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Ruling Britannia: Failure and Future of British Democracy Paperback – 2 May 1996
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This is an important book. Behind a wilfully silly and facetious style that seems designed to irritate and interrupt, Andrew Marr, political columnist of The Independent, has given us a serious and worrying analysis of the state of politics and government in Britain today. He brings out three topical themes in particular. A Conservative administration which professes itself intent to limit and diminish the power of the state has in fact concentrated power in its own hands still further. Many of the changes it has introduced have replaced openly accountable bodies with organizations answerable only to ministers. In doing so it has contributed to a process already in train that is diminishing - some would say destroying - the reputation and authority of poli-tics and of the state.
Most of Mr Marr's analysis concerns Britain's domestic arrangements, and is perhaps not a fit subject for review in an international journal. But at the heart of the book, between pages 162 and 229, he gives us a brilliantly observed and sus-tained account of `The Decline and Fall of the Free State'. Here at least half his argument concerns Britain's external circum-stances, and demonstrates vividly that the plight of government today results as much from international as domestic develop-ments.
Mr Marr asks himself what is the essential story of the state throughout the period since the British people as a whole got the vote. His answer `can be summarized in a single, brutal sentence. It has declined'. The state has lost world power. In compensation it has attempted to become more powerful at home. And it has discovered that this is a forlorn ambition.
Why has the British state lost world power? Essentially because of an inevitable decline in the country's economic weight relative to its most immediate competitors. The decline goes back in years far beyond the responsibilities of any of today's polit-ical actors; at best and worst, their policies have only margin-ally affected the rate of a decline inevitable as other economies followed where Britain first led. The two wars concentrated power in the hands of the state in an unprecedented way, but their outcome, victorious though it was, undermined Britain's relative economic standing and hence its international power.
Other factors have come to join secular economic change in the factors reducing the power of the British state. Before the First World War there were fewer than forty multinational organizations. Now there are nearly four hundred. `Some of these bring little or no threat to the autonomy of nations, but most bring some, and some bring a lot'. Taken together these organiza-tions - political, economic, scientific, social - have trenched on the international power of British statesmen. At the same time the world's business, particularly the world's economic business, has been `globalized' - back to the global nature of the planet before the First World War.
International financial flows have defeated the nation state's power to contain them. Trade, as much in services as in goods, has overflowed national boundaries, and the decisions of major international companies outweigh those of all but the twenty most economically powerful nations. Popu-lar culture too has overflowed its national banks.
For Britain as for its neighbours these processes, each of them leaching power away from the managers of the nation state, have been supplemented by the workings of the European Union. Some of them - globalization, money flows, popular culture - threaten to swamp the European Union just as thoroughly as they swamp its individual members. But for British statesmen and officials, struggling to combat threats to their authority and liberty of action, it is as much part of the problem as of the solution.
Twenty and thirty years ago, advocates of membership did not see it that way. For them a role at the heart of Europe offered the chance to recover some of the authority that Britain had lost on the world stage. It offered the prospect of speaking once again as equals to the Americans, of replacing influence lost in the Commonwealth with influence of greater importance near to home. That reasoning may still be as cogent today as it seemed twenty or thirty years ago. But it faces, particularly in Britain but also throughout the European Union, a backlash that is based on real, if in the end destructive, emotions. And every measure to perfect the Union, to complete it, to fulfil its potential, provokes that backlash further. It turns Britain, in one of Mr Marr's facetious phrases which, exceptionally, makes a real point, into `The Rebel Colony of the Belgian Empire'.
So Mr Marr's excursion into international affairs brings him back to a central issue in British politics. Differences over attitudes to Europe run right through the political system and through each of the parties. We do not know where we are going in the European Union, and if we did we would disagree violently about its desirability as a destination. We do not know the right balance between a commitment to a European vocation and isola-tion, or globalism, or a whole variety of extra-European possi-bilities.
Our differences on these issues are going to go on affecting British politics just as fundamentally as our satisfaction or our discontent with a lot of the domestic phenomena which Mr Marr so shrewdly analyses. His whole argument vividly illustrates the old truth that the international penetrates the domestic and the domestic the international, nice as it would be if we could shut them away from each other in separate compartments. If we are going to heal our domestic polity we shall have to reach satis-factory conclusions also about where we belong in Europe and in the world.