industrial capitalist envious.

Nineham, in this concise and very digestible volume, unpicks a complex history of give and take and shows the emphasis throughout has been on take, mainly by a rapidly evolving establishment elite anxious to preserve, if not enhance, its advantages. For example, universal suffrage was a late development in the UK and, arguably, suffrage was gradually increased in a manner that would continue to preserve the status quo. Nineham describes how real power has been kept within a set of biased state structures such as the civil service and the judiciary. Reform of these structures, he argues, is vital before any real change can occur in policy implementation or possible meaningful and lasting reform. The last chapter takes a pragmatic view of what is needed in terms of planning and strategy.

Nineham says: “…in 2017, the establishment was sort of caught off balance. They really didn’t expect Jeremy to be leader of the Labour Party, Theresa May was very confident coming into that election. There was a huge surge to Labour because the arguments that Corbyn was putting about; transforming the economy, breaking from neoliberalism, even on foreign policy, turned out to be very, very popular. And there was a real enthusiasm and a real sense of excitement about the possibility of change. In the two years that followed one thing that happened was that the establishment really got their act together…This was a very serious operation… you had this massive offensive which involved all sorts of different elements of the establishment. This was a witch hunt against [Corbyn].”

Given that last December’s election delivered such a bitter blow to Labour, and now its leadership election, as well as activity at the core of Boris Johnson’s administration, the book is oddly prophetic. 

You can hear Chris Nineham on The British State: A Warning (published by Zero Books £10.99) at a book reading, followed by a Q&A, at St Mary in the Castle starting at 6.00pm on Monday 10th February 2020, hosted by Printed Matter Bookshop and Hastings Momentum. 

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