Britain and Globalization
Luke Martell, University of Sussex
A later version of this was published in Globalizations, 5, 3, September 2008, pp 449-466
perspectives on globalization see it as differentiated in its effects and
reception, culturally driven, either pre-modern or post-modern, best captured
by globalist or sceptical perspectives, and an equalising phenomenon. This
article discusses the British experience of globalization in the light of such
approaches and argues that looking at this case gives an alternative view. Six
themes on globalization are explored across four areas of the British
experience of globalization. It is argued that in Britain globalization is, in
contrast to the approaches outlined above, differentiated but also
generalising, economically driven, modern, best understood with a mix of
globalist and sceptical perspectives and structured by power, inequality and
conflict. It is also argued that the British experience of globalization is a
specific one and that Britain
is a very globalized and globalizing country, economically, culturally and
The aim of this article is to look at a number of
themes about globalization and discuss them in relation to the specific case of
the British experience. It aims to make the case for a certain sort of
theoretical perspective in this context and to make conclusions about the
British experience of globalization.
Recent literature on globalization has stressed the
need to go beyond a first wave of globalization theory which tended to make
general and abstract assertions about globalization without differentiating
forms of it and its different impacts in different locations. There have also
been moves to recognize globalization as being as much culturally as
economically driven and as being a phenomenon of long term historical processes
or alternatively as a very recent thing of the post-war or post-1960s period.
Some debates about globalization have become separated between globalist and
sceptical perspectives and some commentators have tended to take a benign view
of globalization as an equalising process or hybrid rather than just dominated
by power or western imperialism.
This article addresses these themes in relation to
the British case and comes to a number of conclusions that, as far as Britain is
concerned, diverge from what the approaches above say. In doing so it also
suggests that Britain
is a very globalized and globalizing country, economically, politically and
culturally, both historically and in the contemporary period. By this I mean
has been both an exporter of globalizing structures and processes around the
world and also a very open recipient of globalization.
I will start by introducing the six key themes this
article is concerned with, followed then by some other brief introductory
comments. Firstly, it is true that globalization needs to be understood in
terms of the differentiated way it operates at different levels: for instance
there being economic, political and cultural forms of globalization which may
not always operate to the same extent or with the same intensity as each other.
They may also take different forms in different locations, what has some times
been seen as the localisation of globalization or ‘glocalization’ (Hay and
Marsh 2000). In terms of national differences, this phenomenon is sometimes
known as path dependency or exceptionalism. This article will show, in line
with this differentiating approach, how the British case is quite specific.
Globalization takes a different form in the UK compared to other cases.
However while the British case shows that it is
important to recognize differentiation in globalization I will argue that it is
important not to let this crowd out understandings of ways in which
globalization can still be quite generalising in some forms. The British experience
shows how there can be forms of globalization that are applied in many
different places and difficult to resist. We will see how Britain has been at the centre of economically
and politically generalising forms such as neoliberalism and imperialism and a
receiver of generalising cultural globalization from the USA. In fact
differentiation and generalisation go together in the British case because what
differentiates the UK
is the specific ways it has been at the intersection of the generalisation of
globalization, both as an exporter and importer of it. This case shows how both
differentiation and generalisation apply to globalization and that an attempt
to favour one of these emphases against the other cannot work. .
Secondly, the article also argues that if you look at
the British case you can see forms of globalization that are very economically
led, even if not reducible to this. It is important to recognize that forms of
consciousness and culture often provide an impetus behind globalization (Scholte
2005: ch 4 provides a recent summary of cultural explanations) as do political
objectives. At the same time, this article argues that British experiences of
globalization show the continuing importance of understandings of globalization
as driven by economic imperatives and ambitions, for instance in British
imperialism or globalizing Anglo-Saxon capitalism, and sometimes it is in these
that other forms such as politics and culture are embedded. For instance,
states may promote globalization that arise for economic reasons, and culture
may spread because there is a market for it.
Thirdly, a number of important analysts of
globalization have put an emphasis on globalization as primarily a phenomenon
of the post-war or post 1960s/70s period (eg Scholte 2005). At the same time
there have been some histories of transnational trade, religions and migrations
that show these occurring well before anything that could be described as
industrialism or modernity (eg Abu-Lughod 1989, Frank and Gills 1993). This article
argues that if you look at Britain
you see globalization there as something that is primarily modern in its
foundations and based in the technology and economic relations of industrial
capitalist processes and the politics of the modern nation-state. The British
experience raises some questions about the extent to which globalization, if it
is to be seen as operating at a global (rather than regional or continental)
extent, across economic, political and cultural levels, and with enduring
interdependent relations, can be seen in this instance as primarily pre-modern
or alternatively as originating in postmodern developments.
Fourthly, situating the British experience of
globalization in this modern industrial capitalist period highlights that it needs
to be conceptualized historically, as an older phenomenon and not just a recent
thing, but also in the sense that recent features of British globalization go
back to origins in these earlier British experiences. Contemporary
globalization has historical origins in earlier forms of globalization and, as
we shall see, empire continues to affect British politics and culture long
after its demise.
Fifthly, the British experience also shows how
strictly globalist or sceptical perspectives cannot really explain processes of
globalization in this case. (Writers like Held et al 1999 and Holton 2005
separate globalization writing between globalists and sceptics, often putting
themselves in a third transformationalist or post-sceptic camp). Some of the
institutions involved in the promotion of British globalization are, as
sceptics point out, not global - the nation-state’s role in British
imperialism, the international economy and transnational politics, for example.
But it would be equally mistaken to see the British experience of globalization
as one that merely leaves non-global institutions as they always have been.
British culture and the British state have been changed by the way they have
been inserted into international processes that they have promoted, for
instance global trade, imperialism, European integration or postcolonial
immigration. (The three globalist, sceptical and transformationalist
perspectives on globalization and the relationships between them are discussed
more fully in Martell 2006).
Sixthly, from some perspectives globalization is an
equalising process and one that brings greater integration and hybridity into
the world, increasingly in place of inequality, conflict and western domination
(see Wolf 2004 on why globalization can reduce global poverty and Pieterse’s
2004 argument for hybrid as opposed to western imperialist views of global
culture). But I will argue that looking at the British case brings back into
the picture the significance of power, inequality and conflict involved in
processes of globalization. For example, we shall see that imperialism and
asymmetries in production of and access to global culture show this.
In short, the British experience of globalization
brings in some key themes: that globalization should be seen as generalising as
well as differentiating; that the economic determination of globalization is
important; that globalization has roots, in the British case and perhaps also
others, in modernity rather than primarily in pre-modernity or in what might be
called more post-modern developments; that globalization has to be understood
historically; that strictly globalist and sceptical perspectives cannot either
really explain the British experience of globalization; and that globalization
is subjected to structures of power, inequality and conflict.
The British experience of globalization brings out a
further related theme that I will highlight in this article – that Britain is a
very globalized and globalizing country, both an importer and exporter of globalizing
structures and processes. As we shall see, this is evident in the British
empire, the openness of the British economy, British global political
involvements and the UK’s
openness to global cultures.
Put together, the themes pursued in this article show
that the British experience cannot be tested through single forms of criteria.
I am highlighting some perspectives over others, modernist and materialist over
pre- or post-modern and culturalist for instance, but also there are a number
of factors being used here, demonstrating that globalization is something that
has to be measured through multiple criteria. Sometimes contrasting criteria
co-exist. For instance, Britain’s
specific experience shows globalization to sometimes take an imperialistic or generalising
form but also that it is experienced in a differentiated way in different
places, the UK
in this instance having its own distinctive experience.
This article is not intended as a comprehensive
review of the literature on Britain
and globalization. This is too large a field to be adequately covered in a
piece of this length. It is intended more as a review of some theoretical
themes in relation to the British experience, although again a comprehensive
review of all such possible themes cannot be covered in one article. Developing
a comparative approach will require a further article or book – the focus at
present here is on the UK
but inevitably some comparative points are made along the way. The theoretical
framework here is one that looks at the limits of postmodern and cultural
perspectives on globalization, and attempts to bring out the extent to which
more materialist perspectives which highlight economic and state power,
inequality and modernity might be illuminating in this specific case, whilst
remaining sensitive to other theoretical themes such as differentiation in
globalization and multiple criteria for explaining it.
Globalization is defined here as involving the
declining significance of territorial borders in inhibiting the spread of
interacting and interdependent global forms of economy, politics, and culture.
It involves the diffusion of economy, politics and culture from localized bases
to a more global extent. It requires interdependent relations rather than just
the movement of, say, people, ideas or money from one place to another. The
latter alone involves global movements without necessarily global relations and
interdependence becoming established. Globalization needs to include some sort
of regularity and durability in structures rather than just isolated or
transient occurrences (see also Osterhammel and Petersson 2005). It should be
noted also that globalization is often a process rather than something achieved
and that it is reversible and negotiable rather than predetermined (see Hopper
2006). Defining globalization is important for the conclusions that are
reached. For instance, we shall see that defined as above, rather than as less
world-wide, globalization can be seen as something that was not as established
in the pre-modern period (where genuinely transnational links were, however,
less world-wide in extent) as in modern times, a period when the British were a
I use the word ‘Britain’ in this article in the way
it is often colloquially used, to refer to the United Kingdom (UK). In fact Great Britain is composed of England, Scotland
and Wales while the UK includes also Northern Ireland. Like all
nation-states the UK
is a complex place. It is composed of four nations, and is also a multicultural
entity. Often when commentators talk of Britain
what they say applies more to England,
the dominant country in the UK.
In this article I will be referring to the four nations of the UK but with a
consciousness that such an entity is complex and constructed. In fact some of
the points I want to make are about the links between Britain’s cultural hybridity and its experience
of globalization and about the differentiated way the four nations of the UK respond to
globalization. I will argue later in the article that the nature and character
of globalization in Britain is made more complex by the various forms of
identity in its regional parts, something that shows that differentiation is a
form that globalization takes alongside its generalisation.
This article will look at the six themes on
globalization outlined above in relation to Britain, looking first at its
imperial history, then economic globalization, then global politics and finally
at culture and globalization in the UK. In each section I will focus on the
relevance of the six themes.
Empire and globalization
Britain as an imperial power laid the basis for
an early form of globalization of economy and politics and, to some extent,
culture. Britain had a
global empire that spread across the Americas,
Asia, Australasia, and Africa (and Europe too when you include Ireland). In
the 1920s and 1930s it encompassed one fifth of the world’s population and one
quarter of the world’s landmass, and this does not include colonies like those
in North America which were by this time
independent (Cain and Hopkins 2001). Its scale was unparalleled in modern
times, and more globally spread than the empires of Spain and Portugal which
were more internationally restricted in scope, focused strongly, if not solely,
on South America. French imperialism could be found widely in Africa and Asia but did not spread as widely as the British. Other
competitor imperialists did not equal the global spread of these imperial
nations. The longevity of the British empire was matched only by the empires of
Spain and Portugal (Hopkins
1999) and Britain was the primary
global power until the early or mid-twentieth century when this mantle passed
over to the USA.
In terms of the spread of economic and political
relations, and the technological bases for global communications and
transportation, the British empire was as
close as it was possible to get to globalization in its period. It established
global relations in seeking out raw materials and new products, production and
markets and established political forms and military power internationally to
back up British influence and control. Forms of international communication and
transport to underpin economic expansionism and political authority were laid
down and used, for instance naval power and navigation and underwater cable
systems that freed global communication from being confined to land and
transportation systems (eg Held et al 1999: ch. 7). (An accessible introduction
to British imperialism is Porter 1996. See also Cain and Hopkins 2001).
O’Brien (2003) has argued that the British power in
the period of its empire should be seen in terms of primacy rather than as hegemonic
as in the case of the US in the 20th and 21st century. Britain, he says, did not achieve the degree of domination
through force and consent that the US has achieved. But in terms of
global extent, the focus here, its empire shows Britain as historically a very
globalizing and globalized country and relates also to the other themes laid
out at the start of this article.
The empire was primarily an economic one, backed up,
where necessary, by military power, the state and ideology but driven by
motivations centred on commerce and trade. There are debates about whether the
economics of empire were more about investment or trade or the expansion of
commercial or industrial capital (eg, Barratt Brown 1988 and 1989; Ingham
1988). But the historian of British imperialism, Bernard Porter, by no means a
Marxist, argues: ‘No one any more seriously doubts that capitalist pressures
were the primary reason for Britain’s
imperial expansion in the nineteenth century’ (Porter 1996: xv). Colonies provided raw materials and imports,
produce which could be exported, cheap labour, markets for manufactures and
overseas opportunities for financiers. Imperialism was a basis for mobilising
global resources for Britain
and for British economic expansionism.
The expansion of the empire was not primarily
culturally driven. This does not mean that there were not deliberate attempts
to spread British or European culture through, for instance, missionaries
promoting Christianity, the establishment of imperial education networks or
attempts to socialize local elites. But the idea that the British were trying
to civilize the world can be exaggerated (see Colley 2005 who argues that
British and US
imperialism have been motivated by a desire to spread cultural improvement).
The most extensive spread of economic, political and cultural networks was
created by the British trying to maintain global trading and economic interests
and was much less involved with the cultural transformation of colonies except
where that was necessary to protect their economic interests, and even then
cultural socialisation affected elites more than ordinary people. The capacity
to ideologically incorporate colonial populations was limited by local
resistance, the problem of establishing ideological penetration on such a broad
scale, and the realisation that toleration of local diversities was necessary
for taxation, trade and order to be maintained (Hopkins 1999: 205).
Hobson (1902), is one who argues that imperialism was
not about civilising locals but that civilising claims were a justification for
exploiting them as tools and their land for raw materials and a method for
legitimating imperialism (see also Hopkins 1999: 205). In cases like India and China, he argues, cultures were in
fact just as sophisticated as those coming from the imperialist West. So empire
was more about economy than exporting culture. For Hobson economic motivations for
empire were promulgated by financiers more than other sorts of capitalists,
they were not the only motives or factors, and the economic motives of
capitalists were not always accompanied by net economic benefits for the nation,
because of the costs of maintaining empire – but none of these qualifications
takes away the importance of economics as an original key motivating force (see
also Townshend 1990, and Magnusson 1994).
A test of the case for an economic perspective can be
made by focusing on one of the critics of economism. D.K. Fieldhouse (1973)
attempts to provide a counter-argument to economically reductionist
explanations of British imperialism, Marxism being especially his target.
Fieldhouse argues that there are Eurocentric explanations for imperialism which
are either economic or non-economic and that there also less Eurocentric
explanations. He tries to make the case for the non-economic arguments and for
those which are less Eurocentric. The non-economic causes of imperialism he
suggests are more political ones to do with imperialist action to maintain
political authority abroad, power, prestige and security or nationalistic
jingoistic attitudes at home. There is a non-Eurocentric angle to this because
he says that such attempts at imperialism were often responses to problems in
peripheries that required greater intervention as much as imperatives
originating from the imperial country. However, despite his advice, on such
bases, against economic arguments, Fieldhouse’s case, a prominent alternative
to economic explanations, in actuality adds to or balances economic
explanations or adds greater layers of complexity to them, rather than
undermining them. He explicitly states that many of the political and
peripheral issues that led to extensions of imperialism arose on the base of
originally economic expansions based on trade. It was where imperial powers
already had such economic interests that other not directly economic reasons
for further intervention were based. Fieldhouse sums up this position himself:
‘Economic factors were present and in
varying degrees influential in almost every situation outside Europe which led
ultimately to formal empire; and the specific value of many of these
territories to Europeans lay in trade, investment opportunities or other forms
of economic activity … the vital link between economics and formal empire was …
the secondary consequence of problems created on the periphery by economic and
other European enterprises for which there was no economic solution … the
original economic issue had to some degree become ‘politicized’ and therefore
required an imperial solution’ (1973: 475-6).
In short an attempt to provide a corrective to Eurocentric and economic
explanations by rightly emphasising peripheries and political factors makes
clear that European economic objectives underlay such non-European and
non-economic actions. (See also Burroughs 1998 and Howe 1998).
I will move on now to others of the six themes on
globalization as they relate to Britain’s
imperial past. Establishing political authority and imposing military power
were central to advancing the economic expansionism that made empire. So
contrary to strong globalism the state was part of globalization as much as
undermined by it. Yet contrary to strong scepticism, state action played a part
in transforming the world to one more characterized by global relations. It was
a driving force in globalization but in being so helped to create imperial
links and powers which are more transnational and less centred on nation-state
power and which, as we shall see, have ongoing legacies in terms of British
integration into processes of globalization.
The state and capitalist expansionism which were
central to the British empire are institutions
and processes of the modern era. Their central involvement in the spread of the
British empire shows this instance of
globalization to be primarily a modern one. In relation to the historical theme
set out earlier, empire shows globalization as situated historically in the
modern era, rather than being something of the post-1960s. It was in those days
that extensive global relations were established, especially economic and
Developments in globalization in the 1960s and 1970s
in the international economy, international politics or cultural hybridity,
intensified by new information technologies, may show the revival of global
interactions after reversals of globalization in the inter-war period. But in
relation to earlier periods such as that of British imperialism they show a
quantitative intensification or rejuvenation in forms of economic and political
globalization and global encounters of people and ideas rather than the first
onset of such developments. The globalization of the capitalist economy,
political rule over global extents, encounters of people and ideas globally,
together with industrial technologies that allowed these to happen, were well
underway earlier in the British imperial days.
Studies by authors such as Abu-Lughod (1989) and
Frank and Gills (1993) (see also Hopkins 2002 and Gills and Thompson 2005) show
that transnational trade, culture and innovation preceded the globalization
created by western capitalism and European imperialism. Such studies provide an
important corrective to Eurocentrism, showing that transnational forms, in
terms of trade, religion and the spread of ideas and inventions from the East,
pre-existed those established by western powers. They also show that what made
the West in its capitalist and imperialist days owes a lot to what was taken
from the East to the extent that ideas of East-West distinctiveness become
problematic (see also Hobson 2004).
But historians like Osterhammel and Petersson (2002)
argue that while globalization started before the postwar period, in the modern
era, it did not fully develop as early as pre-modern and pre-industrial times
when transnational forms crossed continents but not to a global or regularized
extent. Premodern histories talk mainly of Asian and European (with some
involvement of the Middle East and parts of North Africa) rather than global
trade links (which would, for instance, have to encompass also the Americas).
There were not yet the state and industrial forms to sustain global
interdependence and integration of a more regular and stabilised sort in areas
such as transportation, communication, migration and commerce. For writers like
Osterhammel and Petersson, more developed forms of globalization in these areas
were in the modern era because of industrial technology and imperialist
politics which Britain
was, for good or ill, at the centre of. British globalization established more
developed and extensive political, military, communications and transportation
forms of globalization, partly because of what the industrial capacity of this
era made possible, and, in imperial networks, also greater regularisation and
interdependency in global processes.
Furthermore globalization today is based in
nation-state political forms, capitalist economic relations, industrial
technology, modern communications and transportation, and colonial legacies of
the sort established in the modern period more than in premodern forms of
trade, religion and migration, although the latter were significant in the past
and in feeding into modern forms. So, globalization became most established in
the modern period (influenced by pre-modern forms); and also globalization
today is embedded in these modern forms. (These historical issues are drawn out
more fully in Martell forthcoming).
Globalization is historical not only in the sense
that its early days were in a past rather than contemporary phase but also in
that current global forms have developed from historical antecedents.
Contemporary globalization is shaped by history. Immigration from former
colonies has changed the cultural shape and political agenda in Britain. Britain
continues to aspire to a global role in politics, and has a more problematical
relationship with a regional European political role in a way which may be
linked to the global role of the nation’s imperial past. And some argue that
national identities within the British Isles, of the English and other
constituent nations of the UK,
are affected by roots in the imperial past. I will return to these points
Needless to say, global imperialism does not happen
without the exercise of power, conflict and inequality, to support another of
the themes on globalization. Some of the more free trade friendly globalization
literature sees globalization as an equalising force. There is also a cultural
literature that reacts against ideas of globalization as Western imperialism by
saying that the picture is a more mixed and hybrid one. But under British
imperial globalization domination was maintained by force or the threat of it,
and the input into empire was far from an evenly mixed and hybrid one that went
beyond imperial domination. The British were a powerful imperial and military
force maintaining their hold in many areas of the world despite resistance or
potential resistance and in a situation of inequality with subject powers, not
to mention in some tension with competitor imperialists. British imperialism
involved domination and exploitation and power was established, maintained and
relinquished often in situations of conflict.
To sum up so far, Britain was an exporter and
importer of globalization historically in its imperial days and the experience
of empire backs up the themes of this article: that globalization is often
economic in its bases; that it cannot be captured easily by either globalist or
sceptical perspectives; that it mainly developed in the modern period; that it
is historical rather than a novel development of the post war or post-1960s
periods; and that it involves the exercise of power, inequality and conflict as
much as equalisation.
And a nation’s experience of globalization is
experience of globalizing processes is a unique one not replicated by any other
nation. Empire is a mode through which Britain has been an importer and
exporter of globalization in the past. There have been other imperialists with
similar experiences but none others have been so to the same extent, in the
same places, with colonialism exercised in quite the same ways, with the same
combinations and substance of historical legacies. All countries are unique of
course, not just the UK.
The point here is that globalization is experienced differentially and the
British experience is one case that demonstrates this fact.
Nevertheless, globalization has generalising as well
as differentiating tendencies. While the British imperial experience was unique
it also rolled out global forms to other parts of the world in a generalising
way. And more contemporary forms of globalization also show the generalisation
of globalization as well as differentiated experiences of it. Economic
globalization is one area where this is felt most strongly.
Industrialisation is a globalizing form that
originated in the mid 18th century in Britain, a nation already at that
time quite globalized through foreign trade and colonial connections. In part
British industrialisation was an attempt to compete globally with rivals in
areas such as textiles. From such origins industrialisation has spread through
creative adaptation, affecting areas of life throughout societies where it has
been introduced. It has also provided bases for further globalization through
developments such as steamships which facilitated global transportation, and
industrialized arms production that allowed for imperial domination. Britain has not
only been an initiator of globalizing industrialisation but also a globalizer
of free trade. In the mid 19th century it pursued global free trade,
often, as contrary as this sounds, imposed by force. (Osterhammel and Petersson
2002: ch. 4). As we shall see shortly the UK continues to be associated,
relatively speaking, with a free trade version of capitalism.
