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

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
Show Hide image

Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories