The future of the left since 1884

Progressive patriotism: John Denham’s speech to Scottish Fabians conference

The voters of the UK have taken, by a small but decisive margin, the biggest foreign and domestic policy decision of the past 40 years. In the process it has revealed a society deeply divided: socially, economically and politically, and it...


The voters of the UK have taken, by a small but decisive margin, the biggest foreign and domestic policy decision of the past 40 years.

In the process it has revealed a society deeply divided: socially, economically and politically, and it has reinforced the different trajectories of different parts of the Union.

For those on the left, many past assumptions and orthodoxies have been turned over. Some have turned to the ‘new but old’ radicalism that has surged into Labour. Others fear this won’t ever attract sufficient support but, as yet, have not confidently set out a clear alternative.

At the heart of many of these changes has been the rise of identity politics.

Primarily this is national identity politics, but also the identities that come from different cultural assumptions about the society we are or should be living in. English, Scottish, British, ethnic minorities, regional identities, elites vs people like us, the socially conservative against metropolitan cosmopolitans, liberalism contesting affection for  authority and order.

Division, not common purpose, has become a defining character of Britain and of its parts. It is hard to overstate the extent to which the Tory party has been the author of this division, and continues to do so. It’s deliberate pursuit of inequality. Its favouring of the rich. Its willing to try to heal its own internal divisions by opening up a European referendum which has had incalculable consequences for the UK and widening divisions purpose.

People say the Tory Party was united this week.  I’d say that a united Tory Party at the cost of a divided Britain is a very bad deal indeed.

The Fabian Society is of course the crucible of pragmatic practical policy making.

But the old ideological divides, the choices between party political programmes, no longer seem to make the sense to voters that they once seemed to do.

Identity politics has, of course, been on the rise for years, as you know well in Scotland. But the left has made the mistake of believing that it can be managed (as we did in Scotland) or ignored (as we have in England) while we get on with the more important things we’ve always worried about.

That – as I think we would all agree – was a mistake.

It is to the credit of the Fabian Society that it is creating the space for this essential debate.

In just over two years, national identity politics has transformed the political environment.

In Scotland, thousands of Labour voters abandoned the party to vote for separation; and then to nearly wipe out the Parliamentary party in Scotland.

In England, millions of voters identified distinctly English issues – issues of voice and representation  – at stake. Some turned to UKIP; others voted Tory to stop the SNP having an influence on a minority Labour government. As John Harris of the Guardian has written, saying you are English has become a way of saying ‘we’re here, we want to be listened to, and we are not going away’.

And in June, it was, primarily, those voters who most strongly identified as English who were the main supporters of Brexit. It was perhaps symbolic of the failings of the Remain campaign that, while Scotland had ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’, and Wales, ‘Wales Stronger in Europe’, those English voters had to put up with Britain Stronger in Europe.

Look across the UK and we see distinctly different national politics and choices.

In 2015 different parties contested each national part of the general election and different parties triumphed.

In June, Northern Ireland and Scotland voted firmly to remain. Wales and England went the other way, taking the UK with them.

New questions of political strategy are being forced on us. We cannot ignore them. We cannot believe that sooner or later politics will return to normal.

The good news, if there is any, is that we are not alone. We can over obsess with the particular twists and turns of our own history. But its not all Jeremy and Ed, Gordon and Tony; David or Teresa. Or Donald, Henry, Jack, Johann; Alec or Nicola.

Every single western European social democratic party, founded on once powerful organised, industrial working class movements, is now in serious trouble. Many would give their eye teeth to have our current disastrous poll ratings.

We can’t wish this away. The old relationship between working class voters and the Labour Party was always as much about identity – these are the people like us – as it was about about ideology and policy.

Those large workplaces, often peopled by members of extended families who lived in the same communities, worshipped in the same churches, belonged to the same sports and social clubs, and the same trade unions – those workplaces forged a collective identity, a sense of collective self-interest. And Labour was not so much a political choice but part of being who you were.

As the power and size of that organised working class has declined, so has the power and size of its link with social democratic parties.

