Labour, Britishness and concepts of ‘nation’ and ‘state’
Chapter in Gerry Hassan (ed.), After Blair: Politics after the New Labour Decade, Lawrence and Wishart in association with Compass 2006
The Labour Party for most of its history has not thought very much about the concepts of ‘nation’, ‘state’ and Britishness. It has tended to assume these as a given and unproblematic.
Labour has never mounted a plausible and persuasive counter-story of what the UK and idea of ‘Britain’ means. Instead, it has adopted a narrative of the British nation and state which has been shaped by the dominant forces of British history, and thus by views which were established long before Labour ever came into existence.
In the arena of territorial politics and the composition of the UK, Labour has articulated Britishness and state power as an indivisible part of its progressive credo, despite strong decentralist traditions at its inception. It has bought into a conventional British and Westminster model of politics, based on parliamentary sovereignty, centralism and a misunderstanding of the nature of the UK.
The terminology used in these debates – nation, state, nation-state, national identity, nationalism – are all contested, not fixed. The idea of a nation is founded on an ‘imagined community’, with a sense of belonging, history, continuity and connection to the past, and even ‘the dead nation’, giving it an almost transcendent power (Anderson, 1983). Nations and states can rise and fall, while nations and states do not need to be co-terminous. There has historically been a difference between the German ‘nation’ and ‘state’. A nation can exist without a state: the Poles pre-1918 were subjugated under three Imperial empires; the Kurds today. Mainstream Labour has traditionally given little thought to such matters and this has weakened its approach on questions of nation.
This chapter will explore Labour’s attitudes to different elements of the UK nation, state and ideas of territoriality. While not attempting a comprehensive overview it will examine the experience of constitutional reform, the post-9/11 environment, and the nature of the British relationship with the US. It will conclude by assessing the ambiguities, confusions and consequences inherent in many of the debates on the nature of the UK.
The Labour nation: Labour and Britishness
Labour has throughout its history been a very British party – a party of British sensibilities, the British polity and identities. But although Labour is profoundly British, it has had an ambivalent relationship with the idea of a ‘British nation’ – which has long been seen by many as synonymous with Tory ideas of Empire and reactionaryism. Labour’s counter-story about ‘the nation’ has been about ‘the people’: ‘The Labour nation was to be sustained by the social democratic state’: full employment, redistribution, social justice (Aughey, 2001: 90).
Historically Labour has been the party of the outsiders of British society: the working classes, the industrial cities, Scotland, Wales and the North of England. It was often the party of the respectable, organised outsiders: those who came together and had a sense of voice and power, but who were clearly not insiders of the British state. These disenfranchised parts of Britain gave Labour much of its sense of itself. In particular, the importance of Scotland and Wales was central to Labour identity. The party had deep roots in the two nations, stretching back beyond its birth into Gladstonian radicalism, but given voice by Keir Hardie and John Wheatley in Scotland, and Nye Bevan in Wales. Significant elements of Labour’s mythology came from and converged in Scotland and Wales: the combination of heavy industry, the importance of the coalfields, the rising power of the unions, and a suspicion of Westminster tradition.
The interweaving of Labour’s story and Britishness can be seen in the crucial moment of the summer of 1940. Part of the British establishment came close to considering a peace deal with Hitler, and one major factor preventing this was the Labour Party. After the fall of Chamberlain, Labour entered the Churchill War Coalition, and contributed to the forging of the wartime domestic progressive consensus which changed British society, and in the process changed Labour. This was the point where Labour came in from the cold, and stopped entirely being a party of outsiders. Instead, it became a party of the British state.
Anthony Barnett’s powerful polemic about the Falklands war coined ‘Churchillism’ to denote the long-term consensus which came out of this alignment. The British political classes became committed to a set of national myths in 1940 centred on ‘an island people, the cruel seas, a British defeat, Anglo-Saxon democracy challenged by a dictator’ (1982: 48). This lineage ran from the fall of France to the Falklands, and was based on the idea of the UK standing against aggression. It is not an accident that arguments surrounding those twin disasters of post-war foreign policy, Suez and Iraq, were frequently framed by invoking the ghosts of 1930s appeasement and the need to stand up to dictators. ‘Churchillism’ was also the crucial point where the British dependent relationship with the US was woven into the fabric of its outlook. This meant that Britain could exert influence far beyond its economic or military reach through its history and ties with the US. ‘Churchillism’ gave support to the idea of the UK as a bridge between the US and Europe: ‘the Blair Bridge Project’, in Garton Ash’s words, with an ‘unambiguous commitment to the United States, ambiguous commitment to Europe’ (Garton Ash, 2004: 41).
