Labour is positioning itself as the truly patriotic party

Ed Balls's invocation of 1945 and the slogan "rebuilding Britain" exemplify Labour's new patriotism.

In my recent profile of the Australian political philosopher Tim Soutphommasane, who has done much to shape the Labour leadership's thinking on patriotism (he is a particularly important influence on Jon Cruddas, who is leading Labour's policy review) I wrote of how the party could draw inspiration from the 1945 election. In that year, it was Clement Attlee's promise of a "new Jerusalem" that propelled him to power over the war lion Winston Churchill. Nearly 70 years later, "a patriotic vow to 'rebuild Britain'" could do the same for Ed Miliband, I argued. As Soutphommasane told me: "The task of rebuilding and reshaping the British economy after the financial crisis and after austerity is something that could be a patriotic project".

The opening days of the Labour conference have seen the party explicitly embrace this theme. First we had the conference slogan "rebuilding Britain", then we had Ed Balls's speech, in which the shadow chancellor spoke of the need for Labour to "recapture the spirit and values and national purpose" of 1945.

Balls is right to argue that a patriotic appeal to "rebuild Britain" after austerity could resonate with voters in 2015. Under the rubric of "national reconstruction", Labour could champion policies such as a National Investment Bank, a major house building programme, and a "solidarity tax" on the wealthy. Balls spoke of how this could be the generation that "safeguarded the NHS, and started the rebuilding of our national infrastructure ...  that tackled our debts by growing and reforming our economy - and making sure the banking crisis that caused those debts could never happen again ... that broke from the cycle of political short-termism and started to rebuild Britain anew in the long term national interest."

Labour's best hope of winning the next election lies in offering an optimistic vision of a society of shared obligation and reward, something Bill Clinton did so effectively in his speech to the Democratic National Convention when he contrasted a "we're-all-in-this-together" society with a "winner-take-all society".

The irony is that "we're all in this together", with its appeal to voters' instinctive patriotism, would have been a good slogan for the Tories if only they'd lived up to it. But their reckless reform of the NHS ("the closest thing the English people have to a religion", in the words of Nigel Lawson) and their decision to abolish the 50p tax rate, an important symbol of solidarity in hard times, means that they have lost any claim to be a patriotic one-nation party. The road is clear for Miliband to establish Labour as the truly patriotic party.

Ed Miliband applauds shadow chancellor Ed Balls after he delivered his speech to the Labour conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Donald Trump's threats give North Korea every reason it needs to keep nuclear weapons

The US president's warning that he may “totally destroy” the country is a gift to Kim Jong-un's regime. 

Even by Donald Trump's undiplomatic standards, his speech at the UN general assembly was remarkably reckless. To gasps from his audience, Trump vowed to "totally destroy" North Korea if it persisted with its threats and branded Kim Jong-un "rocket man". In an apparent resurrection of George W Bush's "axis of evil", the US president also declared: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph". 

For North Korea, Trump's words merely provide further justification for its nuclear weapons programme. Though the regime is typically depicted as crazed (and in some respects it is), its nuclear project rests on rational foundations. For Kim, the lesson from the fall of Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi was that tyrants pay a price for relinquishing their arms. The persistent threats from the US strengthen the regime's domestic position and reinforce a siege mentality. Though North Korea must be deterred from a pre-emptive strike, it must also be offered incentives to pursue a different path. 

As Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson remarked last month: "We do not seek a regime change, we do not seek a collapse of the regime, we do not seek an accelerated reunification of the peninsula, we do not seek an excuse to send our military north of the 38th Parallel. We are not your enemy... but you are presenting an unacceptable threat to us, and we have to respond. And we hope that at some point they will begin to understand that and we would like to sit and have a dialogue with them."

The present nadir reflects the failures of the past. In 1994, the Clinton administration persuaded North Korea to freeze its nuclear programme in return for economic and diplomatic concessions. A communique declared that neither state had "hostile intent" towards the other. But this progress was undone by the Bush administration, which branded North Korea a member of the "axis of evil" and refused to renew the communique.

The subsequent six-party talks (also including China, Russia South Korea and Japan) were similarly undermined by the US. As Korea expert Mike Chinoy records in the Washington Post in 2005, the Bush administration provocatively "designated Macau's Banco Delta Asia, where North Korea maintained dozens of accounts, as a 'suspected money-laundering concern.'" When a new agreement was reached in 2007, "Washington hard-liners demanded that Pyongyang accept inspections of its nuclear facilities so intrusive one American official described them a 'national proctologic exam'".

For North Korea, the benefits of nuclear weapons (a "treasured sword of justice" in Kim's words) continue to outweigh the costs. Even the toughened UN sanctions (which will ban one third of the country's $3bn exports) will not deter Pyongyang from this course. As Tillerson recognised, diplomacy may succeed where punishment has failed. But Trump's apocalyptic rhetoric will merely inflate North Korea's self-righteousness. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.