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The NS Profile: Tim Soutphommasane

On a recent visit to London, a young Australian thinker addressed an intimate seminar chaired by Jon Cruddas and held talks with Ed Miliband. Why is the Labour leadership so fascinated by Tim Soutphommasane?

One afternoon in June a small group of Labour MPs, think tank heads and academics gathered in a cramped Commons committee room to
listen to a young Australian named Tim Soutphommasane. He was in Westminster at the invitation of Jon Cruddas, the intellectually ambitious Dagenham MP who is leading Labour’s policy review, and Jonathan Rutherford, the editor of the left-wing journal Soundings and one of the theorists behind “Blue Labour”.

Among those in attendance were David Mili­band; Hilary Benn, the shadow communities secretary; Sunder Katwala, the director of the think tank British Future; Anthony Barnett, the first director of Charter 88 and the founder of openDemocracy; and David Goodhart, the director of Demos. In Katwala’s view, though the left had discussed the question of national identity for years, it remained “stuck on the starting line”. Too often the debate had been about whether to have the debate at all. Soutphommasane’s call for a less apologetic, more unambiguous patriotism could offer the left a way forward. In a sign of how seriously the Labour leadership is taking his ideas, he met Ed Miliband during his stay in London.

When I met Soutphommasane (pronounced Soot-pom-ma-sarn) for coffee he was dressed smartly in a dark suit, pressed white shirt and Versace glasses. We talked about his 2009 book Reclaiming Patriotism: Nation-Building for Aus­tralian Progressives and he explained his vision of a new “liberal patriotism”.

There was a time when a sense of patriotism was unremarkable on the British left. Clement Attlee described it as “the emotion of every free-thinking Briton”. Yet, in recent decades, the British left’s relationship with patriotism has been ambivalent at best and hostile at worst. When Ed Miliband delivered his first (and cautious) speech on the subject in June, many Labour supporters were baffled. “Australia and Britain have in common a progressive left that is uncomfortable with the subject of national identity and patriotism because invocations of national pride and solidarity are regarded as proxies for racism and xenophobia,” Soutphommasane told me.

Indeed, one of the stock responses to anyone on the left who engages with the subject is to accuse him or her of “dog-whistling”, a term that originated in Australian politics to describe the use of coded words and themes to appeal to racist voters. “There can be more than one kind of patriotism,” he explained. “For a lot of people, patriotism is, by definition, an exclusive and a very nasty sentiment, when there can in fact be a very appreciative and generous love of country, one in which you can criticise your own country when you think it’s in the wrong. That’s the kind of political community, I think, that the left should try and work towards – one that’s mature, one that’s reflective and one that’s more deliberative.”

His lodestar is Carl Schurz, the first German-born American elected to the US Senate, whose motto was: “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

History of sacrifice

One of the first things you notice about Soutphommasane, who is 29, is that, in his own words, he “does not look like an obvious advocate for patriotism”. He was born in 1982 in Montpellier, France, to Lao and Chinese parents. They had fled Laos as refugees following the Communist takeover in 1975. In 1985 the family migrated from France to Australia, where his parents, “who never really felt that they could belong to French society”, became registered nurses at a hospital in west Sydney. Reclaiming Patriotism is dedicated to them for teaching their son “the value of citizenship and the meaning of calling a country your home”.

He declined the opportunity to take up French citizenship at the age of 18 because, he told me, “I don’t believe in the idea of dual citizenship.” When I referred to him as a “second-generation migrant”, he swiftly corrected me: “I’m a first-generation Australian.”

Soutphommasane was educated at the Hurlstone Agricultural High School in south-west Sydney, a predominantly Anglo-Celtic institution that “took its patriotism pretty seriously”. Its most celebrated alumnus is John Hurst Edmondson, the first Australian to be awarded the Victoria Cross during the Second World War.

Soutphommasane was the only Asian pupil in his year. He cites an Anzac Day ceremony as an event that shaped his thinking about national identity. “I remember hearing a fellow student talk about the sacrifices of our forebears and how the Australian way of life was defended by Australian servicemen. These were all noble sentiments but I couldn’t relate to them in any way because my forebears never fought any wars on behalf of Australia and the kind of forebears the student was talking about may well have been fighting to defend a white Australia. That, for me, crystallised the problem of what a national identity means in a society where a common history can’t be taken for granted.

“I’ve since reconciled myself with the idea of a national identity and tradition but that’s because I think belonging to a country means belonging to a tradition and trying to live up to the best of it. You can inherit a tradition even though you’re not born into it.”

It is a moving backstory and one that makes Soutphommasane a formidable advocate for patriotism. He joined the Australian Labor Party when he was 15, the minimum age required, after being politicised by statements made by Pauline Hanson, the demagogic leader of the anti-immigrant One Nation Party, who denounced the “Asian invasion” of Australia.

At the same time, the election of John Howard’s Liberal-National coalition had seen the centre-right redefine national identity in starkly conservative terms. Howard, who as leader of the opposition in 1988 had called for Asian immigration to be “slowed down a little”, mocked the left’s “black armband” view of Australian history and notoriously denied a group of Afghan asylum-seekers on board the Norwegian freighter MV Tampa entry to the country’s waters in 2001.

The response by much of the Australian left was to concede defeat and abandon any attempt to forge a liberal patriotism. The UK experienced a similar phenomenon during the rise of Thatcherism. “When the right has a resonant version of patriotism, the left seems to decide that’s authentic,” Sunder Katwala said when we spoke.

In the case of Australia, the situation reached its nadir with the Cronulla Beach riots in Sydney in 2005, during which a mob of 5,000 attacked anyone of Middle Eastern appearance. By now a PhD student at Balliol College, Oxford (his eventual thesis was titled Patriotism and National Culture), Soutphommasane was “outraged” by “the xenophobia that was unleashed and the use of national symbols like the flag”. He felt vindicated in his view that the left could not “vacate the field or leave the debate to the extremists”. He completed his studies in 2009 and returned to Australia with a renewed sense of political purpose.

Soutphommasane first met Cruddas in 2008 while still at Oxford and began corresponding regularly with him. He praised the Labour MP’s Clement Attlee Memorial Lecture, delivered in October last year, as a “very original contribution to political thinking on the British Labour left. Looking at the debates around Blue Labour, I saw a conversation that Australian Labor should have had after it lost office [in 1996] and never had during its period in opposition [from 1996 to 2007].”

Cruddas, a keen student of Australian politics since his days as a trade union activist with the Australian Builders Labourers’ Federation, told me that he was keen to “pull together ideas from a wide international orbit”. Of Soutphommasane, he said: “He’s an ex-adviser to Bob Carr, the Australian foreign minister and the former premier of New South Wales; he’s a public commentator [Soutphommasane is a regular columnist for the Age newspaper in Melbourne] and he’s a philosopher. He’s a genuine left intellectual – he’s not just in the academy, he works at both the practical and the theoretical levels.”

Others remark on his persistence. Justin Di Lollo, the managing director of the Labor-aligned lobbying firm Hawker Britton, who employed Soutphommasane after he graduated, said: “He was a very forward kinda young fella. In his early twenties he ran up to me more or less asking for a job. I was a bit slow off the mark and Tim went through his Labor Party connections to put pressure on my team to make it all happen. He showed Machiavellian intent and capability.”

For Soutphommasane, it is in the left’s best interest to promote a common national identity. “One of the reasons why you need to have a cohesive, collective identity in any liberal democratic society is that you need to have a sense of fellow feeling in order to redistribute resources.” Because most societies have become more ethnically and culturally diverse, “You can’t take it for granted that citizens will have an identity in common or will be willing to contribute to the common good, and so you have to work hard to ensure that people feel like they belong to a community.” In Britain, he observed, “it’s harder because of a historical legacy which meant the British population never had to reflect very deeply about what it meant to be British. The fact that you had British imperial power meant that you didn’t need to think about Britishness at all.”

In this regard, Soutphommasane praises the Labour leader’s “nuanced attempt at starting a new conversation around Britishness. There will be the inevitable criticisms and reservations expressed on the Labour side, but these are important things to talk about.”

In some respects, as Katwala pointed out, Soutphommasane’s thesis is a “statement of the obvious”. The Labour Party, Katwala said, has “mostly had an account of patriotism; it’s the cultural liberal left, the post-’68 generation, that’s had an aversion to national identity [and] an allergy to patriotism”.

When I challenged Soutphommasane on whether his model of patriotism is applicable to Britain, a multinational state with a monarch as its head of state, he said: “The most striking thing about Britain is how historically successful it has been at holding together a number of constituent identities – Englishness, Scottishness, Welshness. I think that’s something that isn’t always appreciated. Are there tensions between these identities in Britishness? Potentially, yes. But an overarching British identity can also be strengthened by vigorous consti­tuent identities.”

The great strength of Britishness, Soutphom­masane argues, is that it “leaves a lot of space for the expression of other identities”. He is, however, critical of the British model of multiculturalism and its promotion of a “community of communities”.

“The implication of that is that there’s no overarching sense of British community. If multiculturalism is to work, it has to be about ensuring that people from diverse backgrounds can integrate into a common community as citizens.” Too often, the result has been what the philosopher Amartya Sen calls “plural monoculturalism”. He contrasted Britain’s approach unfavourably with that of Australia, where multiculturalism “has very clearly been framed as a citizenship policy”.

He continued: “Everyone in Australia should have the right to express their cultural identity and heritage as a right of citizenship but this should be accompanied by a responsibility to adhere to certain civic values such as parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, equality of the sexes and freedom of speech and to learn the national language.”

Soutphommasane sits on the board of the National Australia Day Council and says that “affirmation ceremonies” are an example of the country’s active citizenship policy. Australians who attend naturalisation ceremonies as observers are invited to join in “affirming” their loyalty to the country. “For me, that kind of ritual symbolises the civic bond that a community should share. I’ve seen hard-nosed cynics go to these ceremonies and leave feeling quite emotional and moved by it.”

Where the Australian Labor government has disappointed, he said, is in its failure to tell a “national story”. “The Rudd-Gillard governments have great achievements to their name – the apology to the indigenous people, the establishment of a carbon pricing scheme, the creation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, a massive school-building programme – but they’ve lacked a nation-building story, they’ve lacked a nation-building project.”

It is this insight that has excited Cruddas, who believes that Soutphommasane’s concept of “nation-building” could act as a “framing device” for Labour’s current policy review. “Labour only successfully appeals when it actually owns an alternative national story based around what a country could be,” the MP said. “And that’s why we invited Tim into our policy review. Through the idea of ‘rebuilding Britain’ you could counterpose a sense of national obligational duty to one of managed decline.” What Labour needs to contest, Cruddas argued, is “a shrill, sour Englishness based on loss and abandonment”.

A month later, as I watched the opening ceremony for the London Olympic Games, I thought again of Soutphommasane. In its humour, wit and largeness of spirit, Danny Boyle’s Isles of Wonder pageant exemplified the “open and generous” patriotism of which the young Australian had spoken.

“What most impressed me [about the opening ceremony],” Soutphommasane says now, “was how he [Boyle] conveyed this sense of Britain as a project. I suspect many people in Britain associate notions of a national project with something American or New World; but perhaps this may now change. This might just be the cultural legacy of these Olympics – giving Britain a new confidence and an ability to speak about itself, to itself.”

Renew the vow

With its representation of the suffragettes, the Jarrow marchers, Windrush immigrants, the NHS and CND, the ceremony offered a people’s history of Britain that the left instinctively understood and applauded. Afterwards, the conservative journalist Toby Young wrote that he felt as if he had just watched “a £27m party political broadcast for the Labour Party”.

I asked Soutphommasane how Miliband’s party could harness a new wave of left-wing patriotism. “Sometimes political parties can let these moments do the work for them,” he said. “But the patriotic goodwill generated by the Olympics does provide an opportunity for Labour. It is almost as though Boyle has managed to pave the way for a new chapter of British nation-building.”

In his masterful 1941 essay “The Lion and the Unicorn”, George Orwell wrote of how the Second World War had made the creation of a distinctly English socialism both possible and necessary. The antiquated class system was hampering the war effort and the Conservative establishment lacked the moral authority to demand sacrifices for the common good. The present situation is not dissimilar. The coalition’s unbalanced austerity programme has deprived David Cameron of any claim to be a One Nation Tory and has forced the abandonment of the wartime-like slogan “We’re all in this together”.

Cruddas describes the government’s strategy as “destructive”, rather than conservative. “In terms of what they’re doing to the military, to the NHS, to the welfare state, which are the products of the endeavours of previous generations, they’re unravelling the essential fabric of this country,” he told me.

In Soutphommasane’s view, Ed Miliband could yet succeed where his Australian counterparts failed and develop a convincing “nation-building story”. “The task of rebuilding and reshaping the British economy after the financial crisis and after austerity is something that could be a patriotic project,” he says.

In 1945, Clement Attlee campaigned on the promise of building a “new Jerusalem” in postwar Britain. Nearly 70 years later, a patriotic vow to “rebuild Britain” has the potential once again to sweep Labour to power.

George Eaton is editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s rolling political blog

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 13 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The New Patriotism

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.