What even is Britishness? Photo: Ian Gavan/Getty Images
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The culture wars of the left have contributed to Labour becoming unelectable

Pseudo-radical academics do the same damage to the cause of the political left in Britain as the populist American right does to the Republican Party. 

As Labour continues to flail around and self-flagellate, the Conservatives are putting their first post-election plans into action. As part of its new counter-extremism strategy, announced by Theresa May, the government will stress the importance of promoting British values. Now shorn of its Liberal Democrat deadweight, which was always more concerned about upsetting the tropes of metropolitan ­multiculturalism, the Conservative government hopes to add a greater ideological dimension to the fight against extremism. The question is how this will be translated into legislation.

The business of promoting Britishness has always broken down at the point of delivery. If the definition of extremism is famously vague, any consensus on what constitutes our national identity has proved more elusive still.

How will the Labour Party respond? In 2007, Gordon Brown sought to begin a national debate about “what are the British values that make us proud to be British?”. The 2009 book he co-edited with the journalist Matthew d’Ancona, Being British, is one of the more thoughtful offerings on the subject. It is not that the conception was flawed; but Brown, for whatever reason, was not the man to take it forward.

The greatest problem that the Labour Party has today is that it has lost its ability to appear national. At the heart of Jon Cruddas’s recent post-mortem of the election campaign was the party’s failure to articulate a genuinely national message. All the great Labour victories were built from this basis. The 1945 victory – reinvented by the film-maker Ken Loach as some sort of kick in the teeth for Toryism, thereafter betrayed by quislings of the left – was nothing of the sort. The “spirit of ’45” has been sullied because, to borrow a contemporary phrase, its achievements, such as the NHS, have been “weaponised” to serve a sectional message.

As Labour continues to cast around for a working formula, it is in grave danger of looking in the wrong places. Much was made of the use as strategists of key advisers from Barack Obama’s team during the ­British election campaign. David Axelrod, ­Obama’s former guru and adviser, provoked some griping, given his large retainer and relatively limited involvement. Others, such as Arnie Graf, were said not to have been involved enough.

Yet there is a certain irony in this attempt to replicate the Obama model – because, if anything, the British left has started to replicate the flaws of the American right. On the one hand, there was the s0-called 35 per cent strategy adopted by the Miliband team: mobilising the base with the aim of winning just enough votes to get over the line. This was the first-past-the-post equivalent of Karl Rove’s much-maligned 51 per cent strategy in George W Bush’s two presidential campaigns.

On the other hand, it has meant embracing the left’s version of the culture wars that characterised those campaigns in the United States. In the UK, it is not religious fundamentalists or shock jocks who insist on controlling the tone of national debate, but their mirror-image on the left: the self-appointed, state-funded popes of received wisdom in the universities and the arts. To many British academics – or, at least, to the noisiest ones – there could not be anything more sacrilegious than promoting British values. National identity is contested terrain, of course. But what the liberal left contests is that we should be proud to be British at all.

Pseudo-radical academics do the same damage to the cause of the political left in Britain as the populist American right does to the Republican Party. Outraged of Oxbridge are the first out of the traps to convey their horror at anything that offends their world-view.

Academics often talk about something called the “cultural turn”, which began in the 1970s. This stressed the importance of “culture” in nearly every aspect of the humanities and social science and gave rise to post-structuralism, critical theory and other faddish sub-disciplines. In truth, this was not a “turn” but a “project”, which is still going on. To deviate from it is greatly discouraged. Indeed, the cultural turn also coincided with a shift in the political strategy of the radical left in this era. Giving up on the hairy-handed troglodytes of the working classes, it saw more opportunity to break down societal norms by picking at society’s fabric.

The Labour Party polled 9,347,304 of the votes cast at the general election. An estimated half of that number visited last year’s poppy display at the Tower of London. When Michael Gove was education secretary, the self-appointed guardians of the historical profession greatly enjoyed themselves announcing their opposition to Gove’s expressed desire to teach more British history in schools. But, in a June 2014 poll for YouGov, 77 per cent of respondents supported the notion that the role of schools was to instil British values in their students.

On this fundamental point, the shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, is one of the saner voices. He “gets it” far better than many of his erstwhile colleagues in academia and, crucially, any contender for the Labour leadership to emerge so far. Reflecting on the kicking that the UK Independence Party gave Labour in its heartlands, he has urged his party to “champion a sense of national identity which, in many parts of the country, feels undervalued”.

It will be a while yet before the Labour Party gets its act together. In the meantime, it would be a disaster if it subcontracted these culture wars to an intellectual establishment that has served the left so badly.

John Bew is a historian and an NS contributing writer. He is completing a biography of Clement Attlee

John Bew is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book, Realpolitik: A History, is published by Oxford University Press.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The myths of Magna Carta

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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