Lib Dem Minister: Ed Miliband’s “One Nation” Labour is a delusion

Perhaps the Labour leader’s brother could assist him in coming up with a more economically literate policy platform, says Lib Dem minister Jeremy Browne.

We've had “Old Labour”, “New Labour”; now it's “One Nation Labour”. Ed Miliband is staking a lot on this rebranding. It is not, he insists, just the appropriation of the most hackneyed old cliché in British politics, it defines his ambitions for office.

It is easy to criticise the emptiness and evasiveness. And the vagueness; the lack of meat on the bones. To be “One Nation Labour” is to defend child-benefit hand-outs for the wealthiest 15 per cent of the population, including asset millionaires like Ed Miliband, paid for from the taxes of much poorer people, on the unintelligible basis that the richest section of society constitutes "the squeezed middle". To be “One Nation Labour” is to believe that it is immoral to have a top rate of tax lower than 50 per cent, but not to have the moral fortitude to commit to reinstating this rate in office. To be “One Nation Labour” is to claim a preference for democracy over unaccountable entrenched privilege, only to connive and vote to scupper House of Lords reform.

But the deepest criticism of “One Nation Labour” is more profound than just dithering policy indecision and ducking difficult choices. The fundamental flaw with “One Nation Labour” is its crushing parochialism.

To believe in socialism in one country is fantasy. The big fact of life today is how many different nations are rising in global importance. The world has never been more inter-connected; more globalised. There is a revolution taking place, with the dramatic rise in Asian prosperity and political influence, that seems to have escaped the exponents of “One Nation Labour”.

That is surely because Ed Miliband is a highly conservative and nostalgic politician. He takes his slogan from a nineteenth century Conservative Prime Minister. He becomes most animated when idealising the shared hardship of ration-book era Britain. He reserves his greatest ideological admiration for a recently deceased historian who championed the virtues of the Soviet Union.

But Britain will not thrive in a bubble of isolation floating somewhere in the sepia-tinted past. To prosper now we have to be internationally interconnected and competitive.

So, for a start, “One Nation Labour” would have to set tax rates that were globally competitive. To do otherwise would be ruinously destructive of our tax-base and our ability to fund good public services. That is why this coalition government is cutting corporation tax in Britain to the lowest level in the G7 to attract new investment and jobs. And it is also why Ed Miliband needs to be aware that globalised businesses and entrepreneurs are unlikely to chose to pay avaricious rates of tax under “One Nation Labour”, to the detriment of our public finances.

“One Nation Labour” would need to understand that we live in a far more globalised employment market. That explains Polish plumbers and Indian call-centres. And this market is getting far much competitive. It is getting more highly skilled. That is why this coalition government is reforming education to raise standards. Britain has fallen down the league tables in childhood numeracy and literacy. We will not succeed as a “knowledge economy” if we have a less knowledgeable workforce than our competitors. “One Nation Labour”, if it remains in cahoots with militant teaching unions wanting to protect the past, will oversee a Britain that becomes less competitive and less attractive to inward investors. The children forging ahead in South Korea and Singapore will not make allowances for an inward-looking British education system that fails to equip our children for the modern world.

And “One Nation Labour” would be forced to understand that no country can live beyond its means and borrow money without reference to the outside world. What vanity to believe we can ignore pragmatic welfare reform and the financial implications of a rapidly aging population. The countries that spend money they cannot afford and shirk reform – Greece is a good example – certainly don't live in splendid “One Nation” isolation. Quite the opposite: they become wholly dependent on others, forfeit their self-government and self-respect, and the poorest and most vulnerable people end up suffering the greatest hardship.

When it comes down to it, “One Nation Labour” is a delusion. It sounds reassuring precisely because it is backward-looking, nostalgic and implies a comforting isolation from the rest of the world. It suggests that Britain can go it alone, without reference to others. And crucially, it implies that the hard choices facing other countries around the world need not apply to us. On our island we can spend money and dodge difficult decisions without consequences.

Where can Ed Miliband turn to try and devise instead a more plausible ideological platform? Maybe he should start close to home. David Miliband has a reputation for being personally aloof. It probably cost him the Labour leadership in 2010. But he could possibly help his brother now, if Ed Miliband wants to be helped.

After two-and-a-half years travelling the world as Foreign Secretary, and two-and-a-half more benefiting personally from his internationally marketable skills, David Miliband must at least understand the parochial limitations of “One Nation Labour”. Maybe he could assist his leader by encouraging Labour to have a more outward-looking, up-to-date, globally aware and economically literate vision than Ed Miliband, with “One Nation Labour”, has managed to come up with on his own.

Jeremy Browne is a Home Office Minister and the Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament for Taunton Deane.

 

Ed Miliband speaking at last year's Labour Party conference. Photograph: Getty Images
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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear