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Blair and the importance of being British

Gerry Hassan


First published in Renewal volume 3, number 3 (1995), pp. 11-20


A new Britishness for the new century could be the radical and visionary project defining a Blair government.


Britishness is in crisis — its symbols, ceremonies and institutions under attack, rendered irrelevant or obsolete, changing under the pressures of new challenges and being supplanted by old and new national, regional, city and social identities. This is a crisis of the political system and the political order, and one from which no party is exempt. This sense of shifting identities and resulting conflicts around it may seem most pronounced in the Conservative Party's civil war on Europe, but it is a fault-line which runs through all parties, and is something which Labour must address if a future Blair Government is to tackle creatively and imaginatively Britain's long-term economic and social problems.


The importance of being British

What exactly is this thing called Britishness? It is a concept historically constructed by social forces embodied in Protestantism, militarism and monarchy (Colley, 1992). It has had a political, as opposed to cultural, identity and been contingent on external factors such as Empire and war to validate it, and as these have ceased, it has been left looking like a historic relic.

The crisis of the idea of 'Britain' is seen in the retreat of institutions, such as the monarchy, churches, the BBC, public schools, which were central to the reproduction of a British ideology; the only exception is the City, which has remained successful by partly floating free of any sense of Britishness while remaining an intrinsic part of the rentier state. The condition of the monarchy and the BBC have been closely linked ever since the BBC was established in 1922. Both enjoyed a long honeymoon through the post-war welfare state era: one disseminating Reithian high culture; the other providing the emotional glue for the new citizenship; and both reinforcing a homogeneous view of British culture.

The crisis of Britain is interwoven with the changing nature of British Conservatism. Thatcherism challenged the old Tory establishment, which comprised the same people who were the guardians of the idea of 'Britain', with commensurate consequences for Toryism and Britain. Conservatism in the Thatcher-Major era has lost its sense and language of Britishness, and has become English in culture and outlook. This 'Englishing' of Conservatism is both the cause and the effect of Thatcherism. Thatcher's English nationalism is a response to the disparate pressures of the 'divided kingdom' of the 1960s and 1970s, which then produced a response in the revival of Scottish and Welsh nationalisms. This analysis of Thatcherism is persuasively put by Gamble (1988) and McCrone (1992), who says: 'As Thatcher mobilised British nationalism, it became clear — at least to the "periphery" — that it had become an empty shell, or at least was indistinguishable from English nationalism' (1992: 209).


Imagining Britishness

A fundamental problem in this discussion is the elusiveness of the term 'British'. The United Kingdom, like the former Soviet Union, denies nationality in its name and is a non-national state — Tom Nairn's ‘Ukania' (Nairn, 1977). Conservative concepts of 'Britain' in Stephen Howe's analysis of patriotism involve 'counterposing "we" the Nation to an Other compounded of outside threats and internal deviants or minorities' (Howe, 1989: 137). Labour's idea of 'Britain' has always seemed more inclusive on first examination, but is equally narrow and defensive, based on 'this great movement of ours'. One aspect of this is the 'little Englandism' view which appropriates the Levellers, Diggers, Chartists and others into a seamless history arriving at the present-day Labour Party. Both traditions are exclusionary, emphasising certain aspects and symbols, the dominance of England, and an over-sentimentality about 'the people'.

Labour's historic sense of Britishness has been shaped by two key factors: Fabianism and the Second World War. Fabian socialism was developed by the words and writings of Sidney and Beatrice Webb, H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw, and stressed the need for gradual, organic change based on persuasion and elite permeation. This was a socialism of administration and organisation, and found fertile ground in the limited concept of citizenship in Britain and the autonomy of the British state. Fabianism was the intellectual ballast of Labourism in an uneasy relationship of suspicion. It was a very English type of socialism — a humane scientific socialism, opposed to the ethical and moral socialism of Tawney and contemptuous of democracy and the working classes (Dennis and Halsey, 1988; Perkin, 1989).

