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Why does the left ignore the British nationalism of the post-war government?

British liberals have historically seen nationalism as a threat to Britain – either external or internal – and as a result, have ignored how nationalistic the post-war Labour governments were.

Image: British collieries were nationalised on 1 January 1947.

One of the most profound unnoticed oddities about the United Kingdom is that is has, except on the extremes, no nationalism. That is, it is supposed not to have any. To be sure, there are many who complain about xenophobia, racism, little Englandism, exaggerated patriotism, delusions of grandeur and so on. But typically that is put down not to nationalism, but to imperialism. The legacy of imperialism is seen by many on the left as the cause of many of the problems a progressive politics faces.

Of course nationalism is not wholly absent from understanding of Britain. For the left, a good Britishness was central to the politics of 1940, summed up in the invented notion of the ‘people’s war’. Much of the New Left critique of post-war Britain argued that this promising national feeling was dissipated in the face of continuing liberalism and imperialism – so much so that British nationalism was unviable, and subnational nationalisms, Welsh and Scottish should be promoted.

There are also traces of what is seen as bad nationalism – historically, usually limited to the rather special cases of Enoch Powell (who rejected Empire and Commonwealth and immigration) and Margaret Thatcher (who led the nation in recapturing the Falklands).

Nationalism is thus either the dissipated hope of the war, the nationalisms of Scotland and Wales, and Ireland, or a hard-right essentially English nationalism. But – as I argue in my book - in order to understand post-war United Kingdom one must understand that by previous standards it was in many dimensions nationalist, and that the Labour party was the party that most clearly articulated a nationalist programme of national renewal.

Before explaining further it is worth reflecting on why the term nationalism is so poisonous for British intellectuals. Since the first half of the last century, nationalism, in British liberal elite understanding, has been the main enemy of the United Kingdom, and of the Empire. Nationalism was the disease continental countries suffered from, leading to economic protectionism and militarism, and threats to the United Kingdom. Secondly, the secessionist movements from the British empire were self-proclaimed nationalisms. There was Irish Nationalism, the Indian National Congress, the African National Congress, all in existence before 1914. Nationalist after nationalist ate at the empire which proclaimed itself way above such tawdry ideologies. Welsh and Scottish nationalists have had to contend not so much with British nationalism, as with the British idea that nationalism itself was a bad thing.

But while the term nationalism could not be used for the United Kingdom, a British nationalism of many dimensions became important after 1945. Contrary to many writers I don’t see the war itself as nationalistic – rather, it was ideologically a war for freedom against nationalist militarism, which was fought by the Empire, and allies, and then from 1942, the United Nations.

After the war things were very different. Labour came to office in 1945 with a manifesto with no mention of the term ‘welfare state’, minimal references to socialism and to the empire, and a flood of references to the nation, Britain and British. Labour presented itself as the truly national party, the party which put the ‘national interest’ - a key phrase – first. In office it created a National Coal Board and National Health Service - nationalised industries and services. National import controls, and a nationalist policy for food, were aimed at reducing imports. Indeed, into the late 1960s imports decreased as a proportion of GDP – far from liberalising, the economy was becoming more national.

As the historian Alan Milward emphasised, the UK’s entry into the common market should be seen not as one of free trading global economy becoming protectionist, but the reverse. A protectionist UK was seeking to find the largest free markets it could – and they were in Europe. It is little wonder then that the opponents of entry were mostly found in the Labour Party, and argued that entry would undermine the UK’s national economic development. In 1975 the Labour left were the most important of the Brexiteers.

The nationalism of Labour and the left is plain to see, if one is willing to see it. Thus on resigning from the Labour government in 1951, the leader of the left, Aneurin Bevan, claimed that “This great nation” had, by the end of 1950 “assumed the moral leadership of the world . .”. He spoke for nation, not class, or party, and the context was criticism of falling in with the demands of the USA. Indeed amongst the very last words ever spoken by Old Labour from the government benches, were astonishing in their nationalism. Replying in the debate on the vote of confidence in March 1979, which led to the downfall of the Callaghan government, minister Michael Foot declaimed: “We saved the country in 1940, and we did it again in 1945. We set out to rescue the country – or what was left of it – in 1974. Here again in 1979 we shall do the same –“. The country, note. But it is hardly surprising – socialists everywhere argued for putting the nation over the interests of capitalists. Democracy without nationalism is in fact rather difficult to imagine.

Democracy without nationalism is in fact rather difficult to imagine.

Indeed, most of the writing of left in analysing the British condition and British history was nationalist, though without the term being used or the position being acknowledged. Left political economy was dominated by the idea that British capitalism was global and imperial and thus not concerned with national economic development, as can be seen in work by Bevan, by Eric Hobsbawm, by the historians of empire Peter Cain and Tony Hopkins. British histories from the left wrote out the empire, and told the story of the creation of the nation in the people’s war.

How do we make sense of this? Perhaps we should see the post-1945 United Kingdom as itself one of the new nations which emerged from the British empire, alongside Canada, Australia, Ireland and India. This new nation created a new restricted British nationality between 1948 and the early 1960s, a new national rather than imperial monarchy, and promoted national agriculture and industry, just like any other new nation. Imperialism, the policy of the Conservative party, died astonishingly quickly. The Conservatives , once the party of Protection and Empire became the party of Europe and Free Trade. Labour, once a party of Free Trade, became the party of the national economy and Protection. The problem was it could never say what its truly was and ached to be – not a socialist party, but the party of the nation.

David Edgerton's new book, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation, is published this week by Allen Lane.

About the author

David Edgerton teaches history at King’s College London. Among his books are The Shock of the Old (Profile) and most recently The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: a Twentieth-century History (Allen Lane).

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