The future of the left since 1884

Labour and the nation 

Finding a social democratic language about Britishness is crucial if it is to reconnect with its traditional support, Ben Jackson explains The Labour party has a serious problem with patriotism and national identity. The events of the last few years –...


Finding a social democratic language about Britishness is crucial if it is to reconnect with its traditional support, Ben Jackson explains

The Labour party has a serious problem with patriotism and national identity. The events of the last few years – foremost among them the referendums on Scottish independence and Britain’s membership of the EU – have shown that Labour’s failure to develop an authoritative approach to the politics of nationalism is a critical factor in cutting it adrift from its traditional support base. It is of course true that both the recent, existential confrontations between Labour and plebiscitary democracy were decisively shaped by economic factors such as rising income inequality, deindustrialisation, and austerity. But to analyse the referendums purely in these terms, as some on the left are tempted to do, would be a misreading of the febrile state of British politics. Distributive conflict in Britain after the financial crisis, although undoubtedly a class issue, has at a popular level been understood, expressed and channelled in terms of competing nationalisms. The Labour party will have to engage with this politics of national identity if it is to gain a hearing for its ever more ambitious programme of economic reform.

One part of that engagement must be a response to the emerging importance of English national identity, a topic that is rightly, though belatedly, now commanding significant attention on the left. But for the purposes of this article I want to focus on Britishness and consider why Labour has found it so hard to come up with a convincing British socialist response to both the rising political salience of Scottish and English identities and the Conservative unionism that usually serves as the dominant defence of the British state. The difficulty for the Labour party in doing so rests not only in a weakness of will and political creativity on the part of the party’s leadership, but also in deep historical and cultural forces that inhibit efforts to marry patriotism and socialism in early twenty-first century Britain.

To understand the depth of the problem, consider how Labour thought about the nation in the 1940s, the period in which it is widely agreed to have achieved its most effective synthesis of popular patriotism with left-wing radicalism. Thanks to the enhancement of working class economic power and social prestige generated by total war, and the popular association between the Conservative party and the failed strategy of appeasement, Labour was able to position itself throughout the 1940s as the party that spoke for the national interest rather than privileged sectional interest groups. This much is a familiar theme in the histories of the period. It is less frequently asked how leading figures in the Labour party of the 1940s conceived of British patriotism and what they regarded as the distinctive features of British national identity. Yet it is instructive how thoroughly the towering figures of Labour’s golden age, such as Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison, Hugh Dalton and Ernest Bevin, shared an instinctively Whiggish view of British patriotism and political culture.

In the first half of the twentieth century Britishness had many different connotations – of empire, of a romantic attachment to the British landscape, of Protestantism, of a purportedly undoctrinal, pragmatic national character – but for almost all of the British elite what was fundamental in distinguishing Britain from other nations was its uniquely successful constitution. It was the gradual and managed growth of individual liberty and democratic self-government in parliament over the course of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries that was thought to set Britain apart from other, less favoured nations. The combination of freedom and social order established by this constitutional system was believed to be remarkable when compared to the revolutionary upheavals and despotisms suffered by other European nations in the same period. The leaders of the Labour party fully shared this analysis and drew political legitimacy from it, since the rise of Labour could be presented as the ‘logical’ next stage of the gradual expansion of political participation to include the working class.

The second world war strengthened the plausibility of this vision of Britishness, since it apparently confirmed the fundamental political weaknesses of other European nations. Evan Durbin, the leading thinker of the Labour right at this time, wrote in his 1940 book, The Politics of Democratic Socialism, that Britain was “an island of social peace … surrounded by the fierce sea of European hatred and fear.” Britain, argued Durbin, had “contributed a great idea and a great example” to the rest of the world because “we have lived in peace with one another for nearly three hundred years”. Indeed, he said, in its system of government Britain had discovered “the secret of social peace.”

What the Labour party added to this traditional British constitutionalism in the 1940s was a new note of social patriotism that presented the rise of economic planning and the welfare state as the next stage in securing British liberties and democracy. Following the guarantee of individual civil rights against the state and the universalisation of the right to vote, Labour argued that the use of the democratic state to pursue full employment and minimum economic standards was the culmination of the British tradition of gradual social inclusion by constitutional means. This was in effect the line of historical interpretation that T. H. Marshall built into a larger sociological theory in his seminal 1949 lecture, Citizenship and Social Class, which argued that the concept of citizenship could in retrospect be seen as progressing through three distinct phases: the rise of civil rights in the eighteenth century followed by political rights in the nineteenth century, leading eventually to the emergence of social rights in the twentieth century, as citizenship began to entail rights to material goods such as health-care, education, housing and social insurance.

In the 1940s, then, radical social politics and British patriotism were closely connected, not only because of the intense social experiences of total war, but also because Britain’s distinctive parliamentary political system was thought to be uniquely successful at mediating social conflicts, protecting liberty, and managing peaceful social change. This worldview remained highly influential on the British left (and right) for many years afterwards, and it provided a vision of Britishness that could be presented as progressive and democratic rather than (or in addition to) imperialist and traditionalist. But after the 1960s this version of British national identity began to collapse, hollowed out by a number of significant political and cultural changes. Labour has never developed a model of patriotism of comparable social authority to replace it. The origins of Labour’s subsequent problems with national identity therefore lie precisely in the crisis of the Whig democratic view of Britain articulated by Labour in the 1940s.

A series of important developments undercut the foundations of Labour’s constitutional patriotism and made it harder for the British left to stick to its traditional narrative about Britain as distinctively democratic and progressive. First, the radical political currents of the 1960s and 1970s, including the New Left, feminism, anti-colonialism and the civil rights movement, offered powerful and influential scepticism about how democratic and egalitarian the 1940s settlement actually was. Second, the concurrent rise of Celtic nationalisms in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland dramatically highlighted the extent to which the ‘British’ patriotism of the 1940s elided Britishness and Englishness and underplayed the character of Britain as a multi-national polity. Third, Britain’s entry into the European Community and the seemingly greater economic and social successes of other Western European nations in the 1970s compared to a Britain mired in economic crisis made it much harder to defend a discourse of exceptional British political and economic performance. Fourth, the subsequent ruthless and disorientating efficiency of the Thatcher governments in undoing key elements of the 1940s settlement raised profound questions for the left about why it was possible in Britain for radical change to be introduced by governments supported by only a minority of the electorate. Labour had enjoyed a similar privilege in 1945, but viewed from the perspective of opposition, this proved to be a more disturbing experience.

The cumulative impact of these developments was that the British left could no longer regard British parliamentary institutions and constitutional history as an unambiguous source of national pride. Progressives even began to look instead to the benefits of radically changing that constitution, with electoral reform, devolution, and written guarantees of rights all leading candidates to modernise what was now more commonly presented as a dilapidated and antiquated political system propping up an antediluvian social order. But in the absence of such an authentically modern constitutional settlement, the left lacked any basis for a positive historical account of British civic institutions.

When Labour entered government once again in 1997, important political reforms were introduced, but not in a way that was explicitly intended to build a new constitutional settlement and thus foster a new civic British patriotism. Labour and the wider left therefore found themselves with little of any political depth to say about Britishness beyond an impressionistic collection of historical episodes and political values that were collectively said to add up to a progressive British tradition. Although Gordon Brown, for one, perceived that this was a problem for Labour, he did not succeed in office in articulating an account of Britishness that achieved any substantial political or social resonance, nor did he sponsor any meaningful efforts to reform systematically the British constitution.

Until the Scottish independence referendum this did not strike many within the Labour party as a serious problem. But during the hectic spring and summer of 2014, Labour’s profound inarticulacy on British identity was clearly revealed. It proved surprisingly difficult for leading Labour figures to give a compelling positive account of British identity to go alongside the ferocious economic critique of Scottish independence. The main exception to this was Gordon Brown, who succeeded in refining his ideas about Britishness to the point where they at last had a significant political cut-through. Brown’s concept of the union as about risk sharing and resource pooling between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland was a fertile one, which opened up a distinctively social democratic way of characterising British institutions and traditions. The weakness of Brown’s analysis, as Scottish nationalists pointed out, is that post-Thatcher the ‘pooling and sharing’ case for British institutions is harder to make. After rapid deindustrialisation, growing economic inequality and a period of relatively right-wing Labour government followed by Westminster-sponsored austerity, the argument that Britain stands for egalitarian collective action unsurprisingly proved difficult to land with some long-standing Scottish Labour voters.

The reason ‘Britishness’ is so elusive for Labour today is therefore less, as some critics assume, because of the fading away of traditional props of Britishness such as empire or religion, but more because the teleology of Britain as the site of inexorable democratic progress elaborated in the 1940s has been swept away in Labour thinking, replaced (on both the left and right of the party) by a declinist vision of historic defeat by the forces of globalised capitalism. A civic British patriotism becomes hard to formulate with any conviction when the democratic credentials of the British state are in question. There is plenty to be pessimistic about in Labour politics at the moment, but the sheer difficulty of finding a social democratic language about Britishness that could hold together an election-winning coalition across England, Scotland and Wales is surely one of the most intractable problems for any Labour leadership serious about government.


Ben Jackson

Ben Jackson is Associate Professor of Modern History at Oxford University and co-editor of Political Quarterly.

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