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Where will The North find its authority?: In the soft power (Nordpolitik) of British institutions

In Uncategorized on August 7, 2019 at 2:33 pm

Authority is not what it once was. In 1950s Britain it was located within social hierarchies, collectivised industries and nation-based politics. Efforts to distribute that power via popular culture were successful. My four older sisters took to Sixties culture in various forms. Our Edwardian, war-time and now late parents looked on mainly in bemusement, remaining at a safe distance. Having obeyed social convention, duty and family they assumed these pillars were a sound basis to govern. The seeds of a New Modern Civilisation planted in the early 1800s bloomed colourfully in the 1960s. A warfare generation climbed out of austerity into full employment. The new National Health Service distributed the pill. And mothers gathered less in church halls to share the burden of child-rearing. The nation-state gradually took on its welfare role. Sub-urban developments drained mass inner-city housing projects and council estates.

Continuing to dive deep into this debate: Britain flattened its social ranks and shed its remaining communitarian culture in an expanded middle-class vision of ‘cosmopolitan living’. Socialism was  dealt Thatcher’s coup de grace: home ownership plus privatisation of collectivised industries. Authority then went into capital owning organisations who could meet the needs of the hyper-individual. And into the hands of the consumer, whose growing discretionary spend would shape government policy. Neo-liberalism celebrated the liberation of capital. Capital had gone mobile. The moral argument from neo-liberals was people would buy justice for themselves. A socialism by the back door. Capital had come out of bank vaults into Joe Public’s purse, and she will decide where it goes. Those on the margins would surely follow suit?

Authority drew its new power from distributed capital. Liquid capital in the form of Coca Colonisation brought down the Berlin Wall. Levi Jeans proving themselves seductive to Soviet citizens trapped in bread queues ended the nuclear arms race. With the end of the Cold War globalisation could accelarate the power of organisations unabated. This second Great Transformation was a new game with new rules. Brexit further revealed how the ‘nation state’ has lost its authority to direct its affairs. Authority was spread across global actors and Brexit is attempting to gather up the marbles.

Not good news for Old Labour Left. Their international socialism is not the rip tide against resurgent nationalism. Their efforts along with the reactionary Right were to give voice to those who have not found a place in a ‘cosmopolitan vision’ of Britain. Their appeal is to nation-based political power. Just as politics has lost much authority. Workers in the North of England face uncertainty as global capital will seek new sources of cheap labour in the open markets of India or Eastern Europe. It is maybe no comfort that wealthy European welfare states are facing the same dilemma. The increasingly global citizen is unable and unwilling to move as fast as global capital. The newly won authority of the cosmopolitan world citizen, freed from social convention by capital and home ownership, is facing a more precarious future than their socially constrained collectivised forebears.

But just as The North is enjoying new social freedoms through capital ownership its economic balance is about to be rocked. The EU was a bulwark against aspects of global power, enabling its wealthier welfare members to retain their bloc power against rampant globalisation. As The North of Britain now looks to nation-state-power to develop its strategies rather than EU power it is asking where it will sit in the new post-Brexit world.

Nordpolitik meets Ostpolitik agenda: Tempting to recall Willy Brandt (left) and Willi Stoph in Erfurt 1970, the first encounter of a Federal Chancellor with his East German counterpart, an early step in the de-escalation of the Cold War. Re-unifying around the symbol of the nation-state appears inevitable. It is the preferred arena to debate our collective will and identity. Northernness offers a growing symbolism for the re-reunified nation known as the United Kingdom. Northernness (Nordpolitik) appears to be a counter-power to the cosmopolitan-vision of a global-citizenry whose place is unknown, and identity is homogenised. A citizen of nowhere-ville?

The London-Brussels nexus did well for London. It sits atop the globe as one of the most dynamic cities for global business. When the EU thought Britain it frequently saw London. Its transport and finance infrastructure is impressive. Talented jobless young southern Europeans flooded London. In one sense they were departing Europe as much as coming to London. The Anglo-Spheric Britain and America share joint capitals in London and Washington DC. Both centres retained the desire to distribute risk to its citizens in a way that is at odds with the European Project. The EU has found itself in a No-Man’s Land ideologically. Its desire to lower nation-stateness of its citizens to create a bulwark against globalisation and American neo-liberalism has floundered by becoming a supra-nation-state. It has unwittingly proven that nation-states are persistent and enduring. More importantly institutions are not being swept aside by globalisation. Formed over centuries institutions are enduring. And it is where citizens turn in the face transnational corporate power.