Hirst and Thompson (2000) show empirically how the UK has
continued to be an economically very globalized country, a special case more so
than others in the G7. Britain
has historically and recently been very open to international trade and capital
flows. This has been punctuated by reversals and was more extended in the early
twentieth century than in the postwar era that some see as the main period of
economic globalization, but still significant in the current period
nevertheless and fostered by policies of globalization followed by Conservative
and New Labour governments from the 1970s onwards. The data used by Hirst and
Thompson show that the UK
is very open to FDI flows both as an exporter and the recipient of inward flows
and is highly exposed to the international financial system. Banks, pension
funds and investment houses invest a greater proportion of domestic capital
abroad, often in risky ventures, than in the case of other G7 countries, so
making the economy, welfare and households vulnerable to external shocks. Such
measures show how the UK
economy is considerably more internationalized than other G7 economies. It is
more alike in terms of inward investment to some Newly Industrialized Countries
and more penetrated than the main Latin American economies in this respect. In
terms of reliance on overseas trade and foreign investment the UK is more like smaller highly internationalized
European economies such as Belgium
or the Netherlands
than other G7 economies.
For Hirst and Thompson, the effect is that the
domestic economy is hollowed out, a great deal of investment abroad, the British
manufacturing sector dominated by foreign-owned firms and investment from
overseas, without much of a domestic productive base to fall back on and
vulnerable to externally initiated shocks and overseas economic circumstances
and decisions. British government policies in the last 30 years or so have
tended to promote this economic internationalism without the sort of public
policies and welfare provision that could foster domestic firms and cushion
individuals against volatility. (There is not space to repeat here the details
of the data referred to by Hirst and Thompson but it can be found in their
So the UK appears to be continuing from
the imperial days as highly and distinctively globalized economically. As in
its earlier free trade days, it is also closely associated with a neo-liberal
type of capitalism that is often identified with contemporary globalization.
‘Anglo-Saxon’ capitalism is linked with countries like the USA, UK,
Australia and New Zealand and contrasted with more statist or
collectivist economies like Germany’s
and Japan’s (see Albert 1993 and Hutton 1995). For many globalization is
neoliberalism and countries like Japan and Germany who were seen by some in the
1980s as successes to be studied have been perceived from the 1990s onwards to
be in need of liberalisation in a more Anglo-Saxon direction (see almost any
issue of The Economist magazine for this view). It is global
neoliberalism or the ‘Washington Consensus’, backed up by state action and
global organisations like the World Bank and World Trade Organisation, which is
seen to drive the decision-making of developed and less developed countries
when trying to attract investment and making policy about things like
regulation of the economy and public spending. Such decisions are subject to
various conflicting forces but in many societies are especially made along
neo-liberal lines to make the economy more dynamic and competitive, attract
foreign investment and under pressure from neo-liberally inclined governments
and international organisations.
Some surveys show a preponderance of egalitarian and interventionist
rather than neoliberal attitudes in Britain
even after many years of Thatcherism and when compared against a more
collectivist country like Germany
(see Kaase and Newton
1998 and Taylor Gooby 1998). Or they show that UK respondents do not seem more
favourable in principle to globalization, defined as the opening up of
economies and the creation of a global market, than respondents from other EU15
states. But when asked about the economic benefits of globalization UK respondents have been seen to be to be more
positive than those from other EU states (EU 2003) and the least positive in Europe about government intervention (ISSP 2001). It may
be that UK citizens are no more neoliberal at an abstract level than those of
other countries but in relation to more concrete questions they are - concrete
rather than abstract neoliberals. Whatever the position at the level of social
attitudes, British politics and business is widely associated with the more
Anglo-Saxon model at the centre of globalization than the more social models of
other parts of Western Europe, although this is not to say that Britain does
not have its own extensive forms of social provision, more developed than, for
instance, in the USA.
To sum up so far, Britain
was an economic globalizer in the imperial days, an originator of globally
spreading industrialisation, is still a highly internationalized economy, and is
associated with the Anglo-Saxon model often identified as being what
globalization is all about nowadays. As such, Britain seems to be historically
and currently an importer and exporter of structures and processes of
These observations about Britain link to the other themes of
this article. They show how British globalization is historical and of the
modern period, linked to the capitalist expansionism of empire, more
intensified in some ways in the early 20th century than later, and
well developed before a postmodern period of information technology and
contemporary hybrid culture arrived. They also show how much British
globalization has been an economic as much as a cultural matter – involving
entanglement in global economic relations in imperial and 20th
century days and associated with a dominant form of economic globalization,
Anglo-Saxon capitalism. British state power in imperial days and the state’s
role later in fostering ongoing integration into the international economy and
promoting Anglo-Saxon capitalism, under Mrs Thatcher and New Labour for
instance, does not lead to purely globalist conclusions in which nation-states
are diminished. At the same time, the extension of international entanglements
that the highly globalized UK
has got involved in and made itself vulnerable to doesn’t lead to more
sceptical conclusions about a world of states remaining autonomous.
Furthermore the British case economically shows the
exercise of power, inequality and conflict in globalization. Empire was imposed
through power and in situations of inequality and conflict. The global economy
to which Britain
is very open and in which it is associated with neoliberal capitalism is one
where there are big inequalities and power differences between states, with
powerful corporate actors and investors disproportionately originating from the
most wealthy nations. For some this means that there is not a global economy
but one in which trade and investment are concentrated within blocs centred
around the USA, Japan and Europe
(Hirst and Thompson 1999). In this triad Britain is part of the economic
core with a different role in globalization to members of the periphery.
Finally the experience of Britain in economic globalization
is unique and different, as is the case for all nations. No other nation has
this combination of the UK’s imperial history, such openness for a large
economy and Anglo-Saxon economic affinities, supporting the argument that
globalization is differentiated rather than an abstract and general phenomenon
experienced in the same way everywhere. But the British case also shows how
globalization can be generalized – with the spread of imperialist domination, Britain’s high
level of exposure to the international economy and the diffusion of neoliberal
capitalism of an Anglo-Saxon sort in many parts of the world.
