Europe and the Decline of Social Democracy in Britain

Let’s be clear: this is NOT another Brexit book. Instead of picking over what’s happening now, Adrian Williamson provides an invaluable guide to how Britain reached this point, tracing the nation’s changing relationship with Europe through the lens of social democracy. It’s a fascinating approach, one that Irish Times columnist (and author of Heroic Failure: Brexit and the Politics of Pain) Fintan O’Toole calls “essential reading for anyone who wants to go beyond the Westminster games and understand the deep causes of the current crisis.” Whatever your thoughts on Brexit, the book presents a coolly rational approach that’s been all too rare over the last three years.

Theirs not to reason why,
Theirs but to do and die.
Into the valley of Death
Rode the 51.9%.

(‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, Lord Tennyson, adapted with apologies).

After three years of simmering, the Brexit negotiations are finally coming to the boil. It appears that the UK will seek a “No Deal” exit, or, at best, an ill-tempered divorce followed by a very distant post-divorce relationship.

How did we get to this point? My new book, Europe and the Decline of Social Democracy in Britain: From Attlee to Brexit seeks to put these dramatic events in the broader context of British post-war politics. In my previous work on the birth of Thatcherism, I have sought to understand how the post-war settlement came to an end in 1979. This book, inspired or, at least, provoked by the 2016 referendum and its aftermath is an attempt to comprehend how this further political earthquake has occurred.

In it I trace the fortunes of the Left, the social democratic Centre and the free market Right since the war. Their changing fortunes – mainly going backwards in the first two cases and on a lengthy upswing in the latter case – explain much of what occurred in 2016, and since. The book therefore also seeks to explain the important inter-relationship between British domestic politics and the UK’s attitude to Europe.

From 1945 to 1979, the UK was a social democracy, in which the state sought to reduce inequality and broaden opportunity. A mixed economy, widely available social housing, and strong trade unions underpinned this loosely social democratic system. At the same time, the UK looked outwards towards Europe. Political leaders such as Macmillan, Heath and Jenkins were not only comfortable with a social democratic settlement at home but sought to embrace a European identity. British social democracy was a good fit with European consensus politics.

There were loud voices on the Left which condemned the Common Market as a capitalist club and sought much more full-blooded socialism. However, since the 1970s, socialism (pace Corbyn) has receded. British politics have moved decisively to the Right and social democracy has withered. The country has become much more unequal, and the balance of power has shifted decisively in favour of employers and landlords, and away from workers and tenants.

Right wing conservative politician Enoch Powell speaks at Islington Town Hall. (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

In this post-social democratic world, it turns out that the voices on the Right who opposed British engagement with Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, especially Enoch Powell, have proved most influential in the long run. Powell then made himself a pariah by arguing for a small state, limited immigration, and nationalistic opposition to the Common Market.

However, since Powell himself faded from view, Powellism has swept all before it. Since the 1980s neoliberalism or Thatcherism have been the dominant forces in British domestic politics. Domestic Thatcherism has increasingly been in conflict with British engagement with Europe, bringing down Conservative leader after leader (including Thatcher herself).

This process has culminated in the events of 2016 and 2019, personified in our new prime minister and the “pound shop Enoch Powell”, Nigel Farage. What is now in the ascendant is a form of free market nationalism. The Conservative Party has ceased to be a broad church and become the Brexit Party Mark II. The rupture between domestic Thatcherism and Europe, which first became evident in the 1980s, has reached its logical conclusion in a complete break with what remains a broadly social democratic Europe. It is no coincidence that the most solidly social democratic part of the UK, Scotland, has shown the strongest attachment to the EU and may well now seek independence.

I hope that readers, whatever their views on Brexit, will find my new book a useful guide to explain how the UK, once so enamoured of Europe, has retreated into a posture of unremitting hostility.


This guest post was written by Adrian Williamson, a QC and practising barrister at Keating Chambers, London, an Elected Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and the author of Conservative Economic Policymaking and the Birth of Thatcherism, 1964-1979 (Palgrave, 2015).

Europe and the Decline of Social Democracy in Britain: From Attlee to Brexit
by Adrian Williamson
Hardback / 9781783274437 / £18.75 or $26.21