This is the curious outworking of the cosmopolitan vision. It turns out it was not a vision after all. It was an amorphous notion with no real handrails. As party-political membership plummeted from the Sixties (membership was often a symbol of social ranking) membership of societies such as The National Trust have rocketed. These now treasured institutions are lightning rods for the hyper-individual as they collectivise around national priorities. And these institutions lobby nation-states to focus on their value-based priorities. As the green movement in Europe indicates, rowing back from the hyper-notion of a global cosmopolitan citizen, there is the rise of a newly conscious conserving citizen.

Despite fogey Jacob Rees-Mogg Esq.’s re-heated 50s patrician shtick, there is a new admiration for British institutions. As Corbyn similarly re-heats class struggle there is an emergent movement in The North. Educated vocal leaders recognise the power of British institutions, from the church to enduring social structures. The archetypal Young Person walking into a cathedral and asking ‘so, where did this come from?’ might be overplayed but you get the image.

What global capital seems unable to overpower then are non-modern institutions. It is of course trying hard to measure institutions by commercial economics. But global capital’s hard power when measured against institutional soft power is interesting. If the resurgent nation-state is anything, it is a collection of institutions as first agents. Politicians are largely lawmakers. However, institutions operationalise new legislation. And what are British institutions? They are traditional social hierarchies. Despite modern liberal politicians’ efforts British institutions have resisted efforts to modernise. Largely as ‘modern institution’ is a contradiction in terms. To institutionalise is to withdraw from economic measurement in large part.

If plastic capitalism and junk culture have become synonymous with a homogeneous global culture then the reaction is felt in The North by those who choose to stay and build a future. If a cynical South has imbibed a nowhere society where there are no patterns of identity The North has retained its social frameworks. The North as a public sphere offers an important dialectic between its heritage and future. Something almost unheard of in The South. Where there are no dialectics of identity.

Where students pre-austerity imagined working three days a week, playing in the band on Thursday, five-a-side on Friday austerity Britain has refocused education on its economic role. Where a global citizen imagined their lives in the abstractness of a global cosmos the combined effects of obscene property prices and low-waged economy have induced a serious interest in nation-based politics and a search for power. There is anger in the air for those who see their parent’s sacrifices and property-owning prosperity as an aberration. A willingness to re-invent politics at grassroots level via a Northern Leadership that has found legitimacy and entitlement through a reflexive spirit is more than a hopeful wish, it is a growing reality. What I mean by reflexive is the ability to enter the debate armed with the same power of reason and self-awareness as the traditional British Brahmin. It is curious to hear Mockney accents of Tony Blair, George Osborne and David Cameron, even Prince Harry, as they try to mash together their Standard Southern Dialects and Received Pronunciations with regional South East dialects, not without a hint of African-American Vernacular. This search for authenticity by those without Northern Heritage is curious. The social history of The North offers its own authority. Having established a distinct cultural position it has successfully challenged the dominance of The South as a de facto national centre of gravity. The direction of travel is north politically and financially.

As the frenetic attachment to global economic measures falters, there is the return to traditional notions of domestic policy and nation state governance. Britain PLC will not be able to divert its attention from domestic politics through the vision of a European federalism paying back at some point. The fruit of funding Greek super-highways is now unlikely to be seen. As attention turns to the North-South economic and social contract, symbolised by the wobbly nature of High Speed rail projects and Northern Powerhouse (note the hyperbole), there will be a pressure to turn dolls house projects into a more serious debate. And probably only a Northern Spirit can successfully speak about the Future Shape of Britain and its institutions. It is our turn. This is the era of Nordpolitik and the underlying symbols of Northernness informing institutional power. The good news is that symbols themselves are not subject to the dramaturgy of the media. Symbols grow and fade without human intervention. They are the root of institutional power as institutions form round their immanence. Global capital will bend, as do markets, to the power of homo economicus’s preference for ‘a good life’.