People still crave identities – outside the small liberal cosmopolitan minority who genuinely feel themselves to be global citizens. In an increasingly insecure world we want to belong;

We want to belong, to know who ‘we’ are, to know ‘who is on our side’. If we are building public services and welfare systems, we want to know who the contributors are and the rules that govern the beneficiaries.

The left has neglected that concern for too long. We’ve let ourselves believe that universal left liberal values that are centred purely on the individual are morally superior to the tough collectivism that was bred in working class communities. And the centre-left has paid the price.

In every country in Europe, the traditional politics of social democracy have been increasingly displaced by populist and national identity politics. Often of the far right – certainly – but also of the far left, as in Greece, or a centrist party as in Scotland.

At the same time, of course, the ‘old questions’ of politics – the things we have always worried about have not gone away.

Even without the complexities of Brexit, we would face

  • widening inequality,
  • an economy that only works really well for a minority,
  • education and skills that don’t equip our young or older people for a modern economy,
  • the imminent transformation of the world of work,
  • a London centred economy that doesn’t even work for many Londoners,
  • social care and the NHS in crisis

We all know the list.

These have always been the classic concerns of social democracy.

If we still have a purpose, it is to find new ways of winning a majority to tackle those concerns.

If we still have a purpose it is, once again, to create a majority that believes that the powerful should be held to account, that markets – powerful and innovative as they are – have to be bent to the public good.

My argument is that we only way we can now build that majority is to find ways of marrying the politics of identity and nationhood with our traditional concern to hold the powerful to account and to build a society that works for all.

In short, the centre left has to become the champion of a progressive patriotism.

One that is much more than a shared love of our country, but one that says our nations are defined by the drive for fairness; for opportunity.

We want our nations to be defined not just by individual achievement and aspiration but by our common bonds and our responsibilities towards each other and the values we share. That what defines a patriot is their acceptance that the common good defines a good society; and that we each do better for ourselves and our families in a society where we look after each other.

These values drive practical policy. They tell us welfare systems need to reflect contribution and responsibility as well as need; they tell us that the benefits of immigration must be balanced by the need not to exceed the pace of change communities and services can manage. They justify action against tax evaders and measures to grow our own economic base.The provide a basis to reward and protect those companies that show their commitment to the national economy, their workforce, their customers and the environment.

It can also shape our political messages.

When I read of the poor performance of Scottish schools under the SNP I wonder what sort of patriot neglects young working class Scots. What sort of nationalist puts the drive for independence about the generation that is the future of the nation.

Of course Teresa May evoked some of the same messages this week. That doesn’t mean they are all wrong messages (though some were) – its a measure of how the left has lost its way that a right wing Tory even dares to pitch for a message that has been, should be, and must in future, be ours. She sounds as though she wants to reach English voters that Labour has lost; Labour seems unsure whether we even want them back.

She will fail because, in the end, she will not be able to contemplate the policies needed to carry it through. But we need to get back on that pitch quickly.

So what does all this mean for the Brexit process and for the current strains on our constitution?

I live in England. I do not live somewhere called ‘the rest of the UK’.

England is in a rather uncomfortable place at the moment.

It is divided by cultural values, by geography, by life experiences and by life chances, by national identities.

It’s not at ease with itself, nor with the rest of the world, including Europe and the union.

The roots of this discomfort obviously include the failure of public policy – economic policy, migration – and the evolution of the global economy. England’s strains are not unique in Western Europe.

But some roots lie in England’s peculiar system of governance, in which there is no forum for English political debate, a highly centralised administration, and an uneasy relationship with the union.

The contradiction at present is that, though it is possible to see ways of resolving those tensions, these have not yet taken shape in party political proposals, or in popular politics.

One result, for the union, is a degree of agnosticism. It’s not a hostility, but a ‘can’t really be botheredism’ which is quite dangerous.

It’s not true amongst political leaders – it was significant that new PM started with an emphasis on the union.

