openDemocracyUK: Opinion

Both Tory and Labour stories about Britain are broken. So what do we do in this election?

Whatever happens in this election, it won’t in itself answer the looming questions ahead about the UK – and each of the nations within it.

Gerry Hassan
10 December 2019
Boris Johnson pictured playing in an England legends game
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PA Images/Adam Davy/EMPICS Sport

The United Kingdom is not a happy place at the moment. This has been a strange, unsatisfying election campaign. People feel ignored and distrustful of politicians. But more than that, they don’t feel that they own what passes for democracy.

Underneath all the noise and fury profound tailwinds are eroding our old sense of what Britain is, and leaving the British state and politics hollowed out – with massive consequences for the future.

In this tumult, this election becomes about an England that dare not speak its name as England, allowing the Tories to continue the old Britain/England combination which has served them so well in the past. The forces of radical reform and democratisation do not have a coherent or convincing alternative for now.

Boris Johnson was at it over the weekend championing a British-Irish bid for the FIFA World Cup in 2030; yet in his article in ‘The Sun’ all his ‘magic moments’ of British football were in fact English, from 1966, to Gazza and 1990, and last year’s World Cup and Gareth Southgate. This is not just a disservice to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but also to England, allowing it only to appear as a substitute for Britain or in football. As the writer Gary Younge observes: “England is only defined by what it's not - and a football team.”

There were once powerful stories, from both Tory and Labour, that gave meaning, purpose and even some sense of unity to the UK. The Tory account centred on benign elites not just acting in their own interests, but accommodating the views of working people and incorporating them in the existing order. That version of Britain – on evidence of the past forty years – has withered and died.

The Labour vision centred on the rising power of the labour movement and trade unions. It was anchored in the idea that the British state could be used as a force for good and for fairness, domestically and internationally. The past four decades have blown this apart (although large parts of Labour still cling to it), even under Corbyn.

Britain on the brink

This year I published a study of the rise and fall of this Labour version of Britain – ‘The People’s Flag and the Union Jack: An Alternative History of Britain and the Labour Party’ – written with Eric Shaw. I asked a range of influential UK commentators, writers, public figures and intellectuals across the political spectrum what they thought of the state of Britain, and Britishness, and whether either could be radically reformed and become more enlightening, pluralist and progressive. The answers not surprisingly were many and varied, but common threads emerged.

Author James Robertson expressed Scottish discontent with the union: ‘Britishness has been a highly successful brand and managed to reinvent itself as a post-imperial identity in the 1960s. But I think it is now, like M&S and other High Street brands which mirrored/reinforced it, in decline.’

The changing fissures of the UK and retreat of the ‘idea’ of Britain has affected some of its most ardent supporters. The academic Jean Seaton, the ‘official’ historian of the BBC, puts her feelings candidly: ‘Despair is what I feel at the moment’ and continues ‘that [and] the destruction of our soft power.’

Jason Cowley, editor of the centre-left ‘New Statesman’, believes that: The British state is imperilled but Britishness will endure. But can Britishness survive an English awakening?’

‘Guardian’ columnist and economist Aditya Chakrabortty sees present discontents in the context of the failure of the Blair-Brown years and their aftermath: ‘When I hear the term Britishness now, it reminds me of some sunlit time in the mid-2000s. Like all centre-left projects of that time, it pretty much died in the wake of the crash.’ For all the political class-talk of the ‘sharing’ and ‘pooling’ union, Chakrabortty thinks this hides a fundamental truth about the UK post-2008: ‘The governing response to that was almost to trash the idea that Britain was a transfer union’ - meaning a country which was once about redistribution, but no longer is.

There are still believers in Britain. The writer Tom Holland paints a vivid vision: ‘Great Britain is an island that has something of the Tardis about it: while it can seem small from the outside, it nevertheless contains multitudes within it.’ He still believes in the multi-national idea of the UK: ‘300 years of the Union have not stopped Scotland from feeling Scottish – nor England from feeling English, nor Wales feeling Welsh.’

Historian Margaret MacMillan emphasises the backstory of Britain: ‘To be British is to be an islander - except at the moment if you come from Eire - to remember some shared history - Roman invasions, William the Conqueror, the empire, Napoleonic Wars, two World Wars’, but emphasises that ‘even then there are different memories.’

The Left and the idea of Britain

Britain hasn’t just up in this set of crises because of the Right. There have been failures and omissions on the left. New left thinker Hilary Wainright acknowledges this, stating that ‘I don’t feel I can talk about ‘how people in Britain see themselves’.

Mark Perryman, a Labour activist, assesses that for all the positive energies in the Corbyn project it is not radical enough on Britain: ‘Corbyn has a blind spot when it comes to the Union, as has historically most of the Labour Left.’ He points out that ‘the apparent absence of a pro-indy Corbynite wing to Scots Labour’ hasn’t helped. Corbynism lacks a project remaking the concept of Britain.

Some English left-liberal voices are caught between wanting radical change and fear of England left alone. Polly Toynbee stated candidly: ‘I live in fear of Celtic departures leaving us to our own miserable devices [and] a Tory-voting rump England.’

Underlying these deep-seated worries is an awareness of the cumulative failure of successive Labour Governments to make the case for progressive values. The writer Madeleine Bunting puts it lyrically: ‘Solidarity is a delicate flower. It requires many institutions, educational systems, healthcare to cultivate and establish solid roots.’ But, she reflects, that solidarity ‘has been under multiple assault for several decades. Only the NHS struggles against the odds to hold a candle for the ideal.’