The Second World War was a defining moment for Labour. Wartime coalition and the key moments of 1940 and 1945 saw Labour confirm its acceptance of the British state as one that could be used as an instrument of social change; before, there were doubts about bankers' ramps due to the experience of 1931. Some of this was 'little Englandism', and Michael Foot's wartime pamphlets such as Guilty Men are a good example of this, contesting the notion of patriotism with Conservatives, but offering in its place a deeply sentimental view of Britain as intrinsically fair, free and progressive.

Anthony Barnett labelled the post-war cross-party support for Empire overreach and Atlanticism as ‘Churchillism', 'the warp of British political culture' (Barnett, 1982: 47). Significantly, Churchillism (unlike Gaullism) did not become a political movement or inspire a programme of national renewal and reform, but instead celebrated British exceptionalism and 'the glamour of backwardness' (Nairn, 1988). Labour is as much a part of Churchillism as the Conservatives, and possibly more so today.


New Labour, new Britain?

New Labour has not broken with outdated concepts of Britishness, but sits uneasily and hesitantly, like Wilson in the 1960s, between modernisation and maintaining the old order. Wilson's fate is of relevance here, in that an ill-prepared modernisation strategy was begun by the Wilson Government of 1964-70, attacking the power centres of the old system such as the Treasury, only for it to respond with resistance and sabotage which destroyed Labour's economic policies. 'New Labour' is a declaration of intent rather than a reality, and offers an agenda less clear even than the 'New Britain' of 1963-64.

The pivot of New Labour's embryonic reform programme can still be made out in this caution and reticence: it is the desire to reinvent a new, modern, pluralist concept of Britishness. It has not been put in these words, but that is the obvious stated direction. If Labour is to undertake this, it must think anew because Labour has always previously gone along with dominant traditions of Britishness, rather than attempting to change them. It will also face a Britishness which is the equivalent of a heritage museum and a cultural vacuum, which has seen few creative impulses in popular culture since the Beatles and swinging London; punk in the 1970s and groups like the Smiths in the 1980s were quintessentially English in character. The revival and regeneration of new and old territorial and social identities also marks a potential barrier against any new Britishness because of the British state's previous lack of pluralism. When Philip Dodd argues, 'To say goodbye to Britishness and Britain will be to say goodbye to part of ourselves' (Dodd, 1995: 6) , many Scottish nationalists will be sanguine. But others will see Dodd's point as inadvertently reflecting the problem with Britain and as a false divide, for Scottish home rule does not necessarily rule out a British framework and identity, although a section of English opinion of left and right evidently thinks so.

A new sense of Britishness is a key component in any contemporary reform programme. It is not a frivolous or optional extra, or some 'chattering-class' diversion, but as much one of the central bench marks on which a Blair government will succeed or fail as economic growth and the feel-good factor. This reinventing a different sense of Britishness is obviously not part of the one-Parliament socialism approach. It is a long-term strategy that provides a framework, a 'Big Idea' for current and realisable Labour policies about citizenship, the welfare state, rights, duties and obligations, about the nature of democracy and accessibility, and the pluralist Britain of multiculturalism, gender, sexuality and identity: in short, about the kind of society we want to live in.


Changing notions of Britain

Conservative notions of the United Kingdom have shifted in the Thatcher-Major era from previous Conservatisms (Mitchell, 1990; 1995; Hassan, 1995). A useful typology for understanding this comes from Rokkan and Unwin's analysis of state-building. They distinguish between different types of states and the historic forces developing them, identifying unitary, union and federal states. The difference between unitary and union states is relevant to the United Kingdom and an analysis of Conservatism. The 'unitary state' is constructed 'around one ambiguous political centre... of administrative standardisation.’ The ‘union state’ has a degree of administrative standardisation, but also ‘the survival in some areas of pre-union rights and institutional infrastructures which preserve some degree of regional autonomy' (Roldtan and Urwin, 1982: 11).

