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: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder