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  1. Politics
28 September 2012

Why Labour needs the nation

As in Wales, a renewed sense of national pride is necessary to rebuild our politics and our economy.

By Owen Smith

In Manchester, the theme of “patriotism” is set to feature alongside more familiar Labour keywords such as progress or public service. For many on the left, patriotism is a dangerous credo, capable of calling men and women to action, of course, but corruptible, and enlisted too easily in the service of chauvinism and conflict. The power of patriotism is, however, too potent a force to be left to the right, or to those who would subvert it.

The Australian academic Tim Soutphommasane has played an important part in stimulating a reappraisal of modern patriotism and the importance of nation-building for progressive politics. However, Labour might look closer to home for an example of how the power of patriotism – or nationalism, even – has been freed from jingoism and xenophobia and harnessed in service of social democratic ends. We might look to Wales.

In the Welsh Assembly, despite a system pre-disposed to deliver coalition government, Labour remains in power after almost a generation of devolution, while Plaid Cymru’s separatist agenda appears shrunken and shrill. Why should this be the case in Wales, in sharp contrast to the fortunes of traditional parties of the left elsewhere in Europe? Certainly, the “institutional” strength of the left in Wales, and the Labour Party as its principal expression, is part of the answer. But so too is the authenticity of Welsh Labour, which has been an anchor in the confused and convergent politics of the last 25 years, particularly since devolution.

The party in Wales has cleaved to its radical roots, even at the height of New Labour revisionism, eschewing, for example, private sector engagement in the delivery of public services and generally maintaining faith in collectivist, community and comprehensive models of service provision. And crucially, in delivering devolution, Labour responded not only to a renaissance of Welshness, but to a demand for local accountability being expressed across the world. Thus, Welsh Labour’s success is both a product of the left and radical traditions of Wales and of a renewed sense of national mission. It is this fusion of progressive politics with national mission – this nation-building from the left – that Labour needs to understand and adopt across the UK. Is that a realistic aspiration? In modern, multi-cultural Britain, where “identity politics”, compounded by immigration, devolution and political cynicism, seems to many to have fatally compromised the notion of a British “nation”, can Labour conjure and then command that patriotism? The answer is that we must.

For Labour, the party of hope and progress in Britain, a renewed national pride is a necessary condition for a call to action to rebuild our politics, our society and our economy – in the national interest of us all, not the vested interest of a few. And despite the manifest difficulty of calling “the nation” to action in our nation of nations, there are reasons for Labour to be hopeful.

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To begin with, we must recognise the great strength of our movement as a British institution in our own right – a powerful and unifying institution. We remain a meeting place for people from across the classes, faiths, ethnicities and all other divides within British society and we’re the only British party with meaningful representation in Wales, Scotland and England, the last “One Nation” party of Britain, if you like.

Secondly, as in Wales, we must be authentic in Britain. That doesn’t mean adopting old-style, statist solutions. Water is delivered in Wales by a not-for-profit mutual, and our railways may soon operate under similar models of ownership and control. However, it does mean being explicit about the need to reform capitalism such that it acknowledges its co-dependence with the state and its potential to damage the fortunes of our people, or limit their achievement, unless it is regulated and reformed.

Thirdly, we must combine these twin strengths in a new national mission for the reinvention and renewal of Britain. That doesn’t mean just recalling or celebrating those values, experiences or institutions – fair play, the war or even the NHS – that have defined Britain for previous generations. That isn’t enough anymore. Instead, it means inventing and instituting those values, experiences and institutions that might define it for the next. And that demands we rediscover the radicalism, the boldness of thought and action that we’ve demonstrated at our best, as at the creation of the welfare state, the introduction of devolution or the establishment of the minimum wage.

For this generation, it might require a new constitution, written perhaps, to enshrine national standards and common values and to frame a more formal, confederal architecture of British government, including at a more local level in England, as in Wales and Scotland. It may entail the creation of a new National Care Service, as some Labour colleagues have suggested, to provide equitable and decent care for our burgeoning elderly population,  a new period of national, civic service for our young, inculcating values of tolerance, responsibility and duty.  A National Day and a State of the British Union Address are other ideas that have been canvassed and that might usefully play a part in this task of reinvention.

Such new institutions and innovations might create a new spirit and rhetoric of fraternity and national solidarity – of common endeavour and collective enterprise – to replace the narrative of individual rights and personal achievement that has dominated our political discourse for much of the last 30 years. It might also provide a framework within which we could more easily recognise the gross inequality of wealth, education, opportunity and even life expectancy that persist in Britain, and enlist a majority in favour of their eradication.

Of course, achieving that ambition against the backdrop of deficit reduction and low growth, which appears set to constrain our economy – especially if the government persists with its current strategy until 2015 – will be a formidable task. But we cannot allow our own dreams to be curtailed, because those of the British people will not be.

This new narrative of social solidarity could provide the backbone for a new British patriotism, a social and liberal patriotism, with new symbols, institutions and sense of common purpose. Only the left, only Labour, can imagine and nurture such a hopeful vision of our future. That’s our job in politics. Let’s raise up our eyes and look to it.

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