British political debate has been informed by the experience of what Andrew Gamble has penetratingly called the idea of England as a ‘world island’ which led to the development of a multinational Great Britain and subsequently ‘a much wider Greater Britain’. Making a distinction between England and Britain, Gamble – drawing on Churchill’s idea of the three circles of Britain – identifies four circles of England: the British Union, British Empire, Anglo-America and Europe, which overlap (Gamble, 2003: 15, 30). These are not just national, but transnational political spaces which influence and affect the notion of what the UK is. These four circles express different identities which sometimes overlap and are sometimes exclusive, with each having a particular centre of power and politics: Westminster/Whitehall, London, Washington and Brussels. And each of the four has contributed specific doctrines to British politics and the state: the Crown in Parliament, the open seas naval doctrine of the Royal Navy, the world liberal capitalist order, and European integration.
Labour has from the defining point of 1940 seen the British nation as a champion of progressive values at home and abroad. The role of the Commonwealth has been important here in providing a non-imperial alternative to Tory ideas of Empire, but it is also true that supposedly radical policies such as unilateral nuclear disarmament have been presented as allowing Britain to act as a moral force for good in the world.
Even counter-stories to Labour’s mainstream, from left-wing accounts such as that of Tony Benn at the height of his influence, are shaped by Labour’s myth and folklore. Benn stressed that democratic socialism was a ‘home grown British product which has been slowly fashioned over the centuries’: ‘Its roots are deep in our history and have been nourished by the Bible, the teachings of Christ, the Peasants’ Revolts, the Levellers, Tom Paine, the Chartists, Robert Owen, the Webbs and Bernard Shaw who were Fabians, and occasionally by Marxists, Liberals and radicals …’ (Benn, 1979: 146). On one level, Benn was trying, by emphasising the British antecedents to his politics, to neutralise attacks by his opponents that there was something profoundly alien and unBritish in Bennism. However, this argument, in its search for respectability, comes close to a Whig benign view of British history, whereby those without power slowly accrue it without any drastic change and upheaval (Jones and Keating, 1985). The Bennite view of progress is not that different, fundamentally, from the evolutionary argument of T.H. Marshall’s concept of citizenship, with the idea being, in this left version, that it eventually leads to the democratisation of the state. It is also, revealingly, a very English account of the British political radical tradition, and one in which the English are synonymous with the British.
If we move to the present day, we can see that the present generation of Labour leaders like to wax lyrical about what Britishness is, but they have remained conspicuously silent on the nature of the British state. Gordon Brown, in particular, has attempted to develop a set of ideas about ‘progressive Britishness’ – to challenge Tory notions, to make sense of the UK post-devolution, and to take on the Scottish nationalists. In more recent years, this has become interwoven with his campaign to become prime minister, and trying to creatively answer the issue of a Scottish based prime minister in an asymmetrical union.
Brown has tried to articulate a set of values about Britishness which are not shaped by the Empire, the military and religion, but instead by institutions such as the NHS and BBC and the liberal, inclusive values they contain. Brown argues that the old Tory idea of nation is ill-suited to the new and old nationalities that now make up the melting pot of the UK. He appeals to a progressive Britishness, centred on ‘talking about the qualities of a people, of the collective experience they have shared over time’ (quoted in Richards, 1999). One of the problems with such a project, however, is that it is so inclusive that it is near to being meaningless.
Labour and the British state: challenges from within and without
British Labour has for long articulated a very conservative view of the British state – a seamless view of political, economic and social rights slowly being accumulated by the people. Labour has uncritically taken the Whig view of British history, and wrapped its own history and advance around it, interweaving the two in ‘The Forward March of Labour’, which shaped the party’s view of its history to the high point of the 1950s and beyond.
A particularly important strand in Labour’s view of the state has been Fabianism, which stressed the neutrality of the British state, its basic fairness and adaptability to progressive ends and the impartiality of the administrative classes. Fabianism was intrinsically an elite ideology – centred on the importance of experts and technocrats – formed at the end of Victorian Liberal Britain – but its assumptions found sustenance in mainstream Labour reformism.
The coalescing of Labour’s rise as a party of government and power and the use of the state in 1940-45 and in the 1945 Attlee government gave Fabian centralism a vital impetus as Labour, post-1945, turned its back on its decentralist, anti-state strands. Instead, Labour became incorporated in, and a party of, the Westminster system; a party which believed in the politics of the centralised state, the idea of mandate and parliamentary sovereignty. For all its roots in the periphery, Labour turned against Scottish devolution under Attlee and Gaitskell’s leadership (Keating and Bleiman, 1979). The power of the British state was where progress and the politics of redistribution lay.
In the 1960s and 1970s Britain went into a period of economic decline, and social democracy began its long crisis; this was also the time when the British state started to unravel. It is no accident that the challenge to the British state was both internal, driven by the challenge of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, and external, in the growing instability in the world economy from the 1970s on.
It is more than coincidence that the junking of Wilson’s National Plan in 1966-67 – and with it the Croslandite dreams of economic growth, faith in planning and greater equality – happened at the same time as the challenge by the SNP and Plaid Cymru to Labour’s hegemony in Wales and Scotland. Their respective victories at Carmarthen in 1966 and Hamilton in 1967 changed British politics in ways unimaginable today; Hamilton happened sixteen days before Wilson finally bowed to the inevitable and the pound was humiliatingly devalued. This period saw the idea of ‘the Labour nation’ under threat from within and without, and was the beginning of the end of post-war British social democracy.
Labour’s response to the challenge from the Scots and Welsh was painful. First they tried to punt it into the long grass, through the typical Wilson device of a Royal Commission (the Kilbrandon Commission). But this did little to stem the tide and the internal and external challenges to the state fused again in an even more potent challenge in 1973-74. The second wave of Scottish nationalism corresponded exactly with the world economic shock of the same period. UK Labour responded with an embarrassing U-turn – in the Scottish case telling Scottish Labour to adopt a pro-devolution position: from 1974 until the end of the Thatcher-Major era, Labour tried to have the best of both worlds. They sought to preserve the Westminster politics of parliamentary sovereignty, while at the same time satisfying Scottish and Welsh demands for greater autonomy. Labour had to be seen in Scotland and Wales as answering national demands for greater democracy, but at the same time it wanted to be seen as maintaining its belief in the British state, and not threatening the territorial integrity of the UK.
This led Labour to insist until 1997 that its devolution proposals did not need to involve addressing the over-representation of Scottish MPs, or issues like the territorial secretaries of state. However, when Labour brought in devolution after the 1997 election, in a bold move it announced it would cut the number of Scottish MPs from 72 to 59, though retaining the territorial ministers and departments. At the same time, the White Paper on Scottish devolution states, in Diceyian terms: ‘Scotland will remain an integral part of the United Kingdom, and the Queen will continue to be Head of State of the United Kingdom. The UK Parliament is and will remain sovereign’ (Scottish Office, 1997, x) (1). Thus Labour continued to try to combine both devolution and Westminster sovereignty.
Labour’s response to the internal challenges to the British state and social democracy have been characterised by a lack of élan and a lot of pain, but it has been possible to observe, since the 1970s, some kind of relationship back to older Labour traditions of decentralism and localism. Labour’s reaction to the external challenges it faced was less sure footed, and had no previous traditions to draw upon to justify. These external challenges have shaken every assumption in the party about economic growth, the role of government and the state, and redistribution, and created the conditions for both Thatcherism and Blairism. This, ultimately, has been a much more bruising road.
Labour and territorial politics: why the UK has never been a unitary state
The United Kingdom is understood in conventional political discourse as a unitary state. The British state, its political classes, Labour itself, all share this belief. A unitary state, however, is a polity based on a degree of centralism, uniformity and very little local and regional differentiation. The United Kingdom is not and never has been a unitary state. It is actually a union state – a polity which is neither a unitary state nor a federal state, but a state which has significantly different arrangements across different parts of its territory.
The fact that the UK is not a unitary state is hinted at by its title: United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and is even more underlined by the fact that it came into being by a Treaty of Union between England and Scotland, which preserved Scottish institutions, distinctiveness and autonomy. The UK has developed in a way which has accommodated, rather than abolished, these differences, for example in the Union of 1707, and the Government of Ireland Act of 1920, which created the Northern Irish statelet and instituted home rule; subsequently, Labour’s post-1997 reforms have established democratic bodies in Scotland and Wales and reinstituted Northern Irish home rule. None of these arrangements would be possible in a unitary state.
However, where the unitary state does exist is in the mindset of the UK government – at its very centre. The UK political establishment – the Cabinet, leaderships of the main parties, the senior civil service, the Westminster media – understand and act as if the UK was a unitary state. They see the politics of Westminster as all-powerful and important, and understand the politics of the UK through the prism of the centre. For example, the Thatcher-Major administrations’ imposition of unpopular policies on Scotland – seen at its worst with the poll tax – was only possible because they adhered to a rigid, dogmatic belief in the supremacy of a unitary politics.
This approach continues to this day, and can be seen in Labour’s limited understanding of constitutional reform. Labour’s reforms have tried to emphasise that the politics of the old state – of parliamentary sovereignty – remain unchanged; the politics of the centre have remained the same, and in many ways have actually got worse. The new devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are little understood by the centre. The confusion which occurred in the botched cabinet reshuffle of June 2003, which created the Department for Constitutional Affairs (DCA), was a revealing episode. There was an initial confusion at the heart of government about whether the Scotland and Wales territorial departments had in fact been abolished or not – before it became clear that they had become part of the DCA. The above example illustrates the centre’s lack of grasp or understanding about the constitutional fabric of the UK, both in devolved areas and in the centre itself.
The whole programme of constitutional reform carried with it much hope and rhetoric pre-1997, but Labour never fully embraced this, and implemented the programme half-heartedly and with caution. There is a strong case to be argued that Labour has not yet enacted a programme of constitutional change – for all the flights of fantasy in the early days – because such a programme would involve changing the nature of the centre, its understanding of what it has done, and the relationships it has with any new institutions (Hassan, 2003). The centre remains at its core unreformed – not just in the sense of the failure to implement proportional representation and elect a second chamber – but in the deeper sense that it clings on to the idea of parliamentary sovereignty, and has not changed its idea of itself. The senior leadership of Labour remain supporters of a unitary state politics, and, for all the problems they have faced in recent years, have faced very little challenge in this area.
Labour, the revolution that never happened and the ‘war on terror’
Labour’s constitutional reform programme saw a flurry of bills in the first term, with twenty bills passed. This seemed a very British revolution at the time, with a degree of muddle and lack of an over-arching design – ‘a revolution of sleepwalkers’ according to Marquand (1999). Many commentators saw this in the early days as potentially far-reaching, however: ‘a turning point’ according to Barnett which was the beginning of the end of the 1688 ancien regime (1997). However, in the second term, any sense of impetus was lost. Constitutional fatigue set in, and proportional representation for the Commons, Lords reform, and English regional devolution were abandoned or stillborn. Furthermore, the government has appeared to backtrack on some of its earlier commitments, for example with the Human Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act.
This has left us with the Westminster model remaining at the centre of the British state and polity. Norton argues that the Westminster model ‘has been modified, perhaps vandalised, but it has not been destroyed’ (quoted in Morrison, 2001: 509-10). A crucial question to be asked here is why Labour has supported a Westminster model of politics that has aided Conservative dominance in the twentieth century, and which, as Marquand says, is ‘a constitutional system permeated with monarchical values’ (1997: 44). One reason for this is that the Westminster model was in fact surprisingly inclusive and accommodating to the rise of Labour and collectivism from the 1920s to the 1950s. Successive Labour leaderships have thus been persuaded to see the constitution as the means to aiding a very British road to socialism, something that was not considered possible in many continental European countries. The British constitution’s very flexibility, as well as its concentration of power, could be utilised for progressive ends. As two academics point out: ‘Labour politicians have been conditioned as much as Conservatives by the Westminster model’ (Richards and Smith, 2001: 44).
The Blair government has enacted a half-hearted constitutional reform programme while going out of its way to protect and preserve the Westminster model. It has done this because of the partisan advantages to the governing party of its fusion of the executive and the legislative, and the central nexus of political power built on parliamentary sovereignty and ministerial responsibility. According to Morrison, ‘the core of the British political system of elective dictatorship has remained intact’ (2001: 501).
The government’s constitutional programme is hedged about with ministerial opt-outs, exemptions and reserved powers. The Freedom of Information Act retains a ministerial veto over the release of information. The Human Rights Act does not allow the courts to strike down legislation or compel the government to amend it. (All the courts can do is issue a ‘declaration of incompatibility’, with Parliament under no obligation to alter legislation, and allowed to judge the constitutionality of its own actions. (2)) The Independent Judicial Appointments Commission does not appoint judges, but instead makes mere recommendations to the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, who makes the final decision. Labour’s plans for a Supreme Court are much less radical than in other countries; they explicitly protect the idea of parliamentary sovereignty, and the court will not have the capacity to strike down legislation.
The government’s retreat from constitutional reform has been compounded by the impact of the ‘war on terror’. Its response to the threat of terrorism has been the introduction of legislation that has fundamentally altered the relationship between government and citizen. When Labour began its constitutional reforms, some commentators hoped that we were seeing the emergence of a new constitutional settlement – an increasingly codified set of arrangements – where legislation such as the Human Rights Act would be close to fundamental law. Sadly, this has not happened. Under the auspices of the ‘war on terror’ Labour has driven a horse and carriage through its own proposals.
This has led to serious conflict with the judiciary. In December 2004 Law Lords decided that Part 4 of the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, which allowed the detention without charge of non-British terror suspects, contravened the European Convention on Human Rights. This was an historic verdict, with the Law Lords unapologetically standing up to the powers of the Crown. According to Adam Tomkins, the verdict was ‘a much-belated judicial awakening’ to ensure respect for the rule of law (Blom-Cooper, 2005: 235). The government responded to this with the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005, which introduced control orders to replace detention orders. But this was found by the High Court in April 2006 to be incompatible with the right to a fair trial.
The consequences of all this are profound. The Human Rights Act, drawn up to restrict the powers of the executive and catch up with the rest of Europe, was eventually drawn up in a restrictive manner, preserving the principle of parliamentary sovereignty. Subsequently, due to the shift in the priorities of the political classes from constitutional reform to anti-terrorist measures, restrictions have been placed on human rights and the HRA has not been given any opportunity to bed down, or become entrenched in the political arrangements of the country. Instead, it has been comprehensively diluted and destroyed by the actions of the Blair government. No administration which takes human rights seriously could have acted the way the Blair government has on ‘the war on terror’ and asylum and immigration (not to mention its acquiescence in Guantanamo Bay, rendition flights and so much more).
The undemocratic centre
Tony Blair’s period as prime minister has seen an unprecedented degree of re-organisation at the centre. Downing Street has been endlessly expanded; it was fundamentally re-organised in 2001 and is currently divided into three directorates: policy, government relations and communications. These are resourced by civil servants, special advisers, consultants and secondments from the private sector. Anthony Seldon, writing in 2004, commented that Downing Street had ‘seen seven years of almost Maoist “permanent revolution”, with a bewildering number of changes of design to little effect’ (Seldon, 2004: 343).
Blair’s reworked centre, combined with Brown’s hyper-assertive Treasury, has led to an executive of British government with a huge concentration of power. Gone are the old-fashioned centre-left critiques of prime ministerial patronage, or any ideas about the limits of the Treasury’s view of the economy and government. Instead, we have an ‘increasingly co-ordinated and coherent and increasingly proactive and performance driven’ centre (Burch and Holliday, 2004: 24), driving forward a contentious agenda of choice, competition, marketisation and defining people as consumers.
This has become known as ‘the McKinsey state’, characterised by ‘the new entrepreneurs of the state’, whether it be businessmen seconded from the private sector or civil servants with entrepreneurial drive (Leys, 2006). The former can be seen, for example, in the figure of Lord Birt, ex-Director General of the BBC, who became a Downing Street adviser, and was paid £100,000 per annum by McKinsey. Business people were brought in to handle such commissions as funding of the NHS (Derek Wanless, ex-CEO Nat West) or the future of stakeholder pensions (Ron Sandler). However, more serious has been the influence of the ‘Big Five’ accounting firms – Arthur Andersen Consulting, Pricewaterhouse Coopers (PwC), Ernst and Young, KPMG and Deloitte – who have gained massively out of government policies, particularly in relation to PFI/PPP and the marketisation of the public sector (Craig and Brooks, 2006).
This penetration of the innermost workings of British governments by accountants and consultants has weakened a coherent civil service ethos. Previous Labour governments used to be paranoid about the monopoly of advice from civil servants and the narrow class base of senior personnel. Today we have moved far from that. Andrew Turnbull, Cabinet Secretary 2002-2005, observes that the civil service ‘no longer claim[s] a monopoly over policy advice’. The new, wider, policy community includes ideas from ‘think-tanks, consultancies, government abroad, special advisers, and frontline practitioners’ (Turnbull, 2005). This is the same Andrew Turnbull who became, upon leaving the civil service, a Senior Adviser at Booz Allen Hamilton, and Director of Frontier Economics, an economic and regulatory consultancy.
Christopher Foster, in his magisterial critique of the deformed nature of British government, poses that the transformative change of recent years has not been the measures of constitutional reform, but the Blairite-Brownite concentration of powers in the centre. He characterises this as: ‘the decline in the authority of many ministers, the undermining of the constitutional position and consequent effectiveness of the civil service, the fragmentation of government and the public sector into a mess of bodies with complex but ill-defined relations between them, and the ramifying of a system of government which … is less interested in delivering results than managing news.’ This has happened alongside the end of ‘collegiate, effective Cabinet government’ and its replacement by an omnipotent centre supported and resourced by an unelected political class (Foster, 2005: 252).
This has aided the rise of an informal, loosely arranged way of government working at the centre: ‘government by sofa’ and ‘Tony’s denocracy’. Thus, during the war in Iraq, the real discussions and decisions took place in an ad hoc War Cabinet, which circumvented existing cabinet and ministerial committees (Butler, 2004: 147-8). In contrast, the Falklands conflict of 1982 was run by a formal War Cabinet, which had the status of a ministerial subcommittee of the Cabinet, which received regular reports.
This decline of Cabinet government has been matched by the perception in Blair that every decision actually stops with him. This leads to a hyperactive government, driven not by results or what works but by being seen to be doing things, and news management. An example of this is the foot and mouth crisis in 2001. The government responded to this by creating the climate of a national emergency, bringing in the army, and postponing local elections. A similar foot and mouth outbreak in 1967 merits not one mention in the major biographies of Wilson, and is only briefly mentioned in Crossman’s diaries (1977) (3): a sign of too much government belief in ‘high politics’ then, perhaps, and over-concentration on ‘low politics’ today.
In a 2005 interview in the New Yorker Blair stated that the job of prime minister ‘is utterly relentless’: ‘You are dealing with a multiplicity of issues the whole time. And the decision making process stops with you. That’s an amazing thing – when every decision stops with you’ (New Yorker, 2 May 2005). Such a sense of omnipotence was also evident in Blair’s comment that, ‘I have been involved as British Prime Minister in three conflicts involving regime change. Milosevic. The Taliban. And Sierra Leone’ (Seldon, 2004: 571).
New Labour’s idea of modernisation rested heavily on Tony Blair – his personal integrity and missionary zeal – along with individual ministers stressing their incorruptibility. This very narrow, personalised modernisation succumbed to the wear and tear of office, and combined with unprecedented centralism, led directly to Tony Blair’s cash for honours scandal in the dying days of his administration. This was a scandal of epic proportions which went to the heart of British government, and some of Blair’s key advisers; it illustrated the lack of proper boundaries between governing party and affairs of state.
New Labour, the British political classes and Atlanticism
The British state has consistently had reservations about the European Union project, ideas of political integration and shared sovereignty. At the same time, the British political classes have displayed a relatively uncritical view of Britain’s relationship with the United States. The same fanatical Eurosceptics who obsess about the threat to British democracy and way of life from Brussels bureaucrats tend to ignore completely the way in which American national and security interests have shaped large parts of British government policy (see Redwood, 1999).
New Labour’s election in 1997 saw very little mention or thought put into foreign policy. The party’s election manifesto barely touched on the subject, but the party had aspirations to be more pro-European than the Conservatives, and ultimately, to be at the heart of the European project, while remaining committed to Atlanticism. New Labour in 1997 saw both of these approaches anchored in progressive values: modernising the sclerotic European economies with a trans-continental ‘third way’ while being in alliance with Clinton’s New Democrats. It was to prove very different in both areas.
His early experiences of military conflict, his belief in the power of it to do good, and his ability to persuade President Clinton, all contributed to Blair’s seeing himself as a world statesman. With the attacks of 9/11, the stage was set for him to take Britain into previously uncharted waters, driven by a combination of his capacity to see the world in black and white terms, and an over-estimation of the power of his persuasion and influence with American Presidents. Blair’s identification with President Bush and the ‘war on terror’ led to the short, sharp intervention in Afghanistan and then the open sore of Iraq. Blair’s leverage over the US was revealed as minor however: the war was not sanctioned by the United Nations and thus violated the five criteria he had carefully laid out in a 1999 speech on intervention in Chicago (Blair, 1999).
Post-Iraq war, things did not get better. Iraq was caught in a fractious civil war, the US and UK became bogged down in Afghanistan and Iraq, while the pursuit of a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians barely figured in American priorities. Instead, we witnessed Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraid prison, rendition flights, and American-British support for Israeli indiscriminate attacks on Lebanon. This has led Seldon to conclude that the Americans seemed to listen to Blair ‘only when his suit matched what they wanted to wear anyway’ (Seldon, 2004: 624).
The Labour and Conservative leaderships colluded in a new Atlanticist consensus post 9/11 which most of the British public did not support and felt nervous about. In such controversies as the Iraq war and the 2006 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the two main parties worked to prevent any public debate or criticism of America. The experience of 9/11 and afterwards ‘reaffirmed the vice-like grip of Atlanticism on Britain’s identity’ (Dunne, 2004: 908).
The nature of the American-British relationship has proven to be a destabilising force in the world. From the time of the catastrophe of Suez, the British have attempted never to have a major public difference in foreign policy with the Americans; the French on the other hand have taken the opposite approach, withdrawing from the military command of NATO and throwing themselves fully into the Franco-German alliance in the EU. Despite differences at the time of Vietnam between Johnston and Wilson, and during the Falklands war between Reagan and Thatcher, no major British political figures have been prepared to question what Britain gains strategically from this alliance.
The American-British ‘special relationship’ may have served a purpose in the Second World War, but it now harms Britain’s standing in the world, damages our democratic institutions, and is one of the major causes of our diffidence towards the EU. The nature of American foreign and military power is seldom examined by British politicians. America has for the last thirty years, post-Vietnam, been heading in the opposite direction from the politics of a negotiated international order. It has been moving from the politics of war as a policy of last resort, to one of intervening as a policy of first resort. This is not just about the ideological politics of the Bush administration, which will be ameliorated by a future Democrat President. It is spread across the US political spectrum. For example the US fought six wars during the Cold War ranging from Korea and Vietnam to invading Grenada; since then it has fought nine – from Iraq twice, to Afghanistan, Kosovo, Somalia – the latter two under Clinton’s watch (Bacevich, 2005: 229).
Blair has merely pushed his commitment to Atlanticism to the point where it has become a controversial issue; the deeper problem is the nature of US power and Atlanticism rather than the mistakes and misrepresentations of Blair and company. These deeper questions are not part of public debate in Britain, or of the considerations of the Labour and Conservative leaderships, who are fanatically committed to upholding the Atlanticist cause for a variety of historical, cultural and economic reasons, including the cross-fertilisation of British and American political and security elites.
The changing nature of the UK and progressive politics
The basic character of the United Kingdom still causes huge problems of understanding for politicians, the media and the policy class. The misunderstanding of the UK as a unitary state is but one example. Another is the constant confusion between ‘nation’ and ‘state’: basic political concepts. The UK is a ‘state’ – a coming together of England, Scotland, Wales and part of Ireland – but it has never been a ‘nation’. Scotland was a ‘stateless nation’ after 1707, while the UK is a ‘nationless state’.
The fluidities and flexibility of what has been meant by Britishness historically is important to remember in the light of contemporary debates about the nature of Britishness which tap into all sorts of anxieties and fears about the modern world and change. The consideration of such ideas as citizenship tests for nationality is indicative of a shift from this previous flexible, negotiated attitude, to one more codified and demanding. This change can be seen in the shift in mood from Mark Leonard’s BritainTM, published in the afterglow of 1997, to David Goodhart’s Progressive Nationalism, which came out eight years later, responding to the fears around ‘the war on terror’ and anxieties over asylum, immigration and race. Leonard’s idealistic, slightly gauche pamphlet is filled with the air of innocence, and a belief anything is possible. He recognised that 200 years previously Britain had invented an identity ‘which proved enormously successful’, which could be achieved again as long as we recognised it would ‘be a slow burn, not a quick fix’ (1997). This mean ‘regalvanising excitement around Britain’s core values’ and ‘finding a better way of linking pride in the past with confidence in the future’. Leonard was trying to articulate a more inclusive Britishness after Thatcher’s abrasive English nationalism, but it is revealing that his account is a rather narrow, urban English perspective, where Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are barely mentioned. He concedes this when he states ‘Britishness has never been an equal arrangement’ (1997: 72).
It is a long distance from Leonard to Goodhart. The latter’s argument is shaped by a host of mainstream worries about asylum, race, immigration and security, which the Blair government has happily conflated into one, to justify punitive, populist measures. Goodhart states that the erosion of class as a basis for solidarity means that the left has to find another notion of community to locate its politics, and that this should be the nation-state and an ‘inclusive, progressive, civic British nationalism’. He takes the view that the scale of immigration to Britain is undermining popular support for the welfare state, as people see outsiders getting benefits – but there is no hard evidence for this and he provides none.
Goodhart gets hopelessly confused about the British ‘nation’ and ‘state’, writing, ‘Britain is (technically) not a nation at all but a state’, and then on the next page, ‘If British national citizenship is to be made more attractive …’ (2006: 21, 22). These fundamental confusions could have been addressed by Goodhart being a bit more ambitious, and daring to sketch out the grounds of an English ‘progressive nationalism’, which seems to be implicitly what he is talking about in all but name; he also might have addressed the idea of renewing British statehood – in particular looking at the concepts of citizenship and rights, which for most of post-war Britain has emotionally held the Scots and Welsh in the Union. Instead, Goodhart wants to give credence to the Blair government’s authoritarian instincts on benefits, ID cards and immigration, and is happy to get an endorsement from David Blunkett.
This kind of approach is evidence of the current crisis of the UK state, which faces a more significant threat in the early twenty-first century than it did even in the 1970s, in particular the external challenges arising from the growing international instability. The emotional and ideological glue that has held the UK together for 300 years has been slowly evaporating over the last few decades. There is now, as McLean and McMillan argue, no primordial Unionism left in the UK body politic – by which they mean a gut sense of Britishness. But there is still an instrumental Unionism – based on a careful calculation by Scots that they are better off in the Union.
The degree of internal challenge from moves to decentralise the state has appeared dormant in recent years, but it has not gone away with the establishment of devolved bodies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Current financial arrangements, carried over from previous arrangements (known as the Barnett Formula) are significantly advantageous to Scotland, but to no one else. These arrangements have few friends left (namely the Labour part of the Scottish Executive and Gordon Brown), and are likely to be abolished – probably after Labour loses Westminster power. This will have consequences far beyond dry finances, because it will reveal the true level of attachment to the Union in various parts of the UK. When Barnett goes, the Scots will no longer have a utilitarian argument for union, and this will provide a major crossroads for the UK. As McLean and McMillan argue, ‘A union state without unionism can survive for a long time. But not, perhaps forever’ (2005: 256).
We are a long way from the demise of the United Kingdom now, but existing attitudes, and the failure of the Blair government to reform the British state in a democratic direction, make such an outcome more likely, not less. The last decade has witnessed ‘the twilight of the Westminster model’ (Norris, 2001). It has been first diluted and then defended, by a Blair government that barely seemed to understand the consequences of its actions.
New Labour’s blinkered co-option into the new American imperialist project has aided this hollowing out of any democratic impulse. This can only be understood as part of the continuation of the mindset of ‘Churchillism’ with its belief in Britain as a world power and subordinate partner to the US – something that which Labour has played such a supportive, uncritical role in. When this is combined with an ahistorical approach to notions of Empire and imperialism, with Labour politicians such as Blair and Brown appearing to celebrate the British Empire, the omens were not encouraging for the evolution of a progressive, inclusive story about Britishness and its place in the world (see Porter, 2006). If the foreseeable future and next few decades look gloomy at a national and international level, then Labour’s contribution, and that of wider progressives, must be to resist the orthodoxies of our age, and set out some challenging questions and answers about what Britain is and its role in the modern world.
1. The Government of Ireland Act s. 75 put it much more bluntly, ‘the supreme authority of the Parliament of the United Kingdom shall remain unaffected and undiminished over all persons, matters and things in Northern Ireland’ (McLean and McMillan 2005, 1303).
2. Tony Blair, in his debate with Henry Porter in The Observer on the government’s authoritarianism, is disingenuous when he states, ‘The point about the Human Rights Act is that it does allow the courts to strike down the act of our “sovereign Parliament”’ (Porter and Blair, 2006). The HRA allows for no such provision.
3. The 1967 foot and mouth crisis is mentioned four times in Crossman (1977: 581, 583, 590, 596). It warrants not a single mention in the Castle or Benn diaries of the same period.
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