Conservatism has traditionally worked with the premise of the UK as a union state, celebrating difference, diversity and decentralised arrangements, while criticising those who saw the UK as a union state of centralism and conformity. This culture of difference was within a framework valuing localism and tradition, rather than modernism and unnecessary innovation.

Thatcherism has visibly and intellectually broken with this tradition, dramatically overturning the Conservatives' pro-devolution policy in 1976 and, from 1979 onwards, adopting an intransigent Unionist position, moving from a union to a unitary approach. Thatcherism operated at different levels in Scotland, with a distinct Scottish dimension interpreted by the Scottish Office sometimes emphasising different messages from the British level of Thatcherism. Lady Thatcher herself summarised Thatcherism's balance-sheet in Scotland as 'a lopsided one: economically positive but politically negative' (Thatcher, 1993: 623). Her view of the Scottish Office was that: 'The pride of the Scottish Office — whose very structure added a layer of bureaucracy, standing in the way of the reforms which were paying such dividends in England —was that public expenditure per head in Scotland was far higher than in England' (Thatcher, 1993: 619).

This reveals the multi-dimensional approach of Thatcherism. ‘British' Thatcherism both spoke and practised the new politics of the unitary state, but much to its annoyance, the Scottish Office still on occasion used the language of the union state and, in practice, attempted to widen and develop this agenda. This tension led, after Thatcher's downfall, to the brief resurgence of union philosophy in 'Taking Stock', which attempted to renew the Union of Scotland and England by borrowing European Union notions of 'pooled sovereignty' and ‘subsidiarity' (Hassan, 1993: 64). Such a compromise has proved untenable as the tensions in British Conservatism over Europe have pulled it more firmly to a unitary state position, but recent Scottish Conservative debate about changing their name to Unionist shows the problems they face.

Labour's own territorial approach and direction has been much less clear than the supposed certainties of Thatcherism. Labour's decentralist, home rule origins were by the 1920s supplanted by a commitment to centralism and planning, and the Attlee Government saw the summation of Labour's conversion to the unitary state (Jones and Keating, 1985). Society, resources and people can be more easily administered in the unitary state, and so its attractions to Fabian socialism are clear.

Facing pressure from Scottish and Welsh nationalists in the 1960s, Labour began to move hesitantly from a firm unitary position. More powers were given to the Scottish Office, new agencies were set up and Scottish and Welsh Assemblies promised. This was within the context of a unitary state, with the existing constitutional arrangements and distribution of power in the UK underwritten: an Assembly was subservient to Westminster, its powers limited. However, this movement has accelerated due to the experience of Thatcherism, with a more powerful Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly and a programme of constitutional reform now proposed. Labour has left the unitary state, but is still uncertain about the implications of union, witness its confusion on English regional assemblies and electoral reform.

Conservatism's shift has corresponded with the longest uninterrupted reign in power of a party this century, and an even closer identification of party and state. Labour's move first to a unitary, then union position can be traced to the Party's electoral fortunes. As Labour became the official opposition in 1922, so it forgot about home rule, a stance ratified by the Attlee Government, which only began to unravel, first, under electoral pressure from Scottish and Welsh nationalism, and then from Thatcherism's abuse of the British political system.


Changing notions of Scottishness

The last two decades have seen the emergence of a distinct Scottish dimension to arts, culture and politics. This has examined different aspects of Scottish life and what it means to be Scottish. It has addressed many sacred cows: Scottish inferiorism has been challenged, as has Scottish essentialism and emotionalism, while Scottish attitudes to race, gender, sexuality and historical invention have been debated. One argument has been over whether postal address or birthright defines Scottishness — a debate that mirrors the divide between ethnic and social nationalism, Nairn's 'good' and 'bad' nationalisms.