When it comes to transnational politics Britain
has been an important but reluctant participant in the EU but more enthusiastic
about global politics. By transnational politics I mean politics that goes on
beyond the level of the nation and the nation-state. By global I mean where
this reaches a global extent. So the European Union is an example of a
transnational form of politics but one which is at a regional rather than a
global level. This section looks at Britain’s involvements in
transnational politics at such levels.
Britain has frequently shown reluctance about
European integration. Between 1979 and 2004 the UK had the lowest average electoral
turnout of EU members in the 6 European Parliament elections it was involved
in. The low point was 1979 when UK
turnout was 32.2% against an EU average of 63%, with the next lowest turnout
being 47.8% in Denmark.
The high point was 2004 when turnout reached a peak of 38.9% in the UK, still
the lowest of the EU 15, with an EU wide average of 45.7% (European Parliament
2004). Eurobarometer polls show UK citizens as the most negative amongst all
member nations on whether the EU is seen as ‘a good thing’ – in 2004 38% of UK
respondents saw the EU as a good thing as against an EU-wide average of 56%; in
2005 Britain came bottom of the poll with 36% against an EU average of 54%
(European Commission 2005). Britain
has frequently resisted and fought over agreements at EU level, for instance
opting out of the social chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, and it is one of the
minority of the 15 countries from before enlargement that has not joined the
single currency. Polls show a steady majority amongst the public against
membership of the Euro.
Why is this? The UK is a set of islands. This has
made mobility into the rest of Europe more of
a task than in other continental countries reinforcing a sense of separateness.
also experienced relative political stability in the 20th century.
It was not invaded, did not experience military dictatorship, revolution or a
coup, and neither fascism nor communism in government. For other nations
European integration has been seen as something that can help protect them from
repeats of such traumas. In Britain
separation from Europe was one thing that
protected her from phenomena like invasions. This does not mean that this
reason for detachment from Europe endures in
the minds of the British today. But valuing separation may have outlived the
original rationale for it. In addition, for other countries in Europe integration is more of a minor disturbance to
politics compared to their turbulent pasts while for the British, compared to
their recent history of relative internal stability, it is a comparatively more
significant transformation in the way politics is done. This may be one reason
why it is approached with greater trepidation.
occupies an ambivalent position between Europe and the USA. Britain was a colonial power in America and relied heavily on the alliance with
in the 1940s. It shares a language with the Americans which it does with no
European country except Ireland.
While nations like France
and Germany are historically
associated with more collectivist or statist versions of capitalism, the UK shares with the USA an affinity with a more
neoliberal form of capitalism. Certainly, there is a history of socialism in
the UK, a welfare state that
is more European than American and neoliberalism in the UK has arisen
through conflict and not in a natural evolutionary process. Also, Post-communist
Central and Eastern European states have shown an enthusiasm for more free
markets, and privatisation and economic liberalism is not exactly absent from
Western Europe. But Britain
also shares a liberal economic culture with the US more enthusiastically than some
other Northern and Western European states do. Shared language and shared
neoliberal affinities are amongst the factors that have made the UK open to the
penetration of American media and culture. As such Britain
is reticent to throw itself fully in with Europe
because of another affiliation it historically holds, an Atlanticist one.
A 2003 Eurobarometer survey showed that when asked
about US influence on globalization UK respondents were the most positive out
of respondents from EU member states, although not by a very large margin. When
asked for their views on the EU’s influence on globalization UK respondents
were the most negative (EC 2003). In an international survey of public
attitudes, respondents from Anglo-Saxon countries were more negative than
others on the statement that the provision of childcare should be a government
respondents were closer to Europe than the USA
in their responses but the least interventionist by European standards, a
position which may be more generally representative of the UK’s position in relation to the US and Europe
(ISSP 2001). (The relationship of British politics to Europe and America has
been explored by Gamble 2003. He and Young 1997 are amongst those who discuss Britain’s reluctance about Europe
in a global context).
stability in a situation of relative detachment and affinities with the US may in part be explanations for Euro-caution
in the UK.
But while a reluctant European compared to many other EU members, Britain is,
for good or ill, a state involved in global politics (see also McCormick 2003:
ch 8). Britain has been a
military intervener in the Gulf, Kosovo, and Afghanistan,
in some cases with which some other European states, such as France and Germany, were in disagreement. It
is a member of many of the world’s leading international political
organisations (a permanent member of the UN Security Council, and an important
member of NATO, the G7, the OECD, the WTO and other international
organisations). It is the world’s fourth largest economy and one of two powers
in Europe with nuclear weapons. Both
Thatcherism and Blairism have attracted global interest as political phenomena
of the 1980s and 1990s. And despite its Euro-reluctance
Britain is a
significant European power.
global involvements lies with her imperial past. In the European Union Britain
remains at best the third most significant power, and outside the two main
drivers of European integration, Germany and France. This is a comedown from an
imperial past of global leadership. But as a leading member of global
interventions and organisations British politicians can feel that their country
is a higher ranking power at a more international level, sometimes the second
most significant participant after the USA, albeit a distant second. To be a
major global actor rather than a third ranking European regional power may feel
more in keeping with Britain’s
imperial past to its leaders who aspire to a continuing leading international
status. (Cain and Hopkins 2001 also reflect on the continuation of imperial
legacies after the end of empire). However, the opposition of the majority of
the British public to the Iraq
war suggests they do not necessarily share some politicians’ desire for Britain to be
playing a leading role in such global interventions.
To sum up, Britain’s Euro-reluctance and involvements
in global politics may be affected by factors such as its island status,
Europe’s turbulent history in the 20th century, the country’s
imperial past, and historical links with the USA (see also Young 1997 and
Reynolds 2000 on Britain’s world relations in the 20th century).
They are not predetermined by such factors. Transnational political involvements
are matters of political choice made also according to additional factors such
as economic interest and ideology. Alternative choices are possible. But such
historical influences are part of the explanation for how choices in this
particular context may have come to be made.
