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28 September 2022

The conservatism of Keir Starmer

The Labour leader’s remodelling of his party as politically safe reveals how confused Britain is about itself.

By Rory Scothorne

There should be nothing shocking about the Labour Party singing “God Save the King” at its conference. Labour is not a republican party, nor is it an anti-establishment party, and it is certainly not a “party of protest”. Various people and movements over the years have attempted to turn it into these things, but they have all failed.

A degree of embarrassment at Labour’s performative royalism is understandable, but only in so far as we should be embarrassed to be British in general; this is simply how politics works here. Most British people probably are, at some level, embarrassed about their country, but the shame is usually targeted at politicians rather than royals, which is exactly the point of monarchy: it “dignifies”, popularises and depoliticises an undignified, unpopular political system. In doing so, it forces every party that wants power in that system to pay tribute to the dignified bit, in the hope that some of the charm will be shared around.

Labour’s new anthem gimmick is important to the party leadership precisely because so many Labour members are embarrassed by Britishness, but in an unpopular way; because the left winces at precisely those things that are supposed to be shared, easy and comfortable about British identity. Starmer is attempting to expunge Labour’s own, British version of what Scottish cultural commentators have called the “Scottish cringe” – a widespread unease with the popular, kitschified components of Scottish culture, from tartanry and Braveheart-patriotism to the Scots language.

The British cringe does the same thing for monarchy and the Union flag, as well as other forms of cultural self-abasement: ceramic bulldogs, cute tea cosies, “Keep Calm and Carry On” memorabilia, the John Lewis Christmas ad, stylised pictures of London hanging on the wall and so on. If you find these things in someone’s house you can be fairly sure they have at least considered voting Tory. But they’re not always “nationalists” in the scary, blood-and-soil sense, which is how some British left-wingers tend to view this sort of national idolatry.

This is instead a kind of cosmopolitan nationalism, albeit a superficial, brainless variety, forged at the receiving end of a global fascination with all things British. You’re more likely to encounter it in a souvenir shop or youth hostel than the pages of a left-liberal publication. What’s striking about the people who like this stuff is that their sense of their own national culture is indistinguishable from that of a tourist, and that they are proud of this. Starmer and his advisers seem to believe that there are huge numbers of these uncringing Britophiles all over the country – a startlingly insulting attitude towards the polity they want to govern, though not necessarily a wrong one – and they want voting Labour to be as natural an extension of that cultural world as voting Tory currently is. Indeed, it once was: New Labour benefited from Cool Britannia’s tsunami of kitschification, and there is a twitch of Blairite muscle memory in Starmer’s servile polishing of Crown and country.

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But Starmer isn’t trying to make Labour cool. Quite the opposite. Singing the anthem is perceived by the party leadership as a low-cost way of proving Labour’s cultural normality, eradicating the aura of internationalist weirdness that Corbynism and a hostile press conjured around Labour. Yet it is only one half of Labour’s effort to re-legitimise itself as a component of the British political system. Labour has always pitched itself as not just a contender within that system – which means making a big show of deference – but also an important cog in the machine, committed to loyally improving the operation of His Majesty’s Government.

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Starmer knows that people in the UK do not particularly like the political establishment at the moment. A radical party, in a republican political culture, would respond to this by promising to replace that establishment altogether – in France, Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s leftist movement, La France Insoumise, campaigns on a platform of replacing France’s Fifth Republic with a Sixth one, totally refounding the political system via a constituent assembly of the French people. In Britain, however, where the political system must be allowed to evolve gently, quietly, without too much popular involvement, Starmer simply got Gordon Brown to ask around for ideas.

The results of Brown’s “constitutional commission” have been hotly – OK, warmly – anticipated for some time now, and a draft report was finally leaked to the Guardian on the eve of Labour conference. The party is on the verge of “abolishing” the House of Lords by turning it into an “assembly of regions and nations”, tasked with “safeguarding the constitution” and able to refer the government to the supreme court.

There are several other aspects of it too: further powers for devolved governments and mayors (though it isn’t clear what they are yet), the power for local communities to “promote bills in parliament” and a new array of standards for politicians. By far the most interesting component of the reported leak, however, is Brown’s suggestion of constitutionally guaranteed social and economic rights like “healthcare, education and social protection”.

The notion of a constitutional guarantee is a strange one in British politics. The only thing truly “guaranteed” is the sovereignty of parliament, which can ultimately wipe out any other guarantees by a simple majority vote. If Brown has devised a means of prohibiting this, it would fundamentally alter the nature of British sovereignty, which is why it is unlikely that he has.

When Jeremy Corbyn was leader, I was part of a working group within Scottish Labour to develop plans for constitutional reform, and the question of sovereignty was at the forefront of our minds: the eventual report faced the issue head-on, proposing a written, sovereign constitution to weaken the formal authority of the Crown-in-parliament. This would open up a huge and thrilling range of options for reconstructing Britishness: at one point, we seriously discussed a commitment in this new constitution to collective ownership of the means of production, which would weave socialist priorities into the country’s political fabric and bind the hands of any future Tory government. Eventually, we settled on a more moderate emphasis on social and economic rights, which appear to have made their way into Brown’s recommendations.

But the problem with that constitutional process was the same as Brown’s. However it is pitched, Labour’s constitutional reformism has been essentially conservative in intent for decades. It has been repeatedly forced on to the party’s agenda by fear of peripheral dissent – chiefly Scottish nationalism – rather than any genuine collective demand emanating from the centre of British political culture. This is because there is no collective subject – no British “People” – that can convene itself around a constitutional agenda; only a set of independently evolving political systems and identities, bound together by the various unions and conquests that comprise the British state. The result is that Labour – the last meaningful vestige of actually-existing political Britishness – has to stand in for the thing that really ought to force a new vision of politics on to the agenda, substituting itself for the People and handing the job of making constitutional demands to internal working groups and commissions.

This conservatism is most striking in the absence from Brown’s proposals of something that would genuinely shake up Britain’s political system rather than glue it back together: electoral reform. Brown’s report may even have been leaked to try and forestall a shift towards proportional representation within the party, which overwhelmingly endorsed such a change at conference despite Starmer’s insistence it would not be in the next manifesto. Such a change would threaten to transform British politics by permitting new partisan identities to express themselves on the national stage, breaking the silence over questions of republicanism, capitalism and militarism that are enforced by the prevailing loyalist duopoly.

Instead, we are promised another semi-improvised patch-up job, filling in the cracks and craters of British politics with yet more Labourist Polyfilla. The problem with conservative reforms has always been unintended consequences. Many of the major constitutional innovations of the past half-century, from devolution to referendums, were designed to contain and manage more profound and potentially radical forms of constitutional discontent. From the Scottish parliament to the 2016 EU referendum, these all had consequences that cascaded far beyond the control of their authors, ultimately burying both Scottish Labour and David Cameron.

This cautious, reactive approach to reform is symptomatic of a state-nation trapped on the back foot, convinced that it can only ever adapt to the world rather than remake it on its own terms; a product, perhaps, of the loss of imperial priority to America and the shattering effect of deindustrialisation on popular self-confidence. “God Save the King” is, when you think about it, a strangely anxious thing for a supposedly proud and confident nation to sing; it is no coincidence that it first became popular during an era of profound danger from within, as the Jacobites’ rebel army marched south in the 18th century. Britain’s bone-deep blend of pride and paranoia has given us a “loyal opposition” party that identifies by default with the regime under threat, forever failing to summon enough guts to make itself the danger. But until Labour works out how to build strength and legitimacy around a direct challenge to that regime, it will never manage to refashion the British state along truly popular, democratic lines; and if it doesn’t, then transformation will have to be forced inwards from those long-suffering peripheries, who see this place for what it really is – and are running out of justifications to stay.

[See also: Britain meets its new King]