Nigel Biggar is Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at the University of Oxford. Doug Stokes is Professor of International Security at the University of Exeter. Their latest policy paper, How ‘progressive’ anti-imperialism threatens the United Kingdom, was recently published by the Council on Geostrategy.
Across the UK, cultural institutions are dominated by a ‘woke’ deconstructive secular theology imported from the US. This new secular religion emphasises the historically malign nature of British statecraft.
The decolonisation narrative about British history has much in common with states hostile to the UK’s national security interests. From China’s growing global ambition, Russia’s military revisionism or the continuing threat from radical Islamist insurgencies, these states and social forces draw on a similar historical narrative rooted in the sense of grievance due to the alleged malign agency of the West. By deconstructing the Anglo-American-led order, British culture, and its institutions, redemption will be achieved, and the UK will finally be cleansed of historical sin.
The self-claimed ‘progressive’ nature of those calling up this narrative – whether to advance the cause of racial justice or righting historical wrongs in the name of instantiating a more equal and fairer world order – is at odds with recent geopolitical developments. Although it is Western-created, the international order, knitted together by a range of global institutions, has provided the context for worldwide economic growth and shifts in economic power to East Asia.
In many ways, these developments help explain the rise of the West’s ‘culture wars’. Globalisation is a buzzword that masks the profound structural change of the Anglophone political economies, whereby the balance of power between workers and capital shifted radically in the latter’s favour. The ‘offshoring’ of manufacturing by major multinational corporations saw the rapid decline of industrial jobs in the West and traditional communities reliant on them. Accompanying this decline in manufacturing was the rise of new professional-managerial classes, where politics became insulated from popular pressures and instead became shifts between technocratic elites.
The ‘old’ left transformed from a politics of redistribution rooted in a materialist analysis of political economy to a new moralistic coalition, with emphasis placed on identity and a politics of grievance to help corral new electoral alliances in the context of deindustrialisation. On the right, a similar tension has grown between neoliberal free-marketeers happy to allow the market to rein in the process of ‘creative destruction’ versus more traditional conservatives, whose more traditional communitarian values are based around patriotism and the primacy of the nation.
These changes in the macro-economy and shifts in the international distribution of economic power have profoundly shifted political alliances in British politics that cross-cut traditional party lines. A new moral order, predicated around borders versus borderlessness, or what David Goodhart has called the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’, has come to define British politics.
The ‘anywheres’ champion a deconstructive ‘progressivism’, which seeks to promote high-status ideas around openness, inclusion and diversity. In reality, these alleged progressive ideas act to reinscribe moral authority into elite cultural and political institutions by their assumption of the responsibility for minority upliftment and technocratic problem-solving, while abandoning responsibility for the ‘somewheres’, portrayed as backward, reactionary and beyond the pale.
This politics of national repudiation was deeply inscribed in the Brexit wars of the last five years. Less a rational cost-versus-benefit analysis, and more akin to a theological battle, the reality was that the faith in a flat borderless world always rested on a highly contingent post-1945 settlement that has been the anomaly and not the norm in human history. Rather than the EU, the post-war European peace of the last 70y years has been sustained by US and UK security guarantees in NATO and the temporary resolution of Germany’s natural continental hegemony through the constitutionalisation of its power within a pan-European superstructure.
Through this lens, the impulse of Brexit can be interpreted as a return to the primacy of national sovereignty in an increasingly post-liberal world order where geopolitics and great power competition are making a rapid comeback. In the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is likely that the global economy will revert to a bipolar world that, from a trade perspective, will appear something like the Cold War stand-off between the Soviet Union’s Council for Mutual Economic Assistance trading bloc and the US-led Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) trading area, with developing countries siding with one or the other as they see fit.
What would this mean for the UK? If the world divides into competing regional trading blocs – arguably the more likely outcome – Britain would doubtless join the US bloc for economic and national security reasons. So too would the EU, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Life would not be comfortable. Competition for secure sources of supplies would be fierce.
The situation within the US trading bloc might resemble the nineteenth-century world, where states competed through formal and informal colonisation or their ‘national champion’ companies for access to supplies. Except, in the twenty-first century, competition would be through overseas direct investment rather than formal colonisation. In a post-pandemic world, with likely deep fissures within the liberal economic order: the ‘national interest’ would be policymakers’ guiding light rather than the moral compass.
If we accept that one of the prerequisites for the rise of these anti-Western states and movements is a degree of confidence and civilisational ‘mojo’, what does the West now offer to counter these highly illiberal, often authoritarian and in some cases actively genocidal states and social forces? What is the social glue that holds free and open countries together with a common purpose to defend their shared institutional order, upon which their rights and freedoms – all highly fragile and historically contingent – now rest?
Surely the desire among so-called progressives to undermine the West’s dominance, to reduce its power, to deconstruct its narratives, challenge its philosophy and overthrow its institutional order is an impulse that, ironically, was underpinned by a more confident and assured Western hegemony?
The West’s long post-1945 boom, which helped fund the welfare state and universities throughout Western Europe, provided the post-1968 generation of left-wing intellectuals – the ideological architects of today’s social justice movements – with a false sense of security. They could call for revolution in the expectation that, if their dreams of social upheaval ever materialised, a more benign West would emerge.
However, in the present context of rising illiberal ‘civilisational-states’, already shovelling millions of souls into ‘re-education’ camps, we should ask a simple question. As the world reverts to the historical norm of great power competition and power shifts away from the West, one of the most progressive civilisational constructs in human history – what will emerge to replace it; who or what will carry the torch for human freedom and progress? Our tired cultural elites, certain of their moral mission to decolonise the UK and repudiate its history and institutions, should be very careful what they wish for; the stakes are very high indeed.