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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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.