Britain’s role in European and global politics
supports a number of the themes on globalization I have mentioned in this
article. Its relationships in these configurations show differentiation in the
experience of globalization. Most other nations in Europe
are, for instance, more enthusiastic Europeans and some are less enthusiastic
participants in global politics, as has been mentioned in relation to some
military interventions. The specificity of Britain’s political role comes in part
from what is distinct about its history, such as its imperial past and the
historical constitution of its European and American links. Britain’s
participation in regional and global politics is rooted in institutions and
processes of the modern era, such as the nation-state, global imperialism and
historical events of the twentieth century, rather than in more recent
globalizing forces of the post-1960s such as the information revolution or
cultural hybridity. Britain’s
imperial past conditions its reluctance to involve itself in Europe
relative to its global enthusiasms. And it is through the power of the British
nation-state that historical imperialism was built and participation in the EU
and global institutions and interventions are conducted.
Globalization is in part constructed through state
action and political agency and so is not purely economically determined. But
political agency is often aimed at furthering or underpinning economic
expansionism and is economically mediated. The historical and contemporary role
in the global sphere has followed from the global extension of capitalism. The
empire was an attempt at economic expansionism, even if it cannot be reduced to
that, and Britain’s position now between Europe and the USA, its Atlanticism
and globalizing role are connected in part to its neo-liberal Anglo-Saxon form
of capitalism, something that not all other European nations adopt to the same
extent but that Britain does share with the USA.
The explanations I have outlined do not support
either a strongly globalist or a strongly sceptical perspective. The British
state is a key actor in European and global politics. So contrary to a strong
globalism there is a significant role for the state. But the state also plays a
role in constituting major transnational forms of politics, contrary to
positions sceptical about the rise of a global politics. Needless to say there
are power, inequalities and conflicts in European and global politics. States
have unequal amounts of power, and conflicts result amongst European countries
and between some of them (and countries on other continents) and the USA, for instance over free trade and
protectionism, whether economic and welfare models should be more social or
more liberal, and over justifications for the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the USA
In short, the experience of Britain in
European and global politics exemplifies the themes of this article: on
differentiation; modernity; history; economy; globalism and scepticism; and
power, inequality and conflict. And Britain has been politically a very
globalized and globally involved country politically.
Culture and globalization
As with the economy and politics Britain is very
open to the globalization of culture. Britain’s
cultural globalization can be seen in post-colonial inputs into its culture and
its relationship to the Americanisation of culture, but attitudes to
globalization vary between the four countries of the UK.
One area in which multicultural or hybrid dimensions
to British culture have arisen has been from post-war immigration from former
colonies. A focus on post-war post-colonial immigration overlooks that Britain has
long been a hybrid country, through centuries of invasions and migration. However,
post-war postcolonial inputs have brought further complexities to British
culture through greater cultural diversity and raised political questions to do
with immigration and citizenship, multiculturalism and integration, racism and
inequality, and, for some, national identity. The latter, a lot of which is
constructed and imagined, and complex, especially in a state which is already
multi-national, has become more complex with greater multi-culturalism.
(Castles and Miller 2003 outline global migration drawing out the implications
for ethnic relations and multiculturalism).
As well as postcolonial inputs Britain is also
open to Americanisation of its culture (discussed more generally in Beck et al
2003). Historically the globalization of American culture started with the mass
production of Fordism and Taylorism, the mass consumption that followed (for
instance in car ownership) and mass culture spreading from the USA to other
parts of the world, through the proliferation of new forms of communications
technology (Reynolds 2002). American cultural exports started off with jazz,
film and rock ‘n’ roll (Osterhammel and Petersson 2005) and US culture has come to be prevalent in youth and
pop culture, the media, such as cinema and TV, and in a consumerist and
individualist economic culture similar in both the USA
The two countries share a language which makes Britain especially open to American
cultural imports such as TV programming (see Thompson 1995: ch 5 on US media
exports). For Reynolds (2002) globalism helped America
create a national identity, as a globalizer, in a diverse nation, in the same
way that some argue, as we shall see, imperialism did for Britain.
The penetration of American culture in the UK and
elsewhere can be exaggerated. Beyond more superficial consumer culture there
may be differences in the customs, habits and values of people of different
nations. While countries other than the UK
are open to Americanisation, elsewhere in the world US culture is also sometimes less
evident, resented or resisted. It can sometimes be more at the level of economy
and politics than culture that American power is most extensive, through
American-dominated neoliberal capitalism and its political-military strength.
Globally societies are often a hybrid mix of the domestic and incoming elements
from other parts of the world (see for instance Robins 1997 and Pieterse 2004).
Hybridisation can be used to describe British culture, open to inputs not just
from America and former colonies but broadly from, for instance, Asia, Africa
and Latin America when it comes to music, fashion, and food, for example. And
British culture is also not just an importer. The dominance of English as a
world language is one factor that facilitates the export of British culture,
pop music and media (Thompson 1995: ch 5).
does not have a monolithic relationship to globalization. Scotland, Wales
and Northern Ireland show
different attitudes to globalization from those in England. The smaller UK nations tend to be more friendly to Europe and
less so to Atlanticism and Britain’s
global interventions. Anglo-American capitalism involves a culture of
individualism which is less strong in Scotland. Social attitudes data
show such regional differences: for instance Scots as more egalitarian and interventionist
than people in the Midlands, London and the South of England and more
pro-European than the English, with the exception of Londoners (see Curtice
1988 and1996, Curtice and Heath 2000, and Curtice and Seyd 2002). Some poorer
regions within the smaller UK
countries have more to gain from the EU and are more inclined to bypass the UK nation-state
to which they have less of an allegiance than the English. So there are
regional differences within the UK
in attitudes to aspects of globalization such as the values of Anglo-American
capitalism and wider political entities like Europe.
