What would a British revolution look like – and how would it happen?

Neil Davidson discusses the prospects for revolution in Britain in an article originally published on The Conversation.

Photo: Steve Eason
Photo: Steve Eason

In the days after Britain voted to leave the EU, a febrile, volatile atmosphere took hold. Prime Minister David Cameron resigned, the Parliamentary Labour Party began an attempt to unseat its left-wing leader Jeremy Corbyn, and the pound hit an all-time low. For a moment, it seemed that fundamental change was on the agenda – but as has happened so many times in Britain, the country stopped well short of a truly transformative moment. A British revolution, it seems, is not yet on the cards.

This is not all that surprising. Revolutions don’t come about on the back of raw anger or sheer will: all the necessary forces must come together, and certain conditions have to be in place. The crucial thing is for would-be revolutionaries to recognise them. So if we want to imagine a British revolution, we should look at what created the country’s last two near-revolutionary eras.

The first one began brewing in 1910, went through a brief intermission for the first two years of World War I, and then picked up again from 1916 and came to a head in 1919 as various crises and campaigns came to a head. The other ran from 1968 through to 1975 or so; it peaked in around 1972, with the Fisher-Bendix factory occupation, a national miners’ strike, a national dockers’ strike and Bloody Sunday all beginning or taking place in one month alone.

Both these restive periods came at moments of global upheaval that swept Britain up in a wider revolutionary wave. After World War I it seemed briefly as if Europe might follow Russia’s lead and embrace revolutionary socialist and anti-colonial politics; 1972, meanwhile, came halfway through the era bracketed by the French “evenements” of May 1968 and the end of the Portuguese Revolution in 1975.

In Britain, these times drew together a range of different movements. George Dangerfield famously described the combined Home Rule crisis in Ireland, revolts of workers and the campaign for women’s suffrage before 1914 as signalling “the strange death of liberal England“. After receding at the start of World War I, all three factors soon resurged, starting in 1916 with the Easter Rising in Dublin, the engineers’ struggle against dilution and the Glasgow rent strikes.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, meanwhile, Irish Republicanism, militant trade unionism and what was by then called radical women’s liberation were all in play, but accompanied by the anti-Vietnam War movement, new student and gay rights movements, and Britain’s first genuine revolutionary leftist movements since the Stalinist darkness fell in the late 1920s.

Finally, the events of both 1919 and 1972 were coloured by the struggles of trade unionists, whose mass strikes and occupations posed the biggest threat to the capitalist system. Even combined, the other forces involved did not amount to a comparable threat.

But with the assembled forces unable to seize state power – something that distinguishes all true revolutions – our rulers were able to restore control and secure lasting victories. The order established endures to this day.

So what prospect is there, really, for another revolutionary crisis in Britain?

The stars align

Some of the global conditions are clearly in place. As in 1968, we live in a faltering world economy; as in 1914, the UK is being battered by growing geopolitical instability and great power rivalry, with assorted conflicts and proxy wars underway – especially in the Middle East and North Africa.

There’s also a new factor: the existential threat of catastrophic man-made climate change, which many political theorists describe as inevitable while capitalism continues. Together, these three factors have produced another: mass migration and resulting human misery on a scale unseen since the end of World War II.

The next question, then, is whether Britain is actually primed for an epochal change.

The shattering result of the EU referendum and its chaotic aftermath shows that the British ruling class is deeply divided in a way that it wasn’t in 1919, or in even in 1972. And while the reign of neoliberalism has weakened the labour movement and enriched the wealth of the ruling elite and its hangers-on, it hasn’t restored profit rates on any consistent basis, and no obvious alternative form of capitalist organisation to propose as a way of answering the mass discontent.

But if another revolutionary situation arises, it won’t be because everyone wakes up one morning with the intention of overthrowing the system; it’ll be because a significant minority of the population respond to a much more localised and specific attack on their interests.

The spark

The Leave vote confronts the political representatives of the British establishment with dire uncertainty. If they put a foot wrong or overplay their hand, they could overreach themselves beyond the point of retreat.

For the moment, it seems reasonable to assume that the Conservative party will hold the reins throughout the post-referendum chaos – but we can imagine the sort of miscalculation that might provide the spark. Perhaps restrictions on in-work benefits or healthcare could be extended not just to migrants but to “native” Britons who haven’t paid into the system for whatever reason. The NHS could face full privatisation. Britain could get involved in a war between Russia and the NATO states.

The forces involved, though, might be very different from the UK’s last two revolutionary moments. Today, not just Ireland but also Scotland threatens the integrity of the union; among the oppressed, migrants are likely to be at the forefront of the struggle for rights.

The working class remains essential to any revolutionary project – not the caricatured “white working class” supposedly in thrall to racism and xenophobia, but the actual multi-ethnic working class employed in call centres, shopping malls and transportation hubs across the country. This potentially revolutionary class is very different to the industrial proletariat of old; it incorporates a vast mass of private sector workers who aren’t currently in trade unions.

That rather changes the mechanics of what revolutionary mobilisation would mean. Mass unionisation is obviously one component, and also relevant here are the three sustained community-based mass mobilisations that have rocked Britain since the defeat of the miners in 1985: the campaign against the “poll tax” (1987-90), the Iraq War (2002-04), and the grassroots independence campaigns “from below” in the Scottish Referendum (2014).

But while the sort of self-organisation that arose at these moments is likely to re-emerge, we might also expect the process to involve such random explosive and damaging episodes as the riots of 2011  – for which there are a great many competing explanations.

One thing is certain: the British capitalist state has entered a deep crisis, one that’s territorial, political and economic all at once. Revolution may not be a utopian solution – but it’s not hard to imagine a group or groups of dissenters deciding it’s the only way out.


  1. I realise that feelings are still running high about the Brexit vote and that some comrades evidently want to vent their anger at the result (and against those of us who argued for Leave), but that wasn’t what the article was about. I was asked (before the vote) by the editors of The Conversation to imagine what a revolution in Britain would be like and I tried to do that by thinking about 2 aspects: 1) previous revolutionary situations, to get some sense of the types of combinations of events that have come together (‘conjuncture’ if you want to get all Althusserian about it); and 2) what new elements have come into play since the 1970s. I didn’t say that the Brexit vote in itself represented a revolutionary situation and its just silly or dishonest to pretend that I did. What I did say was that Brexit manifested both division and a lack of strategic direction among our ruling class which, given a number of other factors (working-class insurgency, Scottish separation, etc) is the kind of thing which could (notice the conditional tense and illustrative nature of the claim) be one aspect of a revolutionary situation. One additional thing that I would have said, if I’d had space, was that the British ruling class is expert at both playing down actual crises (1919, 1972) and playing up situations which are problematic, but not life-threatening (1926, 1978). This is potentially one of the former. How serious it eventually turns out to be will depend partly on what the left does, but consider this: the Tory party, the main party of the British ruling class, now has to carry out a policy which is opposed by the majority of that class and which will have adverse affects on them. And there is no alternative governing-party-for-capital in sight, as the Labour Party is clearly not currently capable of playing that role. I am all for realism in assessing the weaknesses of the left and the labour movement, but I don’t think that it helps us to constantly exaggerate the strength and cohesion of our enemies.

  2. “The shattering result of the EU referendum and its chaotic aftermath shows that the British ruling class is deeply divided in a way that it wasn’t in 1919, or in even in 1972”

    I do find it surprising that anyone would attempt to visualise a left-wing insurgency in Britain through the prism of a referendum result in which a vote was won principally by a large of Tory voters, helped by a smaller number of UKIP voters and (very much the third component in the Brexit vote) a group of natural Labour voters choosing to defend benefits on the basis of a racialised exclusion of foreigners.

    The Conservative Party has been going through one of those processes it periodically goes through where a governing micro-strata breaks and a new set of leaders is chosen. It has done this quite a few times in the past – under Peel, under Disraeli, with the abandonment of free trade in the 1930s, and under Thatcher. This isn’t the ruling class going into a period of division – this is what it looks like when a political system *leaves* a period of division and finds a new basis around which to consolidate.

    Using a crisis like this to imagine a revolution is no sharper-eyed than when revolutionaries in Egypt responded to the Sisi coup by initially calling it “a second revolution” – a mistake they have been suffering in jail.

    Nothing that dramatic is going to happen in the UK, of course. But we are watching a period when the political centre consolidates at a certain definite to the right of where it was before.

    There will be revolutions in future but – thankfully – they won’t feel anything like the month we have been through.

  3. Hi CW,

    good points. I’d love to read an article considering the various options dealing with the military.
    It seems to me that there is not enough serious thinking on the left regarding the army.
    I am bringing up this point after some interesting conversations with my Turkish neighbours!!

    anyway, good article

  4. Mark – you’re right about the threat from the army, and needing to deal with that. There’s a third way of doing that you don’t mention – that rank and file soldiers mutiny against their officers and come over to the side of the revolution. You see that in Russia in 1917 and Germany in 1918. In both cases those were conscript armies. But even in the modern British armed forces, most recruits and working class, most officers middle class – there’s a strong class divide.

  5. Interesting article and a good question to ask.
    The only criticism i have is that it doesn’t deal with the issue of the army. I don’t see how any revolution would succeed without in some ways breaking the army, or having one’s own army. Otherwise, it seems to me that the army will put down any potential revolution by force.

  6. The actual multi ethic working class also surely includes the millions o public sector workers, the majority of who are in trade unions and constitute the backbone of the organised part of the working class.r


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