Britain's own C-word

The big question in coming months is how far the new leader will transform the machinery of state. D

Having at last entered into his inheritance, Gordon Brown has a chance to open a new chapter in the story of Britain's slow march towards democracy. His campaign hints about radical constitutional change were titillating, but inconclusive. He committed himself to reform of the Commons, a more accountable executive and parliamentary control over decisions of war and peace. He promised more vigilance over civil liberty and talked of more public involvement in policymaking.

But, as he said himself, these moves are not enough. They would nudge Britain a little further along the road to 21st-century democracy, but there would still be an enormous distance to cover. The great questions are how far Brown is willing to travel, and what comes next.

It is not difficult to envisage a constitution fit for the 21st century. It would state that sovereignty belongs to the people, instead of to the crown-in-parliament. The royal prerogative would be abolished (not just trimmed). Ministers and civil servants would be servants of parliament or the people, not of the crown. The House of Lords would be consigned to the dustbin of history. The second chamber would be elected on a national-cum-regional basis, with Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the English regions as the electoral districts. Subsidiarity would be a fundamental principle. The remorseless growth of central power, which has been a leitmotif of British government since the 1940s, would be halted and in some fields reversed.

Substantial, legally entrenched devolution from the central to the local and regional level would create new sites for civic engagement and provide a check against the inevitable self- aggrandisement of government at the centre. Human rights would be extended and more firmly guaranteed. Electoral reform would make the Commons democratically legitimate for the first time in its history. And, like virtually all other democracies, Britain would have a written constitution, based on clear and explicit principles expressed in accessible language.

For the moment, though, constitution-mongering is beside the point. At this stage process matters as much as outcomes. What is crucial is to ensure that constitutional reform is not the property of any party or group of parties, or even of the political class as a whole. The single most obvious feature of present-day British politics is the deep, almost visceral, distrust that the public feels for politicians and political institutions: that is one of the main reasons radical constitutional reform is needed. Certainly, political leaders will have a crucial part to play, but they will have to play it with deftness and modesty.

If the project is to succeed, it must be the property of civil society as a whole, in all its rich diversity. This would, in itself, be a breathtaking innovation, but that is no reason to hold back. The Brown government's first big test is whether it will do for the United Kingdom what Scottish devolutionists did when they set up the constitutional convention that paved the way for the Edinburgh parliament.

The English question

Public alienation from the system is now at an all-time high. Brown's prime ministership will stand or fall on his ability to translate negative alienation into a positive consensus for change. The emotional and institutional obstacles are redoubtable. One of them is the banalisation of public discourse epitomised in the mantra, "It's the economy, stupid". Today, the real stupidity is to give the economy primacy over the polity. The British economy is now one of the most productive in the world, but rising prosperity has gone hand in hand with a deepening political malaise. Falling levels of trust in politics and politicians, miserable general election turnouts, the recent SNP victory in Scotland, disaffection among a small but ominous minority of British-born Muslims and the belated emergence of a potentially explosive "English Question" now haunt the British state like so many ghosts of Banquo. But the spectres are political, not economic. They have to do with the fundamentals of identity, legitimacy and political allegiance. They can be laid to rest only by and through political debate and institutional change.

Another obstacle is the constitutional conservatism that lurks deep in the Labour Party's DNA. Ever since it became a serious challenger for power, Labour has taken Britain's time- encrusted constitution for granted and ignored the tension between social-democratic values and British constitutional orthodoxy. In the days of interwar unemployment and crisis-ridden postwar reconstruction, this was understandable. But over the past 30 years two things have become obvious.

The first is that, although the powers once exercised by the crown have been taken over by the government of the day, the British version of democracy is essentially monarchical. The second is that this negates the social-democratic values of equal citizenship, popular sovereignty and government by dialogue and discussion.

True, the reforms of Tony Blair's first term were more far-reaching than anything seen since 1832. But they did not spring from a coherent vision of pluralist democracy. All too often, the government clung to the monarchical habits of the past. Devolution to Scotland and Wales went hand in hand with increasing centralisation in England; the Human Rights Act with illiberal statutes restricting civil liberty and strengthening the state's already excessive capacity to intrude into the lives of its citizens.

The consequences were doubly malign. The "old" constitution - centred on the absolute sovereignty of the crown-in-parliament - has gone for ever. But it has been replaced by an ad hoc miscellany of measures and executive actions, pulling in different directions. The result is a constitutional wasteland, which is rapidly becoming a breeding ground for confusion, conflict and illegality. The law lords say one thing, ministers another. The consensus among international lawyers was that the Iraq war was illegal. The Attorney General pronounced it legal.

But the biggest obstacle to further democratisation is the crabbed mindset engendered by British constitutional doctrine. For those imprisoned in it, the constitution (any constitution, not just ours) is an uncodifiable melange of practices, precedents, conventions and occasional enactments that govern the operation of the political system until new practices miraculously emerge from the womb of time.

Herbert Morrison's famous dictum was that socialism is what the Labour government does. On the traditional British view, the constitution is what the political actors of the day can get away with. The constitution simply is. Constitutional discourse has no room for ought.

Yet, in reality, constitutions - whether written or not - are more than assortments of institutional nuts and bolts. They embody (and sometimes express) a moral vision: a vision of the good political community, of the good citizen and even of the good society. The US constitution (to take the most famous example) defines a set of institutional arrangements and legal principles designed to reconcile republican liberty and popular sovereignty in a polity of continental scope. Its opening words - "we, the people of the United States" - summarise the governing principle with beautiful economy: the state is the property of the people, not of the rulers temporarily in charge of it.

The state and the monarch

Ironically, even the "old" British constitution embodied a vision of the good political community. The trouble was that the vision was pre- democratic. It was a vision of responsive, but autonomous executive power, in which the people had only walk-on parts in a drama scripted by government at the centre. The state did not belong to the people. It belonged to the monarch, and later to the monarch's ministers. Under the pressure of social, cultural and institutional change, that vision has faded. But it has not been replaced. The result is a vacuum of understanding and principle, which goes a long way to explain the disaffection and cynicism that now poison the wells of political debate and undermine the whole progressive tradition.

Not only was the old constitution pre-democratic, it was monocultural and mononational. It presupposed a culturally homogeneous society and a single, overarching "British" identity, replacing the various national identities of the UK. Manifestly, neither of these assumptions hold good today. Fundamental political questions - Who belongs to the political community? What holds it together? How do the nations of Britain relate to each other and to the whole? How does England relate to the non-English nations? Where do ethnic minority cultures and communities fit in? - are now on the agenda, in a way that has never been true before.

But the British constitutional tradition lacks the moral resources to supply convincing answers. British nationhood can be only civic, like those of France or the United States, not ethnic, like those of Israel and much of eastern Europe. Apart from any other reasons, there is no British ethnicity. Britain is and always has been a multinational state. But civic nationhood presupposes a civic culture, and in so far as present-day Britain has a civic culture at all, it is feeble to the point of anaemia. There is no British equivalent to the valeurs républicaines of France, or the "civic religion" of the US. Rightly, there is now a broad consensus that "Britishness" should be about values, not genes.

But British values are nowhere defined. Faced with alienated young Muslims or separatist Scots asking why they should be British, we have no iconic national utterance to point to - no equivalent of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen or the American Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. Mumblings about Magna Carta are not adequate substitutes.

This has been true a long time, but two developments have added urgency to the question. The first is the historic Commons vote for an elected second chamber. It would be outrageous to sweep this under the carpet and only one degree less outrageous to erect an unstable halfway house between democracy and appointment. But the vote to elect the second chamber was only the beginning. A host of other questions crowd behind. On what basis should elections take place? What electoral districts should be represented? What powers should the chamber have? Above all, what will it be for? These questions can't be answered by more piecemeal tinkering. The creation of an elected second chamber will be a revolutionary change with ramifying effects across the political system. It would be absurd, even dangerous, to look at it in isolation.

Formidable agenda

The second new development is the "English Question" I mentioned earlier. Sometimes this is confused with the notorious "West Lothian Question", but it goes deeper than that. English nationalism (or patriotism, for those who feel squeamish about nationalism) has always been with us, but for most of the time since the Act of Union it has masqueraded as British nationalism. English nationhood was subsumed by British nationhood; the cross of St George by the Union Jack. The Scots and the Welsh were understandably offended by the English habit of talking of "Britain" and "England" as though they were the same thing, but to most English people it was second nature.

Now this is changing. St George crosses on flags at football matches, the recent Social Attitudes Survey finding that there has been a significant fall in the percentage of English people who identify themselves as British and Conservative talk of confining votes on English legislation to English MPs are all straws in the wind.

It is not a high wind - yet. Perhaps it never will be. But it would be dangerous to count on that. Devolution has fostered a remarkable and fundamentally healthy growth in the self-confidence and sense of nationhood of the Scots and Welsh. Scotland and Wales are now distinct political communities, with real capital cities and real parliamentary assemblies, in a sense that has not been true of Scotland for 300 years and has never been true of Wales before.

The revival of England's sense of nationhood is a natural response to these transformations. Though the metropolitan liberal intelligentsia has never been comfortable with the idea, the English are a people, too. If the peoples of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are entitled to autonomy over a wide range of policy areas, how can it be right to deny it to the English?

The agenda is formidable, but so is Brown. He has been the strongest Chancellor since Cripps and the most successful since Gladstone. He has a chance to build a consensus for democratic change of a kind we have not seen since 1945. If he succeeds, he will go down as one of the greatest reforming prime ministers of modern times.

Gordon Brown's in-tray

Health Give public greater access to GPs on weekends and evenings; resolve NHS pay crisis and flawed application procedure for junior doctors

Poverty Put government back on track to meet target of halving child poverty by 2010

Terrorism Develop cross-departmental approach to tackling Islamic extremism

Housing Build eco-towns; meet targets for new housing; make it easier for first-time buyers to get on the property ladder; deal with home information pack problems

Schools Increase funding of state schools; set up National Council for Educational Excellence to tie industry, higher education and the voluntary sector more closely to schools; increase the number of school-leavers entering university

Europe Deal with fallout from the EU treaty and calls for a referendum

Iraq Set date for troop withdrawal; answer calls for an inquiry into the Iraq war

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, The Brown revolution begins

BRIAN ADCOCK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Divided Britain: how the EU referendum exposed Britain’s new culture war

The EU referendum exposed a gaping fault line in our society – and it’s not between left and right.

There are streets in Hampstead, the wealthy northern suburb of London, where the pro-EU posters outnumber cars. A red “Vote Remain” in one. A “Green Yes” in another. The red, white and blue flag of the official campaign sits happily next to a poster from the left-wing campaign Another Europe Is Possible proclaiming that the world already has too many borders.

If you were looking for an equivalent street in Hull, in the north of England, you would look for a long time. In the city centre when I visited one recent morning, the only outward evidence that there was a referendum going on was the special edition of Wetherspoon News plastered on the walls of the William Wilberforce pub in Trinity Wharf. Most of the customers agreed with the message from the chain’s founder, Tim Martin: Britain was better off outside the European Union.

“Far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull” – that was the accusation levelled at the Remain campaign by Andy Burnham in the final weeks of the campaign. He wasn’t talking about geography; Remain’s voice is persuasive to residents of Newland Avenue in Hull, where I drank a latte as I eavesdropped on a couple who were fretting that “racists” would vote to take Britain out of the EU.

Rather, Burnham was talking about an idea, the “Hampstead” that occupies a special place in right-wing demonology as a haven of wealthy liberals who have the temerity to vote in the interests of the poor. The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, in his 1963 essay on the Festival of Britain, called them “the Herbivores”:

“. . . the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC . . . who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.”

For Hampstead then, read swaths of Islington, Hackney, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford today – all areas that were most strongly in favour of Remain and where Jeremy Corbyn is popular. But Remain never found a tone that won over the other half of Labour England; the campaign struck as duff a note among the diminishing band of pensioners on Hampstead’s remaining council estates as it did on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate.

The rift between “Hampstead and Hull”, in the sense that Andy Burnham meant it, is one that has stealthily divided Britain for years, but it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate over Europe.

Academics use various kinds of shorthand for it: the beer drinkers v the wine drinkers, or the cosmopolitans v the “left behind”. “It’s not just that [Britain] is div­ided between people who buy organic and people who buy own-brand,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “but between people who wouldn’t understand how anyone could buy own-brand and people who wouldn’t buy organic if you put a gun to their head.” Equating political preferences with shopping habits might sound flippant, but on 21 June the retail research company Verdict estimated that “half of Waitrose shoppers backed a Remain vote, against just over a third of Morrisons customers”.

The referendum has shown that there is another chasm in British politics, beyond left and right, beyond social conservatism v liberalism, and beyond arguments about the size of the state. The new culture war is about class, and income, and education, but also about culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future (or lack of it). This divide explains why Ukip’s message has been seductive to former Labour voters and to Tories, and why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a campaign that purported to despise “elites” and “experts” and spoke of “wanting our country back”.

***

At the start of the campaign, the question that most accurately predicted whether you would back Remain or Leave was consistently: “Are you a graduate?” (Those who answered yes were much more likely to vote in favour of staying in the EU.) Stronger In never found a way to change that and win over those who left education at 18 or earlier. Pollsters also suggested that the much-vaunted Euroscepticism of older voters reflects generations where only one in ten people went to university.

This fissure has been growing for the best part of a decade and a half, but Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which deters newcomers and maintains entrenched parties, has provided a degree of insulation to Labour that its European cousins have lacked. Yet even here in the UK the mid-Noughties brought the brief rise of the British National Party, powered by voter defections from Labour in its strongholds in east London and Yorkshire, as well as the election of the Greens’ first MP on the back of progressive disillusionment with the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In office, both Blair and Brown calculated, wrongly, that Labour’s core vote had “nowhere else to go”. In opposition under Ed Miliband, the party calculated, again wrongly, that discontent with immigration, and the rise of Ukip powered by that discontent, was a problem for the Conservative Party alone.

In a 2014 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, ­Revolt on the Left, the activist Marcus Roberts, the academic Rob Ford and the analyst Ian Warren warned that Labour had “few reasons to cheer about the Ukip insurgency and plenty to worry about”. When the votes were cast in the general election the following year, that prediction turned out to be dispiritingly accurate. Defections from Labour to Ukip led to Labour losing seats to the Conservatives in Gower, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Plymouth Moor View.

For the most part, however, first-past-the-post papered over the cracks in Labour’s broad coalition: cracks that, in the harsh light of the EU referendum, have become obvious. The divide isn’t simply one of class, or income. The social profile and culture of voters in Cumbria are no different from that of voters on the other side of the border – but Scots in the Borders backed a Remain vote while their English peers in the border areas opted for Brexit. Inhospitality towards Brexit proved a stronger indication of city status than a mere cathedral: Vote Leave generally found Britain’s great cities more difficult terrain than the surrounding towns and countryside.

The problem of the fracturing vote is particularly acute for the Labour Party, which for much of the 20th century was able to rely on the Herbivores. In concert with Frayn’s “less fortunate creatures”, they have been enough to guarantee Labour close to 250 seats in the House of Commons and roughly one-third of the popular vote, even in difficult years. But Britain’s EU referendum placed Hampstead and Hull on opposing sides for the first time in modern British political history.

It was Tony Blair who, in his final speech to the Trades Union Congress as Labour leader in September 2006, said that the new debate in politics was not left against right, but “open v closed” – openness to immigration, to diversity, to the idea of Europe. Driven by their commitment to openness, Blair’s outriders dreamed of reshaping Labour as a mirror of the US Democrats – though, ironically, it was Ed Miliband, who repudiated much of Blair’s approach and politics, who achieved this.

At the 2015 election Labour’s coalition was drawn from the young, ethnic minorities and the well educated: the groups that powered Barack Obama’s two election wins in 2008 and 2012. The party was repudiated in the Midlands, went backwards in Wales and was all but wiped out in the east of England. (Scotland was another matter altogether.) Its best results came in Britain’s big cities and university towns.

The Remain campaign gave Labour a glimpse of how Miliband’s manifesto might have fared without the reassuring imprimatur of a red rosette. Britain Stronger In Europe has been rejected in the Midlands and struggled in the east of England. But it also failed to inspire passion in Sunderland, Oldham and Hull – all areas that, for now, return Labour MPs.

***

In appearance, Hull’s city centre is built on blood and sandstone, dotted with memorials to a lost empire and postwar replacements for bombed buildings, all ringed by suburban housing built by the private sector in the 1930s and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. It could be Bristol without the excessive hills, or a smaller Glasgow with a different accent. Unlike in Glasgow or Bristol, however, the residents of Hull are largely hostile to the European Union. Unlike Glasgow and Bristol, Hull is a post-imperial city that has yet to experience a post-colonial second act.

The William Wilberforce is named after a native son who helped destroy the British slave trade, the engine of Hull’s prosperity in the 18th century. The destruction of another local industry – fishing – drives resentment among the pub’s ageing clientele, who were there for breakfast and a bit of company when I visited. They blame its demise squarely on the EU.

Although the Labour Party now has only one MP in Scotland, the back rooms of the labour movement host an outsized Scottish contingent. For that reason – and the continuing threat that the loss of Labour’s seats in Scotland poses to the party’s chances of winning a majority at Westminster – the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 loomed large for Labour throughout the EU campaign.

From the outset, Britain Stronger In struggled to replicate the success of the Scottish No campaign, in part because the price of victory was one that Labour regarded as too high to pay a second time. In Glasgow, in the week before the Scottish referendum, everyone knew where Labour stood on independence – consequently, many voters were already planning to take revenge. The proprietor of one café told me that Labour was “finished in this city, for ever”.

Predictions of this sort were thin on the ground in Hull. Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s EU campaign, is one of the three Labour MPs whom Hull sent to Westminster in 2015. But even late in the campaign, in his own constituency, I found uncertainty about the party’s official position on the referendum. For that reason, if nothing else, it didn’t have the feeling of a city preparing to break with a half-century-plus of Labour rule, as Glasgow did in 2014. In Scotland, most people I spoke to believed that they were on the brink of independence, which made the eventual result a big blow.

Only among Hull’s pro-European minority could I find any conviction that Britain might actually leave the EU. In September 2014 Kenneth Clarke remarked that Ukip’s supporters were “largely . . . the disappointed elderly, the grumpy old men, people who’ve had a bit of a hard time in life”. To listen to Hull’s Leave voters is to hear tales of the same frustrated potential: they feel that politicians of all stripes have lives entirely removed from theirs. In their defence, they are right – just 4 per cent of MPs in 2010 were from working-class backgrounds.

As for Ken Clarke, he has carved out a second career as every left-winger’s favourite Tory, but that tone of indifference towards the “disappointed lives” of globalisation’s casualties recalls his younger days as a rising star of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Hull’s residents have been dismissed, first as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of Thatcherite economics, and now as small-minded opponents of social progress and racial diversity. Unsurprisingly, people who feel that their wishes have been ignored and in some cases actively squashed by successive governments of left and right did not expect to wake up on the morning of 24 June to discover that this time, their votes really had changed something.

Equally unsurprisingly, the Remain campaign’s warnings of economic collapse lacked force for people for whom the world’s end had been and gone.

In Glasgow in 2014 Scottish independence was a question of identity in itself, whereas in Hull, hostility towards Europe is the by-product of other identities that feel beleaguered or under threat: fishing, Englishness and whiteness, for the most part.

In Hampstead, a vote for Remain feels more like a statement about the world as you see it. One woman, who walks off before I can probe further, tells me: “Of course I’m voting to stay In. I buy Fairtrade.”

***

Immigration, not the European Union, is the issue that moves voters in Hull. “Britain is full” was the most frequent explanation they gave for an Out vote. Knowing that immigration, rather than the abstract question of sovereignty, would be crucial to winning the contest, Vote Leave tried from the beginning to make it a referendum on border control. Leave’s main theme: the threat of Turkey joining the European Union and, with it, the prospect of all 75 million Turks gaining the right to live and work in Britain.

Although Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are somewhere only just north of its hopes of launching a manned mission to Mars, the tactic worked: according to an ­Ipsos MORI poll released on the morning of 16 June, 45 per cent of Britons believed that Turkey will be fast-tracked into the Union.

That same morning, Nigel Farage posed in front of a poster showing refugees – mostly from Syria and most of them non-white – on the border between Croatia and Slovenia, with a slogan warning that uncontrolled immigration was leaving Britain at “breaking point”. But the row over the poster came to an unpleasant halt just a few hours later as news began to break that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, had been shot and stabbed on her way out of a constituency surgery. She died of her injuries a little over an hour later. On 19 June Thomas Mair, who was arrested in connection with the killing, gave his name at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The circumstances of the killing felt familiar. A little after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert Kennedy was returning to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in high spirits. He had just won a crucial victory in the California primary and was well placed to secure the Democratic nomination to run in that year’s presidential election. Going through the kitchen in order to avoid cheering crowds and get straight to his press conference, he was ambushed by a man called Sirhan Sirhan, who fired six shots from a revolver. Kennedy was rushed to hospital, where he died early the following morning.

Five months later Richard Nixon was elected president. The American right held on to the White House for 20 years out of the next 25. Jo Cox’s killing, amid the nativist howling from Farage et al, felt like the beginning of a similar chapter of right-wing advance in the UK.

Labour’s problem, and that of its social-democratic cousins throughout Europe, is the same as the American left’s was in the 1960s. Its founding coalition – of trade unions, the socially concerned middle classes and minorities, ethnic and cultural – is united (barely) on economic issues but irrevocably split on questions of identity. Outside crisis-stricken Greece and Spain, the left looks trapped in permanent opposition, with no politician able to reconsolidate its old base and take power again.

***

When I arrive in Hull, preparations are under way for a vigil in Jo Cox’s honour, but it is the nation of Turkey that is weighing on the minds of undecided voters. On Park Street, residents are divided. Those who have exercised their right to buy and are concerned about their mortgages are flirting with an Out vote but are terrified about negative equity. Those who remain in social housing or the private rented sector are untouched by stories of soaring mortgages. To many residents, the Treasury’s dire warnings seem to be the concerns of people from a different planet, not merely another part of the country. As Rachel, a woman in her mid-fifties who lives alone, puts it: “They say I’d lose four grand a month. I don’t know who they think is earning four grand a month but it certainly isn’t me.”

As Vote Leave knew, the promise that an Out vote will allow people to “take control” always had a particular appeal for those with precious little control – of their rent, of next week’s shift, of whether or not they will be able to afford to turn the heating on next week. Never mind that the control envisaged by Vote Leave would be exercised by the conservative right: the campaign found a message that was able to resonate across class and region, at least to an extent that could yet create a force to be reckoned with under first-past-the-post in Britain.

Four grand a month isn’t a bad salary, even in leafy Hampstead, but in that prosperous corner of north London fears of an Out vote, and what will come after, gained a tight purchase. The worry was coupled with resentment, too, over what would come, should the Outers triumph.

The great risk for the left is that herbivorous resentment is already curdling into contempt towards the people of Hull and the other bastions of Brexitism. That contempt threatens the commodity on which Labour has always relied to get Hull and Hampstead to vote and work together – solidarity. The referendum leaves the Conservatives divided at Westminster. That will give little comfort to Labour if the long-term outcome of the vote is to leave its own ranks divided outside it.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain