Making Britain Great Again – in a different way

By thinking big and making connections, Labour can raise people and country.

Paul Rogers author pic
Paul Rogers
16 November 2017

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn walks with Prime Minister Theresa May, as they carry wreaths during the annual Remembrance Sunday Service at the Cenotaph memorial in Whitehall, central London. Dominic Lipinski/PA Images. All rights reserved.The minority Conservative government in Britain struggles on in disarray. It is unable to follow through on its election pledges, even borrowing some from the Labour opposition. All the while it is plagued with deep internal divisions over Brexit. It is not impossible that the government could fall at any time. In this parlous condition, the Conservatives find a semblance of unity in the terrifying prospect of Jeremy Corbyn, prime minister.

On current form, Labour would enter an election campaign as favourites to be the largest party. But to get an overall majority it would still need an unprecedented turnaround in voting intentions in Scotland. Two of the eight polls in the past six weeks put Labour level with the Conservatives and the others give them a lead of two-to-six points. This is at a time of remarkable chaos on the government benches, including the forced resignation of two cabinet ministers.

Most people, as Anthony Wells of UK Polling Report observes, scarcely follow political news. That explains in part why even recent upheavals have not had the effects that many pundits expect. But politicians can still help to chart a new direction that can inspire, and ingather fresh support. So what does Corbyn’s Labour Party need now to do? 

A big push

Several columns in this series have pointed to the issue of defence and security as being a problem for Labour (see, for example, "Corbyn's Labour: now look outwards" [16 June 2017], "How Labour can make Britain secure" [20 July 2017], "Britain's global role: fantasy vs reality" [5 October 2017]). 

Despite Labour's election gains, many voters remain sceptical of Labour's position in these areas. A key task for the party, whenever the election comes, is thus to convince voters that the party is effective on security issues – both national and international. The best way of doing this might be to see people's concern as part of a wider feeling, and to tackle the latter directly. The heart of this debate is that Labour needs to reach many voters (Conservative, former UKIP, or swing, and especially those over 45 years old) who want Britain to be “great” again.  

Just as Putin and Trump seek their own versions of greatness, so many (and mostly older) voters in the UK hark back to the prestige of empire. This sentiment mingles belief that the European Union has become dominant over the country with a misplaced search for security focused largely on the use of force. Such people would certainly be happier if the “Great” was truly back in “Great Britain”.

The task for Labour in this climate is simple but fundamental: to redefine “great”. Clearly, such an effort would be directly relevant to the above contingent of voters. But it is likely to be welcomed more widely across the political spectrum. Receptivity to the message could well be aided by an ongoing, twofold shift in the public mood: greater caution when it comes to overseas military interventions, and increasing awareness that global trends – climate change, global inequality, marginalisation, instability, and the rise of extreme movements – are making us collectively less secure (see "A world in trouble: drought, war, food, flight", 6 July 2017).  

Perhaps the underlying argument from Labour should be that Britain has a key role to play in the 2020-30 period, a role of value to the world community that will, by coincidence, also enhance Britain’s international standing. This view is, however, different to the traditional view of “greatness”. Three clear and major global trends emphasise the case: 

* The continuing failure of the international neoliberal economy to deliver equity and emancipation is leading to marginalisation, resentment, anger and potential "revolts from the margins"

* The accelerating impact of climate disruption, which is the greatest single threat to global security

* The persistence of the "control paradigm" and "liddism" – that is, using military-style force to suppress the symptoms of distress, thus keeping the lid on rather turning down the heat  (see "A tale of two paradigms" [28 June 2009], and "Beyond 'liddism': towards real global security" [1 April 2010]).

Labour will in due course conduct its own security and defence review. But an election could come soon. In the interim, Labour can make its mark by highlighting core elements of its fresh approach. Several were already in the party's election manifesto or have been covered in speeches: Jeremy Corbyn’s at Chatham House on 12 May, Kate Osamor’s at the Overseas Development Institute on 2 November, and Emily Thornberry’s on various occasions.

There is room for such contributions to be even more joined up, in ways that actually supplement current policy. Seven examples follow. Some may appear “left field”, but they are actually part of a broader transition of current thinking. And none are especially costly!

These recommendations consist of three great expansions, then four major initiatives:

* First, in climate, oceanographic and polar research, including filling any emerging gaps in United States capabilities resulting from Trump’s election

* Second, in support for renewable-energy research and development

* Third, in making inequality a core concern of DfID - a recently announced policy, which deserves to be highlighted

* Fourth, prioritising the UK’s commitment to the United Nations and all its agencies. That means arguing for the UK to play a core role in the expansion of UN peacekeeping capabilities, including the establishment of a standing force, and to commit UK military forces to this, equipping and training them as necessary

* Fifth, committing in principle to the UN proposal for a nuclear-weapons convention as a clear indication of support for global nuclear disarmament

* Sixth, expanding UK military capabilities for providing emergency relief in response to natural and other disasters, if need be by scaling down elsewhere

* Seventh, pledging to reverse recent cuts to Foreign & Commonewealth Office (FCO) budgets and their impact on the diplomatic service, and expand the FCO’s resources in the areas of dialogue, mediation and conflict resolution.

A fresh model

A good starting-point is that Labour is already active in relation to the three major global trends cited above: economic marginalisation, environmental limits and militarism. Linking them would enhance their effectiveness as a single unified outlook – a parallel, at the global level, of Labour's domestic commitment “to the many, not the few”. This new internationalism is the antithesis of empire. It offers a distinct and potentially much more valuable approach to “greatness”.

Some of this may appear to be simplistic and even naïve. But if a national mood can ever be pinpointed, then Britain's just now is best described as uncertain. Redefining “greatness” at this time, already right in principle, would also have the much-needed practical benefit of filling a vacuum.

Even when (perhaps if) Brexit happens, the time to propose a very different form of internationalism has surely come. It could even have a surprising effect. A modicum of genuine vision can go a long way.

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