A national identity with empire still at its heart

Gordon Brown's definition of Britishness is at times as nostalgic as John Major's England. It is alm

As we enter the final weeks of the Blair era it seems the country is suffering from an identity crisis. The seizure of 15 British sailors and marines by Iran was a significant military humiliation, which the Tehran regime said reaffirmed the strength of its own "Islamic" values. However false such a claim may be, it reinforced the sense that we remain unsure of our own.

The aftershock of the fiasco will continue to be felt as the nation prepares itself for a day that will test our sense of solidarity further and raise real questions about what it is to be British in the 21st century.

It may seem odd to talk in such grandiloquent terms about local elections, the political equivalent of double maths on a Friday afternoon, but Tony Blair's imminent resignation lends the polls an unprecedented sense of drama. Elections for the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, held along with council elections on 3 May, come at a time when the very definition of Britishness is changing. In Scotland, victory for the Scottish National Party could lead to a referendum on independence by the end of the decade. As the SNP leader, Alex Salmond, suggested in these pages last month, it is quite possible to imagine the English embracing Scottish independence. That such a discussion is taking place shows the growing sense of separateness felt by the Celtic fringe in Britain since devolution.

Meanwhile, the local elections raise the possibility of significant gains for the British National Party in England, largely at the expense of Labour. Respect, which combines the politics of the hard left and the Islamic right, could also make gains, while Ukip remains a threat to the Conservatives.

With Blair departed, it will be for his successor to deal with the identity crisis that expresses itself so clearly in the rise of fringe parties. Is Gordon Brown up to the task? Will his manifesto of Britishness calm nerves and produce a national consensus?

Writing in a recent edition of the Political Quarterly, Simon Lee of Hull University correctly predicted that Brown would attempt to define his vision as The British Way, to differentiate himself from Blair's Third Way. Taking his successful record of managing a quintessentially British liberal economy as his starting point, Brown would use concepts of Britishness as the foundation of his domestic and foreign policy, said Lee. This would allow him to bring in other specifically "British" concepts such as the mixed economy, public services free at the point of use and an independent nuclear deterrent.

English affair

However, Lee also pointed out a paradox: much of the new Labour revolution in the public services, to which Brown signed up and that he often engineered from the Treasury, is essentially an English affair. Thanks to devolution, the Scottish would-be prime minister's vision of Britishness has a distinctly English hue. Even before the creation of a Scottish parliament, the Scottish education system, for example, had long been immune to central government tinkering. North of the border, there are no tests for primary-school pupils, no city academies and no tuition fees. For better or worse, Scotland's health system has also been protected from new Labour's market reforms of the past decade. And if nationalists take control of the parliament they will make it as difficult as possible for Brown to impose the "British" nuclear deterrent on a reluctant Scotland.

In Stronger Together, a pamphlet for the Fabian Society published this month and co-written with his young protégé Douglas Alexander, the Transport Secretary, Brown delivered a characteristically robust broadside to the SNP. But it is more than just an anti-independence tract. It is a statement of principle. Crucially, it puts Scottish values at the centre of the national psyche. "The Scottish way is always at the core of British history," claim Brown and Alexander, "championing the ideas of 'active citizenship', 'good neighbour' [sic], civic pride and the public realm."

Yet at times the Brownite definition of Britishness is as nostalgic as John Major's England: "This is the Britain we admire, the Britain of thousands of voluntary associations, of mutual societies, craft unions, insurance and friendly societies and co-operatives, of churches and faith groups, of municipal provision from libraries to parks and the Britain of public service." Unfortunately, this is a Britain almost entirely meaningless to most people under the age of 40, including the two members of the armed forces who sold their stories after capture by the enemy.

There is an added problem. Britain is a colonial concept in its origins and still associated with empire in many of its cultural manifestations. It is hard to make it the centre of a moral universe in the aftermath of a disastrous war that many in the Middle East see as an imperial adventure. In such circumstances, Brown's Britishness does not look so admirable.

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The French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.