Can lefties do Britishness?

We shouldn’t be afraid to ground our political vision in an idea of Britain, of who we are and what kind of society we want to build.

Like most good teenagers, I had a lot of dramatic political revelations. This was one of them: we all have multiple identities. I might be a Londoner, a Brit, English and European. But the identity that matters most is our humanity. If everyone could realise that we’d all be ok. No more wars, prejudice or inequality. Everything would be great. Think kum ba yah with logic.
 
Now I’m older, I’m not so sure. Try loving everyone, and you’re in danger of loving no-one. There’s something cold about working from an abstract moral equation rather than natural affection. Reduce people to statistics, and we lose something important. So now I’m not ashamed of feeling a greater connection with the person next to me on the bus in Britain more than the stranger on a coach abroad; I’m proud that I do.
 
The left has always been wary of nationalism. Owen Jones tweeted last week “The more that nationalism rears its head, the less we talk about the tidal wave of austerity hitting working people across Britain”. People are worried about past atrocities we’ve committed in the name of the nation. About people carrying the flag for the wrong reasons. About the apologies we never made. There are good reasons to be skeptical.
 
But there are also good reasons to be positive about Britain. If you’re a lefty, you have to give people a reason to care for one another, to vote and pay their taxes even when times are tough. A collective national identity is one reason to do that. It’s a story we tell to bind us together. It wasn’t a coincidence that the National Health Service was born out of the spirit of the war. We wanted to care for each other. We continue to volunteer thousands of hours. It’s part of who we are.
 
If you want an example of positive nationalism, look at the picture Obama has painted in the United States. To him, national identity wasn’t bigoted or irrational; it was a reason to believe in green energy, health care and hard work (the Chrysler advert still sends lovely shivers down my spine). Nor was it about being introverted. To know what role you want to play on the world stage, it helps to know who you are and why you care.
 
So what is it that unites us? I’m not pretending the answer is easy. But there’s something about sharing space and time on an island in the middle of the Atlantic that pulls us together. Watch Britain in a Day, and you’ll see what I mean. You get this powerful sense of us living together, eating at the same time, sharing the same sunsets, the same holidays and working hours. Then there are our institutions. Our parliament, our football, our NHS. We’re struggling together.
 
And there’s something British about the way we approach this struggle. It’s not simple or easy to articulate, but there’s the gentle way we don’t give up. The quiet determination and common decency, the “caring as well as competing”, as Ed Miliband put it last week. The tolerance, the awkwardness, and the humour.
 
We’ve made great global contributions too. We continue to invent and innovate way above what our population and landmass might predict. We were the first country to industrialise. We invented the rubber band, the pencil and the combustion engine. We created the lawn mower, the jet engine, crosswords, water desalinisation, the magnifying glass. We unveiled the typhoid vaccine and the structure of DNA. Football. Hell, we even discovered Uranus.  
 
Today, our creative industries continue to inspire the world and our universities to educate it. We still touch and influence the world from our tiny corner. Even if we don’t always get it, the people outside do, as Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi so eloquently explained earlier this week.
 
The left worries that putting one nation above another is immoral. But that’s what we do with family. Someone once told me that family is not who we share blood with, but who we’d give up blood for. In Britain, we share blood for one another, whether that’s through the army or donating through drips on the NHS. It doesn’t mean we’re justified in treating others badly. It just means there are bonds we just can’t break.
 
And people care. Do we really want to dismiss the 6 million people who participated in the Jubilee as suffering from false consciousness? Or the military wives that got to number one? They brought more people together than politics has recently. Dismissing the thousands turning up in the rain at the Thames doesn’t sound like the love and respect the left should show others. The Olympics. Team GB. The Euros. We should try and understand and work with it.
 
I don’t know what my teenage self would say to all this, and I’m not saying anyone who disagrees with me is naïve. I’m not even advocating a list of policy prescriptions. What I’m saying is that we shouldn’t be afraid to ground our political vision in an idea of Britain, of who we are and what kind of society we want to build. Maybe then we can have a Britain that lefties can be proud of.

National pride? A royal supporter waits outside Buckingham Palace for the Jubliee concert. 4 June 2012. Photograph: Getty Images

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn faces a dilemma as Brexit solidifies: which half of his voters should he disappoint?

He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club.

Imagine a man who voted to leave the European Economic Community in 1975. A man who spoke out against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, saying that it “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers”. A man who voted against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

You don’t have to imagine very hard, because that man is Jeremy Corbyn. When campaigning for the Labour leadership in 2015, he told a GMB hustings, “I would ­advocate a No vote if we are going to get an imposition of free-market policies across Europe.”

When Labour’s Brexiteers gathered to launch their campaign in 2016, several seemed hurt that Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, were not there with them. “It is surprising, when we voted against the advice of the chief whip on a number of European issues over the last decades, that Jeremy and John, who have always been in that lobby with us, that they would want to lead a campaign that isn’t even asking for a renegotiated position,” said the MP Graham Stringer.

I mention this because since the election campaign started in April, I keep having an odd experience – people insisting that Corbyn is not a Eurosceptic, and that he will use Labour’s new-found strength to argue for a softer Brexit. Others claim that Labour’s current position on freedom of movement (ending it) is the obvious, common-sense – even progressive – choice.

This matters. Look, if the evidence above doesn’t convince you that the Labour leader is intensely relaxed about exiting the European Union, I don’t know what else would. Yet it’s clear that some Labour activists strongly identify personally with Corbyn: they find it hard to believe that he holds different opinions from them.

The second factor is the remaking of Brexit as a culture war, where to say that someone is a Eurosceptic is seen as a kind of slur. Perhaps without realising it, some on the left do associate Euroscepticism with Little Englanderism or even flat-out racism, and see it as a moral failing rather than a political position.

But I’m not impugning Jeremy Corbyn’s character or morals by saying that he is an instinctive Brexiteer. He comes from a tradition on the left that sees the EU as a capitalist club. You can disagree with that premise but it’s a respectable line of reasoning.

Also, the Euroscepticism of Corbyn and his allies will undoubtedly give them an advantage in the months ahead; they are not consumed by fatalism, and the members of McDonnell’s shadow Treasury team feel that the removal of European state aid restrictions can help revive ailing bits of the British economy. They have a vision of what an ideal “Labour Brexit” would be – and it’s not just sobbing and begging Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel to take us back.

We do, however, need a reality check. Now that the necessary humble pie has been eaten, Labour’s unexpected revival at the ballot box means we can begin to treat Corbyn as a normal politician – with the emphasis on the second word. He’s not the Messiah, but he’s not a joke either. He is a charismatic campaigner who is willing to compromise on second-tier issues to achieve his main objectives.

From the general election, we can see just how good a campaigner Corbyn is: he can fire up a crowd, give disciplined answers to interviewers and chat amiably on a sofa. That throws into sharp relief just how limp his performances were last year.

He might have little else in common with Theresa May, but they both looked at the EU referendum and thought: yeah, I’m going to sit this one out. He called on activists to accept the EU “warts and all”; and said he was “seven, or seven and a half” out of ten in favour of staying in it.

For both leaders, this was a pragmatic decision. May did not want to be overtly disloyal to David Cameron, but neither did she wish to risk her career if the result went the other way.

Anyone in Labour would have been equally sane to look north of the border and back to 2014, and remember just how much credibility the party immolated by sharing stages with the Conservatives and allowing itself to be seen as the establishment. By limiting his involvement in the Remain campaign and whipping his MPs to trigger Article 50, Corbyn ended up with a fudge that gave Labour some cover in heavily pro-Brexit regions of the country.

That’s the politics, but what about the principle? I can’t shake the feeling that if Corbyn campaigned as hard for Remain in 2016 as he did for Labour in 2017, we would still be members of the European Union. And that matters to me, as much as left-wing policies or a change in the rhetoric around migrants and welfare claimants, because I think leaving the EU is going to make us poorer and meaner.

That’s why I worry that many of my friends, and the activists I talk to, are about to be disappointed, after waiting and waiting for Labour to start making the case for a softer Brexit and for the single market being more important than border controls. As Michael Chessum, a long-standing Momentum organiser, wrote on the New Statesman website, “Recognising the fact that immigration enriches society is all very well, but that narrative is inevitably undermined if you then choose to abolish the best policy for allowing immigration to happen.”

Labour’s success on 8 June was driven by its ambiguous stance on Brexit. To Leavers, it could wink at ending freedom of movement when they worried about immigration; to Remainers, it offered a critique of the immigrant-bashing rhetoric of recent times. But can that coalition hold as the true shape of Brexit solidifies? Over the next few months, Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest decision will be this: which half of my voters should I disappoint?

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496