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

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Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.