As we enter the final weeks of the Blair era it seems the country is suffering from an identity crisis. The seizure of 15 British sailors and marines by Iran was a significant military humiliation, which the Tehran regime said reaffirmed the strength of its own “Islamic” values. However false such a claim may be, it reinforced the sense that we remain unsure of our own.
The aftershock of the fiasco will continue to be felt as the nation prepares itself for a day that will test our sense of solidarity further and raise real questions about what it is to be British in the 21st century.
It may seem odd to talk in such grandiloquent terms about local elections, the political equivalent of double maths on a Friday afternoon, but Tony Blair’s imminent resignation lends the polls an unprecedented sense of drama. Elections for the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Parliament, held along with council elections on 3 May, come at a time when the very definition of Britishness is changing. In Scotland, victory for the Scottish National Party could lead to a referendum on independence by the end of the decade. As the SNP leader, Alex Salmond, suggested in these pages last month, it is quite possible to imagine the English embracing Scottish independence. That such a discussion is taking place shows the growing sense of separateness felt by the Celtic fringe in Britain since devolution.
Meanwhile, the local elections raise the possibility of significant gains for the British National Party in England, largely at the expense of Labour. Respect, which combines the politics of the hard left and the Islamic right, could also make gains, while Ukip remains a threat to the Conservatives.
With Blair departed, it will be for his successor to deal with the identity crisis that expresses itself so clearly in the rise of fringe parties. Is Gordon Brown up to the task? Will his manifesto of Britishness calm nerves and produce a national consensus?
Writing in a recent edition of the Political Quarterly, Simon Lee of Hull University correctly predicted that Brown would attempt to define his vision as The British Way, to differentiate himself from Blair’s Third Way. Taking his successful record of managing a quintessentially British liberal economy as his starting point, Brown would use concepts of Britishness as the foundation of his domestic and foreign policy, said Lee. This would allow him to bring in other specifically “British” concepts such as the mixed economy, public services free at the point of use and an independent nuclear deterrent.
However, Lee also pointed out a paradox: much of the new Labour revolution in the public services, to which Brown signed up and that he often engineered from the Treasury, is essentially an English affair. Thanks to devolution, the Scottish would-be prime minister’s vision of Britishness has a distinctly English hue. Even before the creation of a Scottish parliament, the Scottish education system, for example, had long been immune to central government tinkering. North of the border, there are no tests for primary-school pupils, no city academies and no tuition fees. For better or worse, Scotland’s health system has also been protected from new Labour’s market reforms of the past decade. And if nationalists take control of the parliament they will make it as difficult as possible for Brown to impose the “British” nuclear deterrent on a reluctant Scotland.
In Stronger Together, a pamphlet for the Fabian Society published this month and co-written with his young protégé Douglas Alexander, the Transport Secretary, Brown delivered a characteristically robust broadside to the SNP. But it is more than just an anti-independence tract. It is a statement of principle. Crucially, it puts Scottish values at the centre of the national psyche. “The Scottish way is always at the core of British history,” claim Brown and Alexander, “championing the ideas of ‘active citizenship’, ‘good neighbour’ [sic], civic pride and the public realm.”
Yet at times the Brownite definition of Britishness is as nostalgic as John Major’s England: “This is the Britain we admire, the Britain of thousands of voluntary associations, of mutual societies, craft unions, insurance and friendly societies and co-operatives, of churches and faith groups, of municipal provision from libraries to parks and the Britain of public service.” Unfortunately, this is a Britain almost entirely meaningless to most people under the age of 40, including the two members of the armed forces who sold their stories after capture by the enemy.
There is an added problem. Britain is a colonial concept in its origins and still associated with empire in many of its cultural manifestations. It is hard to make it the centre of a moral universe in the aftermath of a disastrous war that many in the Middle East see as an imperial adventure. In such circumstances, Brown’s Britishness does not look so admirable.