After ‘new Britain’: The Strange Death of ‘the Labour Nation’

Gerry Hassan

Renewal:  A Journal of Social Democracy, Autumn 2010

The question that hovers above the Iraq inquiry is – since the evidence on Saddam Hussein’s weaponry was so flaky and the post-war planning so atrocious – why on earth Tony Blair did it. One theory, albeit not the one likely to be offered by Mr Blair himself, is that his militarism and messianism, the mix of responsibility and entitlement that he evinced, are part of the inheritance of all post-imperial British leaders…

If empire is the backdrop of Britain’s foreign entanglements, it is also implicated in the country’s exposure to another great debacle, the financial crash. The City and the empire grew up symbiotically. Imperial trade and investment made London a world financial centre; the City became vital to the British economy, while at the same time, preoccupied as it was with foreign deals, largely separate from the rest of it. The empire thus bequeathed commercial habits, and an overmighty financial sector, which British taxpayers now have cause to regret.

Bagehot, The Economist, 5 December 2009

We stand at a critical point in Labour’s fortunes: sixteen years of New Labour; the exhaustion of a prescriptive, limiting way of understanding, enacting and doing politics, and the end of the line for the incantation of ‘modernisation’ and ‘New Britain’.

The definitive story of New Labour has yet to be written. When it is, it will clearly be a lot more sophisticated and nuanced than the politics as personality of Andrew Rawnsley’s interpretation (2010) – the dominant media account of the period – or those of the main players who have put pen to paper so far (Mandelson, 2010; Campbell, 2010; Blair, 2010). The experience of New Labour has to be put into a longer-term perspective which locates it in the evolution, crisis and ultimate demise of Labour Britain’s once powerful story. This story gave the party a party a purpose and animating project which was its ‘soul’ and ‘utopia’ for much of its existence, and which now stands exhausted, humiliated and defeated (see Shaw, 2007).

The five Labour leadership candidates have much to contend with, including the shadow of New Labour, yet one area they have shown little understanding of is the need to address the terrain of the story of Labour Britain. The numerous leadership debates have shown no awareness of the need to explore the question of how Labour understands Britain as a country, state and set of nations. How does the British state and government act in a progressive manner which has an over-arching UK-wide purpose, while acknowledging its multi-national character, wider geo-political context, and the territorial dimensions which inform it? To put it simply, how does Labour tell a story of a ‘Labour nation’ and state after New Labour?

The story of Labour Britain

The march is not yet over. It is only just beginning. These fifty years and the years that went before them are but the prelude to the greater story. Now, as it makes ready for a new advance, Labour calls to its ranks as throughout its history a great company, the company of those of all ages and all classes who are not afraid to fight for the progress of mankind and to give their fidelity to the cause of the brotherhood of man.

Francis Williams, Fifty Years’ March: The Rise of the Labour Party (1950)

There was once was a powerful, resonant story of Labour Britain. It was a profoundly British story, about progress, the forward march of working people, interwoven with the claim of organised labour having its place recognised under the right, enlightened leadership. This story gave the Labour Party a sense of moral mission and purpose and carried an appeal well beyond its natural boundaries. It was a story of ‘the Labour nation’ which Labour had deep ambivalence about, in the main because of the powerful Tory association with the nation and from this with Empire, xenophobia and imperialism. Labour was a deeply British party, shaped by the culture, codes and history of these isles – insular, self-congratulatory, suspicious of foreign ways, and yet at the same time it saw itself as part of an international calling and crusade.

Arthur Aughey put it that ‘the Labour nation was to be sustained by the social democratic state’ and full employment, redistribution and social justice (2001, 90). This ‘Labour nation’ was bound together by the values of community, class and citizenship which concealed significant Labour ill-ease about the nation: these values were utilised in a solidaristic project centred on the ideas of greater equality and efficiency. This vision was maintained by the post-war international order and system of managed, organised and secure capitalism. When that system began to become unstable and unravel it posed huge problems for social democratic politics.

