Why Labour needs the nation

As in Wales, a renewed sense of national pride is necessary to rebuild our politics and our economy.

In Manchester, the theme of "patriotism" is set to feature alongside more familiar Labour keywords such as progress or public service. For many on the left, patriotism is a dangerous credo, capable of calling men and women to action, of course, but corruptible, and enlisted too easily in the service of chauvinism and conflict. The power of patriotism is, however, too potent a force to be left to the right, or to those who would subvert it.

The Australian academic Tim Soutphommasane has played an important part in stimulating a reappraisal of modern patriotism and the importance of nation-building for progressive politics. However, Labour might look closer to home for an example of how the power of patriotism - or nationalism, even – has been freed from jingoism and xenophobia and harnessed in service of social democratic ends. We might look to Wales.

In the Welsh Assembly, despite a system pre-disposed to deliver coalition government, Labour remains in power after almost a generation of devolution, while Plaid Cymru’s separatist agenda appears shrunken and shrill. Why should this be the case in Wales, in sharp contrast to the fortunes of traditional parties of the left elsewhere in Europe? Certainly, the "institutional" strength of the left in Wales, and the Labour Party as its principal expression, is part of the answer. But so too is the authenticity of Welsh Labour, which has been an anchor in the confused and convergent politics of the last 25 years, particularly since devolution.

The party in Wales has cleaved to its radical roots, even at the height of New Labour revisionism, eschewing, for example, private sector engagement in the delivery of public services and generally maintaining faith in collectivist, community and comprehensive models of service provision. And crucially, in delivering devolution, Labour responded not only to a renaissance of Welshness, but to a demand for local accountability being expressed across the world. Thus, Welsh Labour’s success is both a product of the left and radical traditions of Wales and of a renewed sense of national mission. It is this fusion of progressive politics with national mission – this nation-building from the left – that Labour needs to understand and adopt across the UK. Is that a realistic aspiration? In modern, multi-cultural Britain, where "identity politics", compounded by immigration, devolution and political cynicism, seems to many to have fatally compromised the notion of a British "nation", can Labour conjure and then command that patriotism? The answer is that we must.

For Labour, the party of hope and progress in Britain, a renewed national pride is a necessary condition for a call to action to rebuild our politics, our society and our economy – in the national interest of us all, not the vested interest of a few. And despite the manifest difficulty of calling "the nation" to action in our nation of nations, there are reasons for Labour to be hopeful.

To begin with, we must recognise the great strength of our movement as a British institution in our own right - a powerful and unifying institution. We remain a meeting place for people from across the classes, faiths, ethnicities and all other divides within British society and we’re the only British party with meaningful representation in Wales, Scotland and England, the last "One Nation" party of Britain, if you like.

Secondly, as in Wales, we must be authentic in Britain. That doesn’t mean adopting old-style, statist solutions. Water is delivered in Wales by a not-for-profit mutual, and our railways may soon operate under similar models of ownership and control. However, it does mean being explicit about the need to reform capitalism such that it acknowledges its co-dependence with the state and its potential to damage the fortunes of our people, or limit their achievement, unless it is regulated and reformed.

Thirdly, we must combine these twin strengths in a new national mission for the reinvention and renewal of Britain. That doesn’t mean just recalling or celebrating those values, experiences or institutions - fair play, the war or even the NHS - that have defined Britain for previous generations. That isn’t enough anymore. Instead, it means inventing and instituting those values, experiences and institutions that might define it for the next. And that demands we rediscover the radicalism, the boldness of thought and action that we’ve demonstrated at our best, as at the creation of the welfare state, the introduction of devolution or the establishment of the minimum wage.

For this generation, it might require a new constitution, written perhaps, to enshrine national standards and common values and to frame a more formal, confederal architecture of British government, including at a more local level in England, as in Wales and Scotland. It may entail the creation of a new National Care Service, as some Labour colleagues have suggested, to provide equitable and decent care for our burgeoning elderly population,  a new period of national, civic service for our young, inculcating values of tolerance, responsibility and duty.  A National Day and a State of the British Union Address are other ideas that have been canvassed and that might usefully play a part in this task of reinvention.

Such new institutions and innovations might create a new spirit and rhetoric of fraternity and national solidarity – of common endeavour and collective enterprise – to replace the narrative of individual rights and personal achievement that has dominated our political discourse for much of the last 30 years. It might also provide a framework within which we could more easily recognise the gross inequality of wealth, education, opportunity and even life expectancy that persist in Britain, and enlist a majority in favour of their eradication.

Of course, achieving that ambition against the backdrop of deficit reduction and low growth, which appears set to constrain our economy – especially if the government persists with its current strategy until 2015 – will be a formidable task. But we cannot allow our own dreams to be curtailed, because those of the British people will not be.

This new narrative of social solidarity could provide the backbone for a new British patriotism, a social and liberal patriotism, with new symbols, institutions and sense of common purpose. Only the left, only Labour, can imagine and nurture such a hopeful vision of our future. That’s our job in politics. Let’s raise up our eyes and look to it.

In Wales, Labour has cleaved to its radical roots. Photograph: Getty Images.

Owen Smith is a Labour leadership candidate and MP for Pontypridd. 

Photo: Wikimedia Commons and Getty
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“Rise like lions after slumber”: why do Jeremy Corbyn and co keep reciting a 19th century poem?

How a passage from Percy Shelley’s The Masque of Anarchy became Labour’s battle cry.

“If I may, I’d like to quote one of my favourite poets, Percy Bysshe Shelley,” Jeremy Corbyn politely suggested to a huge Glastonbury audience. The crowd of nearly 120,000 – more accustomed to the boom of headline acts than elderly men reading out romantic poetry – roared its approval.

“Rise like lions after slumber, in unvanquishable number!” he rumbled. “Shake your chains to earth like dew, which in sleep had fallen on you: ye are many – they are few!”

The Labour leader told the crowd that this was his favourite line. It’s the final stanza of Shelley’s 1819 poem, The Masque of Anarchy, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre earlier that year, when a cavalry charged into a non-violent protest for the vote.

Though it was not published in Shelley’s lifetime – it was first released in 1832 – the poem has become a rallying cry for peaceful resistance. It has been recited at uprisings throughout history, from Tiananmen Square to Tahrir Square.

Corbyn’s turn on the Pyramid Stage was not the first time he’s used it. He recited the stanza during his closing speech on election night in Islington, and the audience began quoting along with him:


It was also used by comedian and celebrity Labour supporter Steve Coogan at a rally in Birmingham:


During Corbyn’s second leadership campaign, his ally Chris Williamson MP told a public meeting that this part of the poem should be “our battle cry” . He delivered on this the following year by reciting the poem to me in his Renault Clio while out on the campaign trail in England’s most marginal constituency (which he ended up winning).

You can hear it echoed in Labour’s campaign slogan: “For the many, not the few”.

Corbyn’s election guru, James Schneider, told the Standard at the time that “it would be a stretch” to say the slogan was taken directly from the poem, but that “Jeremy does know Shelley”. Yet even he took the time to recite the whole stanza down the phone to the journalist who was asking.

Corbyn is famously a fan of the novelist and author Ben Okri. The pair did a literary night at the Royal Festival Hall in London’s Southbank in July last year, in which the Shelley lines came up at the end of the event, as reported by Katy Balls over at the Spectator. Okri announced that he wanted to recite them, telling Corbyn and the audience:

“I want to read five lines of Shelley . . . I think there are some poems that ought to be, like you know those rock concerts, and the musician starts to sing and the whole audience knows the lines? And sings along with them? Well this ought to be one of those, and I’d like to propose that we somehow make it so that anytime someone starts with the word ‘Rise’, you know exactly what the lines are going to be.”

Which, of course, is exactly what Corbyn did at Glastonbury.

“We have this huge, abundant literature on the left and it’s hardly known”

The former left-wing Labour leader Michael Foot loved the poem and recited the lines at demos, and Stop the War – the campaign group Corbyn supports and chaired – took a line from it as the title of its 2014 film about anti-Iraq War action, We Are Many.

So why does the Labour left rally around some lines of poetry written nearly 200 years ago?

“It’s a really appropriate poem,” says Jacqueline Mulhallen, author of Percy Bysshe Shelley: Poet and Revolutionary (Pluto, 2015). “Shelley wrote a poem about the fact that these people were protesting about a minority taking the wealth from the majority, and the majority shouldn’t allow it to happen.

“He was writing at the beginning of industrial capitalism, and protested then, and 200 years later, we’ve still got the same situation: food banks, homeless people, Grenfell Tower, more debts – that’s why it has great resonance when Corbyn quotes it.”

“Shelley said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now”

Michael Rosen, the poet and former Children’s Laureate, also describes the poignancy of Shelley’s words in Corbyn’s campaign. “You’ve got a sense of continuity,” he tells me. “Shelley was campaigning for freedom, for free thought, for free love. He was campaigning for a fairer society; it was a time of incredible oppression. He said there’s loads of us, it’s just a little corrupt crew – well, of course that applies now.”

Rosen celebrates the poem’s place in the Labour movement. “When any of us from the left quote people from the past, we’re saying that we have traditions... We’re making a claim on our authenticity,” he says. “Just in the same way as the right and the establishment draw on the pageantry of the Queen, or talk about Parliament or quote Winston Churchill. These are our traditions, which are different. You hardly ever come across it, either in newspapers or history lessons or anything.”

Rosen, a friend of Corbyn’s, believes his speech brings a left-wing tradition alive that is often forgotten. “We have this huge, abundant literature on the left and it’s hardly known. What’s great about Jeremy calling on it is to remind us . . . This stuff sits in old museums and libraries, gathering dust until it’s made active and live again. It’s made active and live particularly when being used in an environment like that [Glastonbury]. He was making the words come alive.”

Read more: 7 things we learned from Jeremy Corbyn on The One Show

The Masque of Anarchy’s final stanza has been recited at high-profile protests throughout history – including at the 20,000 garment workers’ strike in 1909 in New York, the student-led demo in China’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, anti-Poll Tax protests, and at Tahrir Square in Egypt during the Arab Spring, according to Mulhallen. The way civilians were treated by the authorities in many of these protests echoes what happened at Peterloo.

So does Corbyn’s penchant for the verse mark a similar radical turning-point in our history? “It’s indicating a change in attitude that people should start thinking about redistributing the wealth again,” says Mulhallen. “People are becoming much more aware.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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