Dr Angus Cameron, Department of Geography, University of Leicester:
The short answer to the question ‘Is Britain broken?’ is clearly ‘no’. This is not because Britain is somehow perfect, but because it is not a single thing. There are lots of Britains for the simple reason that there are lots of Britons – and they are a gloriously mixed up bunch and have been for centuries. Why then has this trite piece of alliteration attracted so much attention? Like many effective campaign slogans it appeals vaguely to a nagging feeling at the back of many minds that things are not quite what they should be. In other words, it is a slogan with which anyone with a gripe can happily (perhaps grumpily) agree. And this can range from concerns about things like the NHS or schools to just about anything else. This way of representing social and political problems is pernicious not just because it is simplistic, but because it directs blame in particular directions. The implication is that if Britain is broken, someone must have broken it and that usually draws our attention towards whoever or whatever is ‘new’ or ‘different’ – unruly youth, immigrant communities, benefit claimants, unmarried mothers, the unemployed.
What is curious about this version of Broken Britain, however, is that almost by definition, the sorts of groups that are expected to carry the greatest responsibility for social problems are those that have the least power to create them. Breaking a society, after all, presumably takes some doing.
The slogan implies that Britain was ‘unbroken’ at some unspecified point in the past. Since Britain is and always has been a nation of immigrants (at least since the Vikings, Angles and Saxons turned up), that seems unlikely to be the cause of its disruption. Similarly, we’ve been host to poverty since time immemorial and being a bit unruly is what young people do. Nothing new there. But during the same period that these groups started to be more noticeable (roughly from the mid-1950s onwards) a different set of disconnections began, that have a far more plausible claim to have ‘broken’ Britain.
First, loopholes started to appear to allow money to flow more quickly, and increasingly profitably, through the world’s financial markets without the state getting in the way. New breeds of corporate ‘citizens’ were created that had the same (or more) rights as ordinary citizens, but a rather different set of responsibilities. New technologies allowed these new citizens to locate more and more of their activities in the new spaces of the ‘offshore’ markets. In short, a large part of ‘Britain’ (the wealthier bits of it) went elsewhere.
Like the many other countries struggling to deal with the current economic situation, Britain needs to address how it is that so much of the wealth it creates ends up circulating endlessly in money markets rather than improving the lives of ordinary people. This is not just a question of persuading Vodaphone, Arcadia and the many other businesses to pay their taxes – important though this is – but means fundamentally rethinking what a ‘society’ means. For (unbroken) Britain it meant having a high degree of social cohesion bought through economic redistribution – not socialism or communism, just common sense. We have replaced that with a system that distributes responsibility downwards, but the resources needed to meet that responsibility lie elsewhere entirely. Britain is not ‘broken,’ but many of its ordinary citizens are ‘broke’. This is because a system intended to stimulate ‘our’ economy, is being used by a privileged minority to escape our society altogether. We need to fix that.
Dr Angus Cameron is a lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Leicester. His research interests centre on the dynamic and dialectic relations between state, economy and civil society and the complex, overlapping spatialities of social, political, economic and cultural life. Read his blog.
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