Labour became the party of the central state and the dominant account of this became the Fabian perspective which saw the state as a powerful political instrument for good, for planning, redistribution and progressive ends. There was in this the rise of the expert, the technocrat and science, and the belief in rational, calculated, logical action as compared to the perfidy and unplanned chaos of the market.

All of this contributed to a mainstream Labour tradition which propagated the Whig notion of British history: of continuity, lack of rupture, organic change, and a trust in the institutions of British public life. There was a counter-Whig view which stressed the progressive narrative of British history: the Levellers, Diggers, Tom Paine, the Chartists, and there was even within this version an implicit acceptance of the wider Whig history, of Britain as this exceptional, blessed island of liberty, which would see Labour politicians from Foot to Brown cite ‘one thousand years of British history’ without any embarrassment for their historical illiteracy (Hassan, 2009a).

The Whig version of history can be maligned or caricatured, but carries weight and influence to this day. Previous historical accounts of the forward march of Labour from Francis Williams and Cole and Postgate still influence the collective memory of the party (Williams, 1950; Cole and Postgage, 1946). More recent and mainstream accounts from the likes of A. J. P. Taylor have told an account of the progress of British democracy which has been comforting to Labour (Taylor, 1965). To this day populist historians such as Andrew Marr have given voice to a post-war story which portrays Blair’s Britain as cosmopolitan, liberal, diverse and at ease with itself: as the continuation of progress (Marr, 2007).

Labour embraced the idea of the UK as a unitary state, where the political central authority held an uncontested monopoly of political power to enforce standardisation and uniformity throughout the country. This was predominantly an English story of democracy, liberty and rights, and the progression of English parliamentary sovereignty, ignoring the Scots, Welsh and Irish. The problems of English/British oppression in Ireland, or the opposite story of the Scots freely joining the union as equals in the Treaties of Union, were usually glossed over in a wider pan-English/British incorporating narrative.

Then there was the issue of Britain’s role and place in the world, and in particular the issue of the Empire, colonialism and imperialism. While Labour was influenced from its earliest days by an explicit, instinctual anti-imperialism, the party also embraced what Adam Smith called ‘the project of an Empire’ as a vehicle for progress and civilisation (Darwin, 2009). Important apologists for Empire such as the Fabians George Bernard Shaw and H. G. Wells were outriders here, but they tapped a wider sense that the Empire could provide a great global project for progress, efficiency and benevolence (Porter, 2006).

Shaw’s ‘Fabianism and the Empire’ took up these positions explicitly, but a wider problem was the failure of Labour to articulate any kind of understanding of how the prosperity and living standards of people in Britain was based on the exploitation of millions of people across the world (Porter, 2008). George Orwell reflected upon this one month after Labour’s famous victory in 1945, commenting that ‘the chief danger of the situation lies in the fact that the English people have never been made to grasp that the sources of their prosperity lie outside England’. This was ‘incompatible with the spirit of Socialism’ and the source of the problem unambiguous: ‘the parochial outlook of the Labour Party itself is largely responsible for this’. Orwell concluded that with the odd exception, he had ‘never met an English Socialist who would face it’ (Orwell, 1968, 395-96).

This still has repercussions in present-day post-Empire Britain. The relationship between Empire, multi-national identities and the British state has remained blurred, as have the consequences of the retreat from imperial citizenship which began with the Nationality Act of 1948 to contemporary post-imperial citizenship (Mycock, 2010).

The strange death of Labour Britain

In the 1960s and 1970s Britain went into a period of severe economic crisis and difficulty which had massive consequences for Labour, social democracy and the managed welfare capitalism of the post-war era. This was a time when the British state started to feel the stresses and strains of the challenges from different directions. It was not an accident that these were simultaneously both internal and external: internal – driven by the challenge of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, and external – affected by the growing instability and crisis in the world economy from the mid-1960s onward (Hassan, 2006).

The Wilson government was elected with high hopes of tackling British economic growth, inefficiencies and inequalities, with its main domestic policies centred on the National Plan. It was more than coincidence that the abandonment of the National Plan in 1966-67 as the Wilson administration dithered and delayed about the level of sterling and devaluation – and with it the Croslandite social democratic dreams of economic growth, planning and greater equality – happened at the same time as the challenge from the SNP and Plaid Cymru to Labour’s hegemony in Scotland and Wales. The two were directly and inextricably linked.

The respective victories of, first, Plaid at Carmarthen in 1966, and then the SNP at Hamilton in 1967, changed British politics completely in ways which it is difficult to comprehend today – challenging ‘the homogenisation of British politics’ thesis (Addison, 2010). This period saw the idea of ‘the Labour nation’ under threat both from within and without, and was the beginning of the end of post-war British social democracy. Labour’s response to the Scots and Welsh was hesitant and lacked any sense of sureness or imagination, concentrating on holding Scotland and Wales in the Labour camp and within the UK. Initially, they tried the delaying tactic of a Royal Commission – Kilbrandon – but that didn’t stop the tide. Both the internal and external challenges to the state gained strength in even more potent challenges from 1973-74, sending profound shockwaves through the British political system.

The second wave of Scottish nationalism corresponded and was shaped by the world economic dislocation of this period, while the OPEC oil price hike happened as North Sea oil came on stream, and ‘It’s Scotland’s Oil’ gained political traction. British Labour responded to its Scottish and Welsh challenges with panic and a lack of conviction, with for example, the UK leadership ordering the Scottish party to adopt a pro-devolution stance. From 1974 to 1997 British Labour sought to get the best of all worlds from Scotland and Wales, promising devolution to both, insisting they keep their full quota of Westminster MPs, re-emphasising parliamentary sovereignty, and the maintenance of the territorial integrity of the UK. This was crucial to the bridge-building politics of Scottish and Welsh Labour in their nations: stressing the benefits of the UK in their respective territories, and their national voices at Westminster.

Labour’s approach to the internal challenges to the British state and social democracy have thus been characterised by a lack of élan, reacting to events and trying to maintain the status quo. At the same time, pro-devolution forces in the party could present such changes as being in line with older Labour traditions of decentralism and localism before Fabianism.

The party’s response to the external challenges it faced was even less sure footed and took the party into uncharted territory where it had no previous progressive traditions to draw upon. The external challenges – which raised questions about the nature of the strength of the British economy, economic decline, and whether Labour’s policies could be afforded or earn the trust of international markets – brought up questions about the feasibility of social democracy in one nation. This troublesome road was to create the conditions which led to both Thatcherism and New Labour.

At first many in Labour reacted to the external crisis by shifting to a much more radical, left strategy associated with Tony Benn, which gave birth to the Alternative Economic Strategy. A nascent version of this emerged in 1974-75, but was abandoned quickly and by 1976 Labour formally retreated from most of the parameters of the post-war consensus, embracing public spending cuts and monetarism at the behest of the IMF: this was the final burial of Croslandite social democracy. The left responded to this with the brief Bennite revolution in the party post-1979, which was quickly defeated, but which created deep, everlasting shocks as the age of intra-party deference seen under Attlee and even early Wilson withered. The party’s internal regime post-Bennism slowly re-established the authority and power of leadership, and as the party shifted into the middle ground in the 1980s it began to retreat from any radical aspirations in its policies, adopting pro-business, pro-industry policies.

By the advent of New Labour the party leadership had explicitly adopted a set of policies based on acquiescing to market logic about what was possible in Britain. Therefore, the road from 1967 and 1976, and the defeats of Labour governments’ progressive political agendas, led directly to the emergence of New Labour, which experienced ten years of economic growth, before the unsustainability of its political, economic and social agenda was completely revealed.

If we can imagine the idea of ‘the Labour nation’, can we then map out the contours of ‘the New Labour nation’? This, in its early years, would have been shaped by a national vision of consensus, centrism and partnership, of an end to the arid divisions of left and right, working class and middle class. It was radical and against ‘the forces of conservatism’ within ‘the Labour movement’ and the Tory establishment, and for a Lib-Lab progressive coalition. But none of this was realised, and the latter period ‘New Labour nation’ morphed into a ‘Britain plc’, celebrating the success of the British global class, the winners and the haves, while trying in the name of inclusiveness and social justice to not completely forget about those left behind. The first vision was informed less by the myth of 1945, and more by the spirit of 1906 and Gladstonian sensibility; the second took Labour into a Faustian pact with the forces of power, privilege and globalisation, supposedly for progressive ends.

Whatever happened to ‘the New Britain’?

The New Labour era encompassed a transformation of the British state and system of government which fundamentally altered their character, and changed the dynamics and dimensions of power and purpose at the heart of the system. At the same time as devolution occurred to Scotland and Wales, along with Northern Ireland, a radical concentration and centralisation of political power occurred in Whitehall and particularly in No. 10. The character of power and policymaking dramatically altered with the use of external management consultants and advisers such as McKinsey and PwC, and the rise of an entire class of ‘entrepreneurs of the state’ (Craig and Brooks, 2006).

Such a transformation was influenced by a caricaturing of the earlier system as an old boy’s network, stuffy, Oxbridge and establishment-dominated, whereas the new order was dynamic, diverse, more representative and not hidebound to tradition. Yet the new order turned out to be even more captured by orthodoxy than the old one – only this time it was to the high priests of free marketisation and corporate groupthink.

Yet, despite all of this the scale and degree of change is still under-estimated by observers which resulted in a morphing of the central organs of the British state into a neo-liberal state which gave succour and encouragement to the prioritisation of a certain narrow mindset of economic relationships aiding corporatism, markets and inequality. Reading Andrew Rawnsley’s copious, 800 page account of New Labour you will find no space in its analysis for a study of ideology and the changing character of politics and the British state. Even as thoughtful an analysis as David Marquand’s study of British democracy since 1918 talked positively of ‘a reconstruction of the British state, more radical than any since 1707’ (Marquand, 2008, 395).

This saw dramatic changes across British polity: a state which was unashamedly for corporate business, which embraced corporate ideas and concepts of change, and corporate buzz and waffle which contributed to the debasement of the English language. This was an age where BAE Systems engaged in systemic kickbacks only to see the Serious Fraud Office case dropped; where BP lobbied the UK government on the release of the Lockerbie bomber al-Megrahi to open up Libya. Public services were marketised and fragmented from the NHS to academy schools, and public bodies from the BBC to the British Council became the embodiment of an age of management psychobabble.

The extent of this New Labour revolution, its consequences and implications, has yet to sink in for many, but the Conservative-Lib Dem Coalition’s public service reforms have been given legitimacy and build on the lessons of Blairism, as Tony Blair has made explicit post-election (Forsyth, 2010). Another major issue here is how the Labour Party were so effectively captured by such a doctrinaire, reactionary ideology, which was hostile to all the party professed; part of this was the exhaustion of the party’s traditional progressive ideas, previously explored. Part was the way the British political system rewards absolutist, monarchical power, allowing New Labour to implement its revolution. Yet, despite everything there is a widespread belief in Labour that the party can just turn its back on the New Labour era and reclaim and cleanse itself from neo-liberalism, rather than ask how it allowed this to happen, how does it stop it happening again, and what does the whole experience tell about the paucity of genuinely radical ideas in Labour.

The ‘open nation’: the UK as a geo-political entity

Britain’s geo-political position in the post-war era was described by Churchill in a 1946 speech where he placed Britain at the centre of three circles: Anglo-America, Empire and Europe; in the present day Andrew Gamble has interpreted this into four: the British Union, Anglo-America, Commonwealth and Europe (Gamble, 2003).

The evolution of the UK-US alliance in 1940-41 gave birth to ‘the special relationship’, a Churchillian phrase first used in 1945 to describe the UK’s common interests with the US and Canada, and then the following year, the relationship between ‘the English speaking nations’ of the Empire and Commonwealth and the US. The formative period of this alliance coincided with the emergence of what Anthony Barnett has called ‘Churchillism’: a national project and consensus which accepted Britain’s status as ‘the junior partner’ in America’s global military project (Barnett, 1982). This relationship became the central pillar of British foreign, defence and security policy through the First Cold War, and was re-emphasised and renewed in a more ideological form in the Second Cold War by Reagan and Thatcher.

Despite the end of the Cold War, the UK-US relationship has continued – and during the Blair era saw the UK move even closer to the States – ‘hug them closer’ as a senior Downing Street aide commented prior to the Iraq War (Riddell, 2003). The UK provided key military support in the Kuwait invasion, Afghanistan and Iraq, and support in the war on terror. Atlanticism is an unequal relationship: crucial to the UK’s political psyche, but much less important in the US. In the US the only usage of ‘the special relationship’ is the maintenance of its most pro-American European ally with the advantages of being able to rely on the UK in international and military crises, alongside various transnational forums. In the post-Cold War world of multi-polar power politics, the UK clearly matters much less to the US than it used to.

Atlanticism has become one of the defining characteristics of the British governing and political elite, to the extent that it has become part of British national identity: every one of the UK’s political elites, its military and security establishments has been penetrated and is co-dependant on our American allies; this has reduced the UK to the status of a satellite ally.

The corollary of Atlanticism is eurosceptism, which has been gaining force since Heath’s EEC entry, becoming particularly virulent first under late Thatcherism, and then when Blair’s Euro project stalled under New Labour. Increasingly the UK has become unashamedly eurosceptic across its entire political spectrum, and at elite level does not perceive itself as a ‘normal’ European nation.

The failures of ‘the New Britain’

One of the biggest achievements of the New Labour era was its programme of constitutional reform: devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, along with the creation of a London Mayor, a Freedom of Information Act, a Human Rights Act, the abolition of all bar ninety-two hereditary peers in the House of Lords, creation of a Supreme Court, and proportional representation for the European Parliament. The list is an impressive one, but it does not amount to ‘new politics’, still less the ‘constitutional revolution’ promised.

This is because New Labour enacted each of these measures while emphasising continuity and in particular the preservation of parliamentary sovereignty. There was an incremental and piecemeal approach to Labour reform which saw each measure proposed and advanced in isolation because the party had made a previous commitment; none of it added up to a systematic critique of the ancien regime, let alone the emergence of a ‘new politics’. All of these limitations were evident before Labour began to go into reverse and engage in constitutional vandalism, qualifying and diminishing the impact of reform, seeking derogation from parts of the Human Rights Act in relation to terrorism. The nature of the political centre not only remained unreformed; its decay, deformation and absolutism actually increased, as command and control politics became the norm of New Labour practice.

A wider political failure has been the complete absence of a radical, progressive story and vision. What was all this reform for? What kind of politics? What kind of country? Instead of even a fledgling answer, there was only vagueness or silence. The early years of Blair saw the mantra of ‘New Labour, New Britain’ and the comment from Blair that ‘as we made New Labour, so we will make the New Britain’, a notion of politics which went to the heart of the project’s failure: the confusion of changing a party (leadership, positioning, PR) with the complex task of changing a country.

The Scottish experience showed a party with little idea of what positively to do with its reforms. Labour pulled the 1999 Scottish Parliament elections back from defeat with a hard unionist message, ‘Divorce is an expensive business’, hitting the SNP with the charge of ‘separatism’, masterminded by Douglas Alexander and Gordon Brown. However, this campaigning theme didn’t translate into a governing philosophy, and neither did the cautious incrementalism of centre-left politics which Labour with the Lib Dems ran Scotland with from 1999-2007.

There was a complete absence of vision on the part of Scottish Labour about devolution and its take on what devolution was for. Instead, what most animated the party was a blind detestation of all things Scottish Nationalist which, while aiding Labour in 1999, increasingly paid diminishing returns (Hassan, 2009b). The party’s hard unionism and paranoid anti-nationalism increasingly sounded desperate and shrill. But something more profound was at work: namely, the Scottish nationalist – with a small ‘n’ – account of Scotland (as opposed to the SNP) had become the defining account of Scotland: of its past, present and future. And Labour’s abrasiveness was a sign of its desperation to challenge this obvious reality.

The much more subtle Labour strategy would have been to take on the Scottish Nationalists with a nuanced nationalism of Labour. Instead, Labour made it relatively easy for the SNP to don unchallenged the mantle of the civic nationalism which shaped Scots public life, while Labour’s credentials as the progressive, social democratic party were increasingly challenged by a centre-left SNP which took the fight onto Labour terrain. It was no surprise that the SNP won the 2007 Scottish Parliament elections, and whatever the 2011 result, will remain a powerful force in Scottish politics, and one which has been successful in shaping the national debate.

In many respects, the contemporary Scottish nationalist project is as much a story of conservatism as of radicalism. It is a yearning for continuity – for a Scottish continuation of the post-war British consensus. This should not be surprising when the first two waves of SNP support in 1967 and 1973-74 were synonymous with the crisis of the British state and of social democracy’s ability to deliver the economic and social goods. Scots have since then shown a propensity to turn to the Scottish Nationalists when they doubt the British political parties. And one would surmise that, considering the state of the UK economically and socially, we may be about to enter such conditions again.

How can we make a ‘Labour Nation’ rise?

What then does the future of Britain hold and what are its implications for a Labour politics? Writing in the 1980s, Neal Ascherson asked who then should Labour speak for, and answered:

Not in the name of the nation, but not in the name of one class either. How about in the name of the people? It is not a nation or a class which demands Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, but the living – all the living – inhabitants of a definite country at a definite time: now. It is for the left, above all, to develop this notion of a ‘people’, free of British national mythology but also free of a false, defensive collectivism which threatens to become part of that mythology. (Ascherson, 1988, 156-57)

This is both unrealistic and filled with a sense of deep, internalised defeatism. A project shorn of ‘British national mythology’ is surely unpractical and utopian dreaming. More serious is the 1980s acceptance of left defeatism at the hands of Thatcherism. Ascherson, like Patrick Wright, whom he approvingly quotes, takes Thatcherism’s evocation of ‘the nation’ at face value and concedes it; ‘the British nation’ they both accept is about Empire and racism and all that (Wright, 1985). No other contested national stories are possible. And then there is the confusion about Thatcherism itself, which was never just about ‘the nation’, but a fusing of this with the claims of ‘the people’: not perhaps Ascherson’s ‘people’, but a populist, liberationist politics of freedom which wrong-footed lots of the left then and to this day.

Labour have, despite the above leftist tradition of giving ‘the nation’ to the Tories and the right, at significant points spoken an explicitly British national language which has been imbued with progressive tones: 1940 and the moment of ‘Churchillism’ would be one moment, Suez and the Falklands two others. This is not to argue that Labour got it right here, for what it tended to do was give credence to the dominant account of Britain as insular, unique and blessed by the Gods. Eric Hobsbawm drew on this inadvertently in a 1980 exchange with Tony Benn, when he asked:

How can we all turn the Labour Party into a party that speaks for the nation in the way that, once upon a time in, I think, 1940, the Tory people asked Arthur Greenwood to ‘Speak for Britain’? (Hobsbawm, 1981, 97)

The fact that Leo Amery asked Greenwood, deputising for Attlee, to ‘Speak for England’ (emphasis added) at the onset of war in September 1939 is only the most obvious point which shows the perils of navigation in this area (Louis, 1992). The Ascherson-Wright position of ‘the people’ is a leftist cul-de-sac, born of a mixture of 1960s romance and 1980s retreat. Intuitively, Hobsbawm is on the right lines, but he illustrates the pitfalls of reinforcing national myths which are part of the defining story of the nation and suffocate any progressive politics. The articulation of a counter-story, a people’s history of the nation carries with it all sorts of challenges, not least the demise of ‘the Labour nation’ and implosion of ‘the New Labour nation’.

A new story

Where and what would that alternative story of the nation and nations draw from, and what difficult questions would it have to address?

First, there are the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish experiences. For all the disappointments and lack of vision, the politics of Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast have succeeded in building alternative political centres which are different from Westminster and show some signals of future progressive directions; each has embraced neo-liberal orthodoxies less than the British state, retained notions of a public good, and emphasised equity above efficiency. They have also displayed a conservative institutional capture of vested interests problematic to any viable centre-left politics.

Second, there is the crucial missing dimension of England, the last part of the UK which is run on completely undemocratic rule, and in a real sense, still subject to ‘direct rule’ from Westminster and Whitehall. England is the one part of the UK which has never been asked about its constitutional future, whereas all three other nations have had two votes each (Scotland and Wales in 1979 and 1997, Northern Ireland in 1973 and 1998). The English need to address whether they wish to speak with a ‘national voice’ culturally and politically; this does not need to mean an English Parliament, but the longer, more ambitious project of reimagining England as a place, culture and nation. Some of this is cultural nationalism, but there is also the simple task of demanding that England be named and recognised (Hassan, 2009c); why for example do we have an Arts Council England, but not a British Council England; a BBC Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but no BBC England?

Third, there is the issue of Westminster, an increasingly hollowed out and battered relic from another age which still, despite everything, holds monopoly power over large aspects of our lives, and is a modern day leviathan unwilling and unable to share power downwards in the UK or externally with the EU. It is still, despite all the ‘constitutional reform’ and ECHR judgements, possessed by the voodoo language of parliamentary sovereignty with no sign of wanting to let go.

Related to this is the myth of the unitary state – one of the central defining mantras of British government and constitutionalism. The idea of a unitary state entails one omnipotent political centre and standardisation across a political territory. The United Kingdom with its numerous anomalies and distinct political arrangements for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland has never been and could never be a unitary state. Instead, the UK is a ‘union state’: a term invented by the political scientists Stein Rokkan and David Urwin which describes distinct sub-national and regional arrangements and preservation of ‘pre-union rights’ (Mitchell, 1996) (1). This hybrid, neither a unitary or federal system, accurately captures the makeup of the UK with the Treaties of Union of 1707 safeguarding Scottish autonomy. And yet, over the post-war period, our political classes have grown more and more attached to a dogmatic, inflexible unitary state myth of the UK which is believed by most of the civil service, media and opinion formers. This points to a wider crisis and dislocation within the British state, and the demise of an intelligent, organic Tory unionism, which while never forming such ideas in a conceptual manner, had an implicit grasp of such things.

Finally, all of the above are linked to the question of where Britain sits geo-politically. Does it see itself as a European nation, or as some of the uber-eurosceptics fantasise, the next member of NAFTA? Churchill’s powerful vision of a British people at the heart of three interconnecting circles – Anglo-America, Europe, and Empire (later, Commonwealth) – has become a mindset which has overinflated our importance and influence, and reinforced the idea of the UK as special: with its ‘special relationship’ and in a crucial place to be at the nexus – ‘the bridge’ – of these intersections. The UK under Thatcher and Blair increasingly saw itself as one of the outliers in ‘the Anglosphere’ – the English-speaking democracies of the world – all of whom witnessed in recent times far-reaching, brutal market fundamentalism and neo-liberalism to the degree unseen anywhere else in the advanced world. This is not surprising considering that the nations of ‘the Anglosphere’ – the US, Canada, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand – were to different degrees created or influenced by the UK. In every case bar Ireland these were ‘white settler’ nations whose notions of politics, political economy, corporate governance and the state was created by the mother country. In short, UK pioneers created much of the public life and infrastructure of these nations; the same thinkers and intellectuals who in many respects gave birth to British capitalism. Thus all of these nations have the same obsessive individualism and recent experience of neo-liberalism which springs from the same roots.

What story can Labour tell about Britain which gives sense and shape to the idea of a new (with a small ‘n’) ‘Labour nation’? The party is on extremely thin ice on all of the above; every one of which has shown the party’s worst characteristics, whether they be conservatism and caution, or insularity and clinging to conventions and the status quo.

The Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish experiences do at least offer Labour the option of claiming their existence as its success given it legislated for devolution. However, in each of the other areas the party faces major challenges. On the English dimension, Labour has always historically shown an ill-ease recognising or articulating a sense of Englishness, instead wanting to subsume it in an inclusive Britishness. Jon Cruddas recently wrote that there is Scottish and Welsh Labour, but ‘no English Labour’, and that the party has to ‘fashion its own cultural language of Englishness’ (Cruddas, 2010). This seems the beginning of a much-needed conversation. In relation to Westminster, Labour has from the 1920s been more shaped and influenced by Westminster than it has by Labour; the prevailing codes, traditions and practices of olden days by and large remain in place after several periods of majority Labour government.

Yet, it is in the challenge of imagining Britain geo-politically that Labour’s caution and failure has been most marked. Once upon a time, Labour saw Britain as this unique special land where the traditions of democracy and liberty would make a democratic socialist transformation possible; that story died a long, long time ago. In its place came a UK which was an ally to the forces of power and privilege across the world, which advocated market and trade liberalisation, deregulation and privatisation, while admittedly having a conscience on Third World debt and poverty.

Conclusion

Many on the left will say that post-election, post-crash, all of the above is fine and well but does not deal with the real nitty gritty, bread and butter issues: the economy, public spending, the scale of cuts coming and the fixation of the Con-Lib Dem Coalition on slashing the deficit.

This is a deeply flawed position which fails to recognise the interconnections between Britain’s economy, its state, geo-politics and the legacy of Empire, all of which shape our domestic, foreign and defence policies. It has taken as august and unusual a journal as The Economist to point this out in some detail, declaring in a recent ‘Bagehot’ column ‘the many ways in which Britain is living in the shadow of its Empire’, and that the UK is ‘perhaps, increasingly – trapped by its imperial past’. ‘Bagehot’ went on to make the link between Empire, the City of London and the anti-industrial ethos which has through the ages shaped the British establishment, politics and culture from the heyday of Victorian ‘gentlemanly capitalism’ to the present day. The City led to the unbalanced British economy of ‘Fantasy Island Britain’ and the waffle of ‘the knowledge economy’, but nowhere has a coherent centre-left critique emerged which has charted the way the City and financial services have ‘crowded out’ investment to manufacturing and industry and damaged British society.

Every single post-war British Prime Minister, ‘Bagehot’ writes, has obsessed with the palpable ‘sense of thwartedness and decline’, attempted to address and reverse it, embrace modernisation and the implicit idea of a ‘New Britain’: Thatcher and Blair had their different emphasises and continuity; the Cameron-Clegg ‘new politics’ have to be seen in the same tradition with their talk of ‘better Blairism’. Does Labour have the courage and daring to chart a different course, about a Britain that is a very different place to live for its citizens? This may seem a Herculean task for Labour, posing impossible challenges it is bound to fail, but answer it Labour must if it is to have any future as a credible progressive party.

The shape of the future has to recognise the demise of ‘the Labour nation’ and the dead end of ‘the New Labour nation’. What comes next for progressives, radicals and centre-leftists of all hues has to entail a post-socialist, post-labourist nation: a politics of pluralism, of different nations, and the ideals of self-government and self-determination. That seems a long way away from the Labour and New Labour nation we know so well, and where Labour currently stands.

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Notes

1. James Mitchell has recently revisited his advocacy of ‘the union state’ and developed this into the idea of the UK as ‘a union of states’ which acknowledges the different unions which make up the state. The idea of ‘the union state’ is still relevant and groundbreaking enough in relation to the UK, while his latest thinking does not actually preclude or sit in opposition to the original idea (Mitchell, 2009).