Some like Colley (1992) have argued that British
imperialism involved the Welsh, Irish and especially the Scots, as well as the
English, and that it was a factor that united the four nations in a shared
British identity. But it has also been argued that the Scots were involved in
the empire in a subordinate role to the English and that the empire led to a
stronger sense of Scottish identity than existed before (Hopkins 1999: 212).
The Scots, Welsh and Irish have been as much historically colonized (by the
English) as colonizers and so can sometimes be as anti-imperialist as linked to
imperialism, and identify with the history of their own nations rather than
with that of the British as a whole and its wider historical extension. (There
are, of course, variations from this, for instance amongst unionists in Northern Ireland).
Furthermore with the decline of empire there was not so much of a British
project to identify with and this, it is argued, has led the Scots, Welsh and
Irish to fall back on their own identities, this being one factor leading to
political devolution instigated by the first Blair government (Gamble
Kumar (2003) argues that Britain’s imperial past has also
had implications for English identity. He suggests that English identity is
more elusive than national identity for the Scots, Welsh and Irish and most of
mainland Europe because as an imperialist nation the English developed a sense
of externally-oriented missionary nationalism and less of an internal sense of
national identity, except insofar as the latter was related to their larger
external enterprises. As a result, Kumar argues, the English have more trouble
identifying themselves in the post-imperial era than some other nations. For
the English the loss of empire calls either for a new reassessment of identity
or, as has been mentioned above in relation to European and global politics,
for a continuing sense of imperial aspirations through other channels, or both.
To sum up, Britain seems, as with the economy
and politics, quite a globalized country culturally, affected by, for instance,
post-colonial and American inputs into its culture. But it is not homogeneous
in attitudes to globalization, there being regional differences in attitudes to
the values of Anglo-Saxon capitalism, Europe
and, perhaps, variations in responses to post-imperialism.
These experiences of Britain in global culture support
the six themes on globalization of this article. The combination of
commonwealth immigration, the mode of Americanisation and the varying
experiences of the four nations differentiate Britain from other countries. Other
nations share some of these inputs but Britain’s combination of them is
its own, just as other nations have their own unique mixtures of cultures.
Differentiation in relation to globalization also occurs within the UK’s different
nations and cultures. But at the same time differentiation is accompanied by
generalisation globally, in the case of economics and politics as argued above,
and culturally in the case of American culture, for instance.
History is important to Britain’s
cultural globalization, imperial history being behind postcolonial influences
on British culture, links with the USA,
and reasons given for differences in the UK’s four nations’ relationships to
globalization. Economic drives were behind the imperial expansion which has
been influential in these ways and behind the importing and exporting of
culture more recently. Culture globalizes in part because of efforts to buy and
sell it, although its globalization cannot be reduced to this.
Cultural globalization is affected by power,
inequality and conflict. The importing of American culture is linked to the US dominance of the cultural industry through
its large media conglomerates and there is an asymmetry in production of and
access to culture (Thompson 1995, Held et al 1999: ch 7), the UK being at the
powerful end of things on a global scale in both aspects. The export and import
of culture can lead to conflict and the UK
is more receptive as far as the diffusion of American culture goes, whether
this is economic and political values or US media, than some other parts of
the world. A country as nearby to Britain
for instance, is known for government attempts to resist too much intrusion
from the English language and Anglo-American pop music.
Globalist perspectives can detect the exposure of
countries like the UK to the
diffusion of culture across national boundaries but have sometimes tended not
to recognize differences in productive power, access, and reception of media
and culture, in which respects the UK is relatively open globally
compared to some other places. Scepticism can recognize the importance of
national differences in such regards but be less sensitive to the way these
combine with the reconstruction of national cultures by the global diffusion of
culture, in the way I have described as being the UK experience.
I have argued that six themes for understanding
globalization apply to the British experience. In the four areas in which I
have addressed these themes we have seen that Britain is affected by its
history as an imperial power, its affinities with a neoliberal mode of economic
globalization, its role in regional and global politics and its hybrid
1) In the economy, politics and culture Britain is a
very globalized and globalizing country. It has its own differentiated and
unique experience of globalization, as do all nations, but has also been
aligned historically and now with a generalisation of economic globalization
that rolls on despite areas where there is differentiation in globalization.
experience of globalization has been strongly related to economic expansionism.
3) Its global experience has been based in the modern era of capitalism and the
nation-state, more so than being pre-modern or originating in postmodern times.
4) It is situated in history, and history, in part, explains Britain’s
contemporary experience of globalization.
5) A strong globalist perspective captures the spread
of globalization, something which Britain has been both an agent and
recipient of, but less so the role of the nation-state and national differentiation,
also parts of the British experience of globalization. A strong scepticism
shows the continuing role of the nation-state but can underplay the way the
state plays a role in a configuration of global forces and is reconstituted
culturally and politically by them, as Britain has been by experiences such as
its past imperial role, economic globalization, regional and global politics
and cultural hybridisation.
6) In Britain
as in other cases, these processes involve inequalities between the economically,
politically and culturally more powerful and richer on one hand and the weaker
and poorer on the other and the conflicts that result from the meetings of such
unevenly divided forces. Britain
has usually been part of the core of states that have the greatest power in
processes of globalization, although sometimes has been part of global
processes which involve other actors more powerful than itself.
These themes come together to emphasise a perspective
that stresses economic, historical, modern factors and power and inequality
over postmodern, cultural views that have a more benign pluralist and
equalising view. This perspective combines sceptical as well as globalist
insights and the role of generalisation in globalization as well as
However, these circumstances behind Britain’s
experience of globalization do not determine it. They help to explain the
choices that have been made to mould the way Britain’s experience of
globalization has developed. How Britain responds to globalization
is in part a matter of political choice and alternative choices could be made
in the future.
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