Review: The People’s Flag and the Union Jack

A new book explores the complex marriage of Labour and Britishness. 

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In 1987, the conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne observed: “Much of the stability of this country depended on the Labour Party, which, in some ways, was just as powerful a force for continuity and tradition as the Conservative Party.”

Throughout prolonged periods of Labour government, the UK’s historic institutions have endured: the monarchy, the House of Lords, the private schools and the Union. The Scottish political theorist Tom Nairn called this anachronistic, confused state “Ukania” (after “Kakania”, the name novelist Robert Musil gave the Austro-Hungarian empire). Rather than transforming this centralised kingdom, Labour governments have preserved it.

In The People’s Flag and the Union Jack, Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw explore the neglected terrain of Labour and Britishness. Their lucid account is well timed: Labour is facing not merely a political but an existential crisis. In its traditional redoubts of Scotland and Wales, the party was pushed into fifth and third place in the recent European elections. Across the UK Labour was supplanted by the Brexit Party and the Liberal Democrats (winning its lowest share of the vote in any nationwide election since 1910).

Hassan and Shaw’s previous book The Strange Death of Labour Scotland (2012) anticipated the party’s 2015 Götterdämmerung, when it lost 40 of its 41 Scottish Westminster seats to the SNP. Ever since, Labour has feared a comparable realignment across the UK. As Britain polarises along Remain/Leave lines, is the party capable of contesting the politics of nationhood?

Hassan and Shaw ably trace the influence of competing doctrines on Labour’s thought: traditional patriotism, radical patriotism, liberal internationalism and socialist internationalism. Of these, it was the first that most shaped the party’s outlook.

In its early years, Labour upheld the radical patriotic tradition embodied by Wat Tyler, the Diggers, the Levellers, Thomas Paine and the Chartists. But once in office, the party largely accepted the norms of British foreign policy and “the conservative nation”. As Labour’s first colonial secretary, Jimmy Thomas, told his officials: “I’ve been sent here to see that there is no mucking about with the British empire.” The party viewed the top-down British state – and its imperial trappings – as the means through which to advance social reforms.

Only during the Clement Attlee administration of 1945-1951 did Labour come close to crafting a national story capable of transcending that of the Conservatives. The NHS endures as a patriotic, social democratic monument to that period of transformation. But Labour ultimately failed to construct a state capable of creating the national loyalty commanded by the Nordic welfarist and French dirigiste models.

This was partly because of the economic constraints imposed by Attlee’s alternative pursuits: the maintenance of an empire “east of Suez”, the formation of a “special relationship” with the United States and the creation of a British nuclear deterrent (“We’ve got to have the bloody Union Jack on top of it,” declared foreign secretary Ernest Bevin in 1946). As Hassan and Shaw surmise: “The experience and legacy of the Empire State shaped the Labour Party as much as Labour shaped it.”

Harold Wilson’s later vision of a “new Britain” forged in the “white heat” of technology did not outlast the collapse of the postwar Keynesian consensus.

Tony Blair’s bid to cast Labour as “the political arm of the British people” enabled electoral success but accommodated, rather than challenged, the core tenets of Thatcherism. The notion of the UK as a “transatlantic bridge” between Europe and the US was ruptured by the Iraq War. As prime minister Gordon Brown grappled with “genuine existential problems”, write Hassan and Shaw, in his effort to redefine “Britishness”, but he encountered forces – in the form of the rise of Scottish and English nationalism – he could not contain.

No Labour leader has ever been more hostile to the traditional British state than Jeremy Corbyn: a republican, an opponent of almost every UK military intervention, and a lifelong supporter of unilateral nuclear disarmament and a united Ireland. But in office he has largely cleaved to Labour’s traditional bargain: radicalism in the economic sphere, conservatism in the foreign sphere (the party’s 2017 manifesto backed Nato membership and Trident renewal).

Though Labour speaks admirably of “rebuilding Britain” after a decade of austerity, it lacks a national story capable of rivalling that of nostalgic Brexiteers (“make Britain great again”) and cosmopolitan Remainers (“keep Britain European”). Far from resolving the contradictions that have suffused its history, Labour at present embodies them. 

The People’s Flag and the Union Jack: An Alternative History of Britain and the Labour Party 
Gerry Hassan and Eric Shaw
Biteback, 356pp, £25

George Eaton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 19 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Bad news