But when the vow was launched in the closing stages of the referendum, you could hardly say it had popular consent, let alone enthusiasm, in England. There was no sense of ‘that’s right; lets go the extra mile’.

But ‘What else are we going to have to pay for?’

A popular sentiment was ‘we would like them to stay, but if they don’t want to they should go’. Though not always expressed in that language

There is a gulf, apparent in the referendum, about core values. The centre ground is hollowing out.

In different terms between confident cosmopolitan metropolitan liberals and the socially conservative;

Not just the white left behind working class: but a broader socially conservative middle class

Not just former collectivist labourist, but those driven primarily by perception of own self interest rather than values and ideology.

Across the political spectrum, the dominant values of politics and the media lie in that confident  the metropolitan middle class,. It’s now clear that is only one strand, one set of values.

In Brexit, the largest votes to leave were in so-called ‘left behind’ areas, those who have done least well. But those who felt left out were far more. Most Brexit voters were in the south, 59% middle class, only 24% D and E

The divergent strands are also apparent in rise in expressed English identity – not just in the numbers saying ‘I am English or primarily English but more importantly in the intensity of feeling English.

The sense of Englishness is increasingly felt in politics.

We saw it in Brexit.  But saw it in the 2015 general election. And in wider discussion – shipyards.

There is a growing awareness that the interests of England and the interests of Britain; the interests of England and the interests of the Union; are not the same.

All this, of course, is reflected in the lack of any shared sense of what ‘success’ in the Brexit negotiations would look like, other than, perhaps, a sense of ‘control’.

Next election likely to be as different in all four legislatures as last time. The same issues may well arise, unless we take the initiative to re-write the rules.

This has to now be Labour’s historic mission, to set out a new politics, based on a progressive patriotism in each nation. A re-formed Union, one founded not on history, sentiment or the status quo, but on the sound reasons why each nation can achieve more by working together than we can on our own.

A Labour case for the union based on a distinctly progressive patriotism.

And I think this fits the challenges in each nation.

Surely, in Scotland. You may tell me I’m wrong – but all the evidence suggest that post-Brexit an independent Scotland is even less viable than it was before. If Brexit has undermined the viability of separation there must be a better alternative for Scotland than either an constantly unfilled aspiration for independence or dependence on the status quo of the current Union.

In England – which lacks even institutions capable to democratically determining the education, health and higher education policies Scotland won on devolution – it offers the possibility of allowing England to decide how it wishes to be governed, and how English national decision-making can be married with radical devolution within England.

That would bring a clearer system of English governance in which elected English parliamentarians decide the issues that are decided by elected parliamentarians in the other parts of the union.

And a structured level devolution within England, to replace the current ad hoc, arbitrary and franking stumbling system of devolution.

(And I might say so, it is not for Scottish or Welsh politicians to tell England that it can only have regional assemblies, or that the formal rights of Scottish or Welsh MPs in the Commons are more important than the democratic rights of the English people)

At some point, this will require a formal constitutional process. But in the short-term we need a shared language across the nations of mainland Britain, so in each Labour describe national interest, and the union between us, in the same way and with the same respect.

And also in the short-term, lets take that approach into our discussions on Brexit. its not just that different parts of the Union took different decisions, but that each part of the Union has significant divisions.

And that is my final point. Patriotic politics, national identity politics, have their danger, of course.

But they also have strengths. A progressive patriotism can bring disparate and divided communities communities together with a sense of common purpose. It can start conversations between people who would normally see themselves divided by politics.

The Brexit debate is crying out for a Labour lead across the UK. Not re-running the referendum with grumpy repetitions of why we were right and the voters wrong. Nor simply embracing the arguments of Leave. But showing that we can develop a national vision of where Britain and the nations of Britain should now go. The Tories – on all the evidence of this week – want to widen and exploit the divisions. The nationalists merely to take one small part of the debate. Only Labour can grasp the opportunity of showing have Britain can come together around a progressive patriotism.


John Denham

John Denham is a former Labour cabinet minister and is currently the director of the Centre for English Identity and Politics at Winchester University, and director of the English Labour Network.


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