Gary Younge notes that one version of Britain works for those who are winners in the modern economy, observing: ‘London is more like Edinburgh in some respects than either city is like Shropshire. So within Britain or even England, there are huge, huge differences.’

Sunder Katwala, head of the think tank British Future, thinks that the nature of the union is now fundamentally different: ‘Consent is now considerably more contingent than it was across the twentieth century.’ Things will never be the same since ‘the Scottish referendum of 2014 revealed a narrow, pragmatic and highly transactional majority for the Union.’

There is the chasm at the heart of Britain - the English dimension - a country which does not have its own government or Parliament. Guardian writer John Harris reflects on how his young daughter sees Britain, ‘England is where she lives, Wales is where she was born and where she roots her identity, and Scotland is that interesting place where they had the Yes/No referendum. Britain only comes up when there's athletics on TV.’

What is left of British politics?

The question of what British politics means should be central to this election, but is ignored by most British media. Sunder Katwala states that ‘there was no British general election in 2015 and 2017.’

Stephen Bush, Political Editor of the ‘New Statesman’, echoes this point, pointing out that in 2017, ‘For the second successive election, a different political party won in each of the four kingdoms’ – and 2019 looks set to be a similar story.

Brexit has offered the radical right the chance to advance their vision of the UK, as writer Henry Porter recognises: ‘The shock of Brexit will be considerable. Right wing conservatives believe they can jump the country into a new post imperial, buccaneering future.’

Gary Younge sees a fundamental shift since the success of the Brexit campaign: ‘a certain embattled, nostalgic version of Britishness was evoked that won the day, not because it made sense but because no coherent alternative was really set forward.’

The writer Ian Jack is of the opinion that ‘Brexit and its champions have alienated me from a British identity’, musing further that ‘Perhaps this is because 'Britain' has once again become a synonym for England, at least in England, and at the moment England is very unattractive, politically.’ He concludes ‘I am not at the moment too optimistic about the survival of my preferred identity. I feel in a way that I have hitched my fortune to the wrong star.’

Arthur Aughey assesses that the constitutional and political status quo that underpins the union is now needing urgent reform, but that there is no widespread agreement as to what that might be across the forces of reform: Labour, Lib Dems, Greens, with the SNP and Plaid Cymru having their own self-government priorities. He states: ‘We know that significant constitutional and political change is required but not sure where it will come from. How new practice can be translated into an idea of the Union – if it can – is the key question.’

Views on Britain, it’s clear, are threaded through with influences of politics, class, ethnicity, generation and gender. Noticeably, my inquiry elicited overwhelmingly masculinist and predominantly male responses. Several women ruled themselves out at first contact. A number then made comments such as, from one very prominent Westminster female journalist, ‘Strange as it feels to say this, I don’t think I have anything to say’. The story of Britishness – for all its official emphasis on multi-culturalism and diversity – is, it seems, still very gendered, as well as having its roots in an imperial identity and elite power dynamics.

Hilary Wainright expressed some of this sentiment, commenting that she would like to see the UK evolve into ‘a mosaic of non-antagonistic identities nurtured by a democratic constitution’. She states on the importance of national identities: ‘I just disagree that it’s the most appropriate lens through which to understand geographic identity. For me it does not capture the complexity, historical and structural, of territorial identities.’

This election may seem largely missing in drama and substance, but underneath huge issues are at play, about what kind of country the UK is and what kind of collective future is possible. Given the long retreat of progressives, Labour and the left over decades, how can anyone – irrespective of the election result – feel optimistic about the prospect of radically shifting politics and power in Britain, tearing down the citadels of elite rule, and addressing the deep-seated wrongs which blight British society?

It is too easy to blame the present picture just on the Conservatives and Thatcherism. But we’ve had thirty years of Labour Governments between the end of World War Two and today. These governments did many positive things but did not challenge the institutions and values of the conservative nation and ideology which underpins the ruling elite. With the exception of 1945 they did not remake what Britain means.

This has left Britain bereft of a plausible, progressive story about itself. Scottish voters have no option but to draw their own conclusions in this election and beyond, although that leaves some fundamental challenges. Independence supporters have to flesh out a different future from the wreckage of the British state. And pro-union advocates have to answer the reality of the existing union and its inability to fundamentally reform – economically and socially as well as constitutionally.

What then is the future of the UK and the idea of Britain after the dust settles on this election? Not only is Boris Johnson failing to address any of the long-term fissures in Britain, his arid vision is a symptom of a deeper, longer term malaise: the demise of the power and pull of Tory Britain.

Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn’s conspicuous failure to articulate a convincing account of what is wrong and what to put right in how Britain sees itself and acts, is not just about his leadership. Rather it is an expression of the decline of the story of Labour Britain – whether left, centre, or right within the party.

This collapse of the twin pillars of post-war Britain leaves politics, media and public life with a vacuum at its heart – one obvious over the course of this election. This has been filled in part by the English revolt of Brexit, as well as the journeys of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into different political centres distinctive from Westminster. But that still leaves the issue of what to do with Britain and British politics.

Whatever happens to the UK there will always be some kind of pan-UK co-operation across these isles. Such arrangements, entailing a self-governing Scotland, an increasingly autonomous Wales, and Northern Ireland articulating north-south and east-west identities, will require an English dimension. The British left (and English left in particular) need to start thinking about those areas that they have historically avoided: the nature of the British state, its territorial dimensions and the English dimension. These cannot be avoided any longer and be left as a rich terrain for the right and reactionaries to exploit at a huge cost to us all.

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