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.

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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