Future visions

With the outlook so bleak for Labour, the government is reacting nervously to ideas of change. But s

Depending on which version of the new Labour tragicomedy you sign up to, the government is either ripping itself apart, with various younger members of the cabinet feverishly jostling to replace Gordon Brown as leader after his ultimate demise, or, in a separate but no less gruesome scenario, ministers are calmly allowing the Prime Minister to slide to defeat before embarking on the slow road to recovery.

Elements of both are true. With the outlook so bleak, ambitious ministers, with a long career in politics to contemplate, can be forgiven for preparing for a future without Brown. On the other hand, there are no immediate plans for a leadership challenge and, as a result, a certain degree of drift has inevitably set in.

So here we have it. A circle of increasingly isolated Brown allies and cheerleaders continues to believe the Prime Minister can pull it off in time for the next election. The cabinet and most of the Parliamentary Labour Party remain remarkably loyal, considering the scale of the slide in the polls. A handful of restive former ministers, nostalgic for the high days of Blairism, continue to cause trouble, while backbenchers on slim majorities have begun surveying for prospects in the political wilderness.

A sense of the state of government nerves can be found in the reaction to an article in the June issue of Prospect magazine, written by the former No 10 speechwriter Phil Collins and Richard Reeves, a biographer of the liberal philosopher John Stuart Mill and contributor to the New Statesman.

Collins and Reeves argue that the Labour Party must reject its statist instincts and embrace liberalism, or face oblivion. The dividing line is no longer between left and right, but between liberal and authoritarian, something that the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives have begun to grasp, but Labour has not.

The thoughtful essay was dismissed by Downing Street as an act of gross treachery. The Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell, for whom Collins was doing some contract work, was told to sack the speechwriter. His refusal fuelled further stories about cabinet-level splits and Purnell's leadership ambitions. Make no mistake, Collins is hated by some people around Brown, but the reaction was out of all proportion to the offence. (Indeed, I understand that once the Prime Minister's fury had subsided, and he found time to read the article, he decided to hold out the olive branch to Collins and has invited him to No 10 to discuss his ideas.)

Conventional wisdom now traces the decline in Labour fortunes to the aftermath of "the election that never was" in October 2007. But some in the party saw the warning signs long before. The following words, for instance, come from a pamphlet called New Labour: Rebuilding the Coalition, published for Labour's 2006 conference. "At a time when we are in danger of talking only to ourselves, we need to show that we are motivated by the problems that people face in their own lives.

"We need to describe those problems clearly and to provide an explanation that makes sense. We need to show that we can tackle those problems because we share, with voters, a set of values and beliefs of how Britain could and should be. We need to regain our belief that individual aspiration and opportunity can best be met in a society that also promotes . . . fairness and the common good." The pamphlet, which amoun ted to a mini-manifesto, was co-authored by a group of 12 MPs led by John Denham, and included Joan Ruddock, Angela Eagle and Martin Salter. It provided a sound and sobering analysis of the situation facing Labour long before the present crisis. It argued that Labour should forget tailoring messages to individual niche groups in society based on focus-group evidence. It should also avoid the temptation of chasing the tiny number of centre-ground voters in marginal constituencies. Both strategies have been adopted under Brown, with disastrous consequences.

Denham's appointment as Secretary of State at the newly created Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills in Brown's first cabinet was an important symbolic statement. Denham famously resigned from the Blair government in 2003 over his opposition to the war in Iraq, just at the time when he was being tipped for promotion to a cabinet post. Until that point he had been a loyal new Labour crusader, both at the Department of Health and the Home Office. He was a committed moderniser who backed NHS reform and the "Respect" agenda. In his post-Iraq role as chair of the Commons home affairs select committee he remained largely supportive of the government. The committee's June 2005 report on the much-maligned antisocial behaviour orders, for example, gave Asbos a cautious thumbs-up.

Real New Labour

But around the same time, Denham and a few like-minded individuals were already developing a dissident vision for the future of the party, which the New Statesman dubbed "Real New Labour". While attention was focused on the future of Tony Blair and the question of the succession, many on the left of the party hoped that Gordon Brown would show his true progressive colours once inside No 10 Downing Street. Denham was far more sanguine, believing on the evidence of detailed research with his constituents in Southampton that many still believed life had dealt them an unfair hand despite the improvements in health and education made possible by the Labour government's investment in public services. This led him to the view that Labour was at risk of once again losing constituencies such as his in the south of England, a theme to which he returned in a Fabian Society lecture just last month.

To my knowledge, John Denham has no leadership ambitions and has certainly not been plotting to depose Brown. In his year at Innovation, Universities and Skills, he has annoyed some higher education institutions by shifting funding from people taking second degrees to provide more money for first-time students. At the same time, he has increased the number of students eligible for maintenance grants. In short, he got on with his job.

Denham's analysis of the Labour Party's predicament has been consistently correct, but the party leadership is running out of time to take note. If it waits much longer, Denham himself will be swept from his Southampton constituency, along with dozens of other Labour MPs in the south of England.

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To the Commonwealth, "Global Britain" sounds like nostalgia for something else

And the former colonial subjects have a less rose-tinted view of the past. 

Earlier this month, Boris Johnson became the first British foreign secretary to visit the Gambia since independence. His visit came a few days before the inauguration of the Gambia's new President, Adama Barrow, who has signalled his intention to re-join the Commonwealth - an institution that his dictatorial predecessor had left in protest at its apparent "neo-colonialism".

Accusations of neo-colonialism, regrettably, seem to be of little concern to the foreign secretary. After Johnson committed himself to facilitating the Gambia's Commonwealth re-entry, he declared that "the strength of our partnerships show that Global Britain is growing in influence and activity around the world". 

His comments are the latest example of the government's Brexit mission-creep in its foreign engagements. Theresa May mentioned "Global Britain" no fewer than ten times in her Lancaster House speech last month, reminding us that Britain "has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world" and emphasising the UK's post-referendum desire to "get out into the world". Ministers' repeated subsequent referencing of Global Britain has almost come to the point of re-branding Great Britain itself. But now the government seems to be directly equating Global Britain with the Commonwealth, the organisation comprising most of the former territories of the British Empire. If the Commonwealth is wooing back former members and seemingly growing in stature, that must mean Global Britain is doing the same. The Gambia's proposed re-admission to the Commonwealth is reconfigured as a victory for British clout and prestige in the face of the Brexit naysayers.

But the Commonwealth cannot be a vehicle or front for Global Britain, on either a technical or political level. The Commonwealth emphasises that it is an organisation of 52 equal member states, without any preference in decision-making. India (population 1.26bn) and Tuvalu (10,000) are treated the same. The organisation is headquartered in London, receives the most money from Britain, and its members share elements of history, culture and political systems; but it is not a British organisation and will not take orders from the British government. Commonwealth states, particularly poorer ones, may welcome UK political, financial and developmental support, but will reject the spectre of neo-imperialism. Diplomats remark that their countries did not leave the British Empire only to re-join it through the back door. 

And yet, shorn of influence following the decision to leave the EU, and the single market so instrumental to British jobs and prosperity, the government is desperate to find an alternative source of both power and profit. The members of the Commonwealth, with their links of heritage and administration, have always been touted as the first choice. Leading Brexiter Dan Hannan has long advocated a "union with the other English-speaking democracies", and Liam Fox has been actively pursuing Commonwealth countries for trade deals. But the Commonwealth cannot replace the EU in any respect. While exports to the EU account for just under a half of Britain's total, the Commonwealth receives less than 10 percent of our goods. The decline of UK trade with the Commonwealth was taking place long before Britain joined the EU, and it has in fact revived in recent years while being a member. The notion that Britain is restricted from trading with the Commonwealth on account of its EU membership is demonstrably false.  

The EU, the beloved scapegoat for so many ills, cannot fulfil the role for much longer. Indeed, when it comes to the Commonwealth, 48 of the 52 members have already completed trade deals with the UK, or are in the process of negotiating them, as part of their engagement with the EU. Britain could now be forced to abandon and re-negotiate those agreements, to the great detriment of both itself and the Commonwealth. Brexiters must moreover explain why Germany, with a population just 25 percent larger than ours, exports 133 percent more to India and 250 percent more to South Africa than we do. Even New Zealand, one of Britain's closest allies and a forthcoming trade-deal partner, imports 44 percent more goods and services from Germany, despite enjoying far looser cultural and historical ties with that country. The depth of Britain's traditional bonds with the Commonwealth cannot, in itself, boost the British economy. The empire may fill the imagination, but not a spreadsheet.

The British imperial imagination, however, is the one asset guaranteed to keep growing as Brexit approaches. It is, indeed, one of the root causes of Brexit. Long after the empire fell into history, the British exceptionalism it fostered led us to resent our membership of a European bloc, and resist even limited integration with it. The doctrine of "taking back control" for an "independent Britain" speaks to profound (and unfounded) anxieties about being led by others, when in our minds we should be the ones explicitly leading. The fictional, if enduringly potent victim narrative that we became a colony of someone else's empire, has now taken hold in government. The loss of our own empire remains an unacknowledged national trauma, which we both grieve and fail to accept. The concept of being equal partners with like-minded countries, in a position to exert real, horizontal influence through dialogue, cooperation and shared membership of institutions, is deemed an offence to Britain's history and imperial birthright.

The relentless push for Global Britain is thus both a symptom and cause of our immense global predicament. Through an attempt to increase our power beyond Europe, Brexit has instead deflated it. Britain has, in truth, always been global, and the globe has not always been grateful for it; but now the government preaches internationalism while erecting trade barriers and curbing migration. After empire, Britain found a new role in Europe, but with that now gone, Global Britain risks producing global isolation. Despite the foreign secretary's rhetoric, the Commonwealth, geopolitically and economically, has moved on from its imperial past. It is not waiting to be re-taken.

Jonathan Lis is the deputy director at British Influence.