Much of this discussion has taken place in privileged niches and elites of writers, academics, representing a different Scotland from the one most people live in, but there has been a dialogue between the intellectual milieu and Scottish politics. The relationship between the new cultural politics and the narrower, political nationalism (not just of the SNP) is a problematic one. Through the 1980s commentators have surveyed Scottish politics and looked at the SNP's failure to challenge Labour effectively as in part a failure to tap this wider social movement. This was often pathologised as the SNP's lack of relationship with any sense of cultural nationalism and led to the accusation that it was not a 'real' nationalist party. But the argument was not considered from the other side: the SNP's distant relationship with the wider nationalism might be as much to do with the latter as the former, and with issues of ambiguity, uncertainty and difference which are deliberately brought to the fore in cultural debates and are difficult to translate to the narrower political sphere.

And yet, Scotland has changed. There has been, over the last 20 years for which figures are available, a marked rise in Scottish identity and decline in British identity: a majority of Scots still see themselves as British but the salience of this is declining as the dual-identity 'Scot-Brits' assert the Scottish part of their identity. The ‘Scottishing' of politics has continued, with national identity an increasingly important cleavage in voting behaviour, and all institutions, from political parties, to newspapers and building societies, emphasising their Scottishness. This debate, where identity and difference are synonymous with democracy and home rule, is one that old-fashioned Unionism has difficulties with.


Labour's different voices

Labour has learnt to speak to different audiences simultaneously in different languages. In Scotland, Labour needs a left agenda, with an awareness of the danger of being out-flanked on the left by the SNP. In England, and particularly the South, Labour pursues the mythical 'Middle England' and disenchanted Tory voters with a middle-of-the-road stand.

This approach has a number of weaknesses. For one, the pursuit of Middle England is at the exclusion of others, namely anyone not living in England and the poor, the so-called 'Lower England'. These groups— the Scots, Welsh, the poor — have in common a high Labour vote, and the assumption made is that they have nowhere else to go (which is certainly not true in Scotland). The strategy of appeasing concerns over tax increases and public spending seen in Gordon Brown's 'no policies' stand is guided by Labour's experience of the 1992 election; the only problem is that there is no empirical evidence yet to back up the Middle England strategy. What small evidence there is shows that in 1992 Labour was already paying a price for the strategy, with Labour voters in traditional areas switching to abstention, and that the key anxiety about Labour was not tax, but a fear it could not deliver its commitments. And this is a fear which the 'no policies' strategy increases (Heath, Jowell and Curtice, with Taylor, 1994: 243).

A second problem is the assumption of the need for a traditionalist Scottish agenda, on the one hand, and a modernising English agenda on the other, setting up a false dichotomy in both ideas and geography. Labour's modernisation is as much needed in Scotland as in the South of England. Labour's different Scottish and Southern voices are in part a strength showing adaptability, but are also a response to the distortions of the British political system. Labour's Scottish base is a minority in Scotland, not a majority— its social base, like the rest of Britain, a declining minority due to demographics and social factors. Scottish Labour, just like Labour across the UK, desperately needs to win new groups: women, young people, home owners, and the upwardly mobile, who were inaccurately described during the Perth and Kinross by-election as 'Middle Scotland'.

A coherent modernisation would acknowledge diversity but not face in different directions. Two examples illustrate both how far Scottish Labour is from a modernising strategy and the tensions between Scottish and British Labour. First, the current proposals for a Scottish Parliament include electoral reform, which means that on any available system Labour will not win a majority of seats: Labour has never before won 50 per cent of the Scottish vote. Labour has freely agreed to electoral reform in the cross-party Convention and with the Liberal Democrats, but it has given no thought to the implications this will have on a Parliament, which would be to create a need to construct governing coalitions of two or more parties. The reality of this is that Labour's most natural allies become the Liberal Democrats, but also that the Conservatives and SNP may at some point co-operate in an anti-Labour alliance, which might command a majority even in the first Scottish Parliament elections — given that they will take place at the mid-point of a Labour Government. Labour has spent no time contemplating how it would react to not having control of a Scottish Parliament since it sees Scotland as Labour and a Scottish Parliament as its creation.

Second, the failure to agree a detailed proportional representation system with the Liberal Democrats shows Labour's lack of conviction in support of cross-party politics and pluralism. Once again Labour sits uneasily between old and new: it is not even for Machiavellian reasons of trying to rig a Parliament with an automatic Labour majority, but more about old-style Labour seeing electoral reform as irrelevant.

Two other issues relate to British perceptions of Scotland. The first is the influence of the Convention proposals on Labour's Home Rule Bill. Scottish debates on home rule are often sealed off from the rest of Britain, encouraging unrealistic expectations. The Scottish debate has been of an entrenched Parliament, electoral reform and a Bill of Rights, whereas the British debate has been of devolution, Westminster retaining sovereignty and the impossibility of entrenchment. This lack of dialogue reflects different needs but it does increase the likelihood that the Convention's proposals will be irrelevant when Labour draws the Bill up because they will be answering different pressures. Labour will deliver a Scottish Parliament but, learning from 1979, it will have electoral reform: this is the only Convention proposal guaranteed to go forward, because in 1979 non-Labour areas such as the Highlands were fearful of 'central belt' Labour dominance. A supplementary point is that post-election pressures mean a referendum (granted in 1979) will be likely, though it would be won by a decisive majority.


Blair and Britishness

Labour's shift from a unitary to a union notion of territorial politics matches the complex reality and hybrid nature of the multinational state that is the UK. It is more fitted to the historic and political environment and contemporary needs of the UK than the Conservative unitary tendency, which patently finds difference and pluralism a threat, and is also better positioned than Liberal federalism which can border on utopianism.

For Labour to grasp this opportunity it needs to make its approach explicit and develop policies more fully within this 'big idea'. This means breaking with Labour's historic support of the old state and its political system, and with the concepts of Parliamentary sovereignty and absolutism. The components of a programme that will accomplish this are well-known: a comprehensive constitutional programme, electoral reform, Scottish and Welsh Parliaments and addressing the diverse needs of the English regions, possibly by rolling referenda on local Assemblies. This does not mean a narrow Charter '88 agenda, but using constitutional reform as a framework to reinvent ideas of public service and provision, partnership and society to reflect the new, heterogeneous climate of citizenship — in effect, remaking modern Britain.

This is the broad programme outlined so ably in Will Hutton's recent book which has begun a public debate beyond the political classes. Hutton's analysis of what is wrong in Britain — the rentier culture, the Tory party-state, the lack of state support for anyone outside this elite, from private firms to social security claimants — is superb and persuasive, but his remedies are not located in the historical and cultural realities of contemporary Britain. Finally, Hutton fails to offer any reasons for why Labour might now adopt this radical programme (Hutton, 1995: 324-5).

Blair's New Labour has raised hopes and expectations unseen for a generation, but the signs of it moving further down this road are not good: the confusion on English regional Assemblies, the retreat on a referendum on PR and the new caution on Europe are three indications of the strength of old Labour. A Blair government on current evidence would sadly not reconstruct the British political system, but graft reforms ad hoc on to the existing structure in time-honoured British style. The answer to the issue Hutton ducks is that a Labour victory followed by failure to achieve fundamental reform would damage Labour heavily, sending it into another long period of opposition and an even deeper crisis of confidence than previously.

The world has changed since Labour was last in office. Economic change and decline, combined with the fragmentation and volatility of politics, limit the room for manoeuvre for any government, and more so to one of the centre-left. The old Labour approach did not work in the 1960s and 1970s, so it would be even less effective now.

A new Britishness for the new century could be the radical and visionary project defining a Blair government and creating a wide, diverse alliance stretching far beyond Labour's traditional boundaries. It offers a historic opportunity to remake the idea of 'Britain' and British politics, allowing space for many British identities to grow, and to make not the cliché-ridden 'time for a change', but 'national renewal' and 'reform' as our clarion calls.



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