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
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David Cameron's prisons speech could be the start of something good

If the Prime Minister puts his words into action, then this speech could mark the beginning of a big shift on prisons policy. 

David Cameron’s speech condemning prisons as violent and failing could herald a seismic change in policy. He is absolutely right to point to the waste of money, effort and lives that characterises today’s prison system. He is also right about the direction of travel that needs to be taken and some of his ideas are at the very least worthy of discussion. The most important reform was missing, as none of his aspirations can happen unless the sheer number of men, women and children in prison is cut, and cut radically. Sentencing reform is the lynchpin.

The detailed proposals will be scrutinised as they are rolled out over the coming months, but the urgent over-riding challenge is to cut the prison population. Last week the number of men in prison increased by 185, and in the last four weeks the prison population has gone up by 684 men and women. Prison overcrowding is not standing still, it is rapidly deteriorating.

Chris Grayling closed 18 prisons and wings, reallocating the population into the shrunk estate. He cut prison staff by more than a third in each prison. The result was overcrowded, understaffed, violent prisons full of drugs and very disaffected staff trying to control frustrated prisoners on restricted regimes.

I was expecting some thinking on who we send to prison and what we do with them when they are incarcerated to create the conditions for radical reform. I was disappointed as the proposals were oddly reminiscent of things that Labour tried and contributed to this mess in the first place.

Labour was very proud of building lots of new prisons, hoping that they would build their way out of an overcrowding crisis. What happened of course was that new prisons were filled even before they were completed so the old prisons couldn’t be closed. Today we hear that £1.3 billion will be spent on building ‘reform prisons’ that will pilot new ways of working. My worry is that they will become warehouses unless the sheer number of prisons is restricted and resources are allocated to allow for just the sort of flexibility being proposed.

Giving governors more autonomy sounds good, and I support it in principle, but they always used to have their own budgets with discretion to choose how to spend it, including commissioning education and other services. It is no good having increased autonomy if they are constantly firefighting an overcrowding crisis and not given the resources, including well trained prison staff, to implement new ideas.

We already have league tables for prisons. Every few months assessments of how prisons are performing are published, along with regular inspections and independent boards monitor conditions. Reoffending rates are published but this information is less robust as prisoners tend to move round the system so how can one establishment be accountable.

I was pleased to hear that work inside prisons is going to be a key reform. But, the Prime Minister referred to a small project in one prison. Projects with desultory training in the few hours that men get to spend out of their cells will not instil a work ethic or achieve work readiness. Prisoners get a pack of cereals and a teabag at night so they don’t have breakfast, are not showered or clean, are wearing sweaty and shabby clothes.

Every day men and women are released from prison to go to work in the community as part of their programme of reintegration. This is extremely successful with incredibly few failures. So what is the point of adding extra expense to the public by tagging these people, unless the purpose is just to feed the coffers of the private security companies.

There are imaginative ways of using technology but what was being suggested today looks as though it is just adding restrictions by tracking people. That would be neither creative nor effective.

David Cameron is looking to his legacy. I fear that I could be listening to a Prime Minister in five or ten years bewailing the dreadful prison conditions in institutions that are no different to today’s overcrowded dirty prisons, except that they were built more recently. He will have achieved a massive investment of capital into expanding the penal estate but, whilst there will be more prisons, even the new jails could be overcrowded, stinking and places of inactivity and violence.

I want the Prime Minister to look back on today’s speech with pride because it achieved humanity in a system that is currently failing. I would like to see a prison system in decades to come that is purposeful, with men and women busy all day, getting exercise for the mind, body and soul. I would like to see prisons that only hold people who really need to be there because they have committed serious and violent crimes but whose lives will be turned around, who achieve redemption in their own eyes and that of victims and the public.

My job is to hold him to account for this vision. If what he announced today achieves radical reform and changes lives for the better, I will cheer. I will be watching.

Frances Crook is the Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform.