Labour, the nation and the world

Hans Kundnani and Jon Wilson

Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin with Stalin and Truman at the Potsdam Conference, 1945. Bundesarchiv, Bild 183-R67561 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

The worldwide shift away from ‘hyper-globalization’, towards a greater role for the nation state in economic organisation, creates an opportunity for Labour.1 In particular, it allows us to imagine a distinctive project of national renewal that links domestic and foreign policy. In this article, we discuss the relationship between nationalism and internationalism and the role that a national sense of belonging should play in such a project of national renewal. We argue that Labour should lead the development of a new national story and nationally focused politics rooted in peoples’ participation in shared economic, social and political life, rather than culture or ethnic identity.

That national story would provide the basis for a distinctive post-Brexit foreign policy that is internationalist, but which avoids the mistakes of New Labour. The Conservative government’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy published this month aims to rethink and enhance Britain’s place in the world – to finally fill the endlessly repeated slogan of ‘Global Britain’ with meaning – but makes little connection to people or politics in the UK. The approach outlined here offers a more credible response to our national and global challenges than those offered to by the current government.

A recalibration of ‘hyper-globalization’

The challenge for us is to create a politics that gives people a greater sense of control over the circumstances of their lives on a local and national scale, while at the same time enabling forms of international cooperation able to regulate global processes and interdependence.

There is a parallel here to the post-World War II settlement. The Attlee government is often seen merely as a domestic force, creating the welfare state in response to the new solidarities of wartime (‘And now win the peace – Vote Labour’). In fact, in parallel with the New Deal in the US, the emergence of social democracy elsewhere in Europe, and new independent nation-states in Asia and Africa, it helped create a global order that responded to the failure of the first wave of globalisation that ended in the early twentieth century. Labour helped shape a global consensus in favour of managing global flows and concentrating power in the nation state. This order was governed by international institutions that formed the basis of what later came to be known as the ‘liberal international order’, including NATO. But the basic unit of that order was the democratic nation state.

New Labour’s mistake was to uncritically embrace hyper-globalization and hyper-Europeanisation (an extreme form of hyper-globalization within a regional context). New Labour failed to distinguish between a particular form of deep integration based on free market ideology and a particular market-based model of global governance on the one hand; and international cooperation more broadly (i.e. internationalism) on the other. By casting post-Cold War hyper-globalisation as the only legitimate form of international cooperation, New Labour created a false choice between nationalism and internationalism, which split the left and left Labour without a language with which to respond to Brexit. We need to recover a politics which rejects that false choice.

The current Conservative government rhetorically presents the UK as a champion of free trade – even as it has erected new barriers to trade by leaving the European Union. Labour should take a different approach. It should own the fact that new barriers to free trade are possible, convene exactly such a conversation about what kind of barriers are in the national interest, and frame our post-Brexit foreign policy as an attempt to move away from hyper-globalization and to create a new balance between openness and deep integration on the one hand and sovereignty, democracy and a sense of control on the other.2 This does not mean embracing protectionism and economic nationalism wholesale, but rather dialling back the current, historically unusual levels of global integration. Such a vision would allow us to create a real, substantive alternative to the absurd vision of post-Brexit Britain as a ‘Singapore on steroids’.

A better balance between the nation and global forces is necessary to sustain the forms of international cooperation needed to tackle worldwide challenges such as climate change and global inequality. The nation was historically the locus of democracy, and national and popular sovereignty remain intimately connected. Attempts to move beyond national sovereignty, in particular the EU, have undermined popular sovereignty, which has in turn created a backlash against international cooperation. The only effective and legitimate form of international cooperation that conforms with Labour principles comes from pooling national sovereignty upwards, with the support of the public rather than in a technocratic way. International cooperation relies on legitimate and powerful nation states based on a strong sense of national belonging. In other words, to reject nationalism in the name of internationalism is to reject the very political principle able to provide legitimacy for internationalism.

As Labour, we should therefore reject the false choice between nationalism and internationalism and think in a more nuanced way about different kinds of nationalism. The British left tends to speak of ‘patriotism’ instead of ‘nationalism’ because of the negative connotations of ‘nationalism’. But such anxiety is parochial and Eurocentric – in much of the world, ‘nationalism’ is seen as a force that drove the liberation of people from oppressive structures of imperial rule and is associated with democracy and freedom. More importantly, though, it evades the deeper issue of how exactly to frame our sense of national identity. Our challenge is to create a form of nationalism that connects to the way people live their lives in Britain now, but which is also compatible with cooperation between nation-states in the twenty-first century.

An economic model and a set of institutions, not culture

‘Culture’ is not a helpful basis for this sense of national belonging. A focus on culture tends to artificially homogenise constituent parts of the population, which become antagonistic to others, creating culture wars. It usually also refers to trans-national forms of identity (Christendom, Europe, the West) that do not map onto real political differences, and prevents the creation of coalitions based on a shared sense of political purpose. The idea of a ‘civilizational state’ is similarly unhelpful, creating cultural polarities which – again – don’t map onto real political differences. Politicians in resurgent powers such as India and China have adopted the language of ‘civilization’ to particularise claims made by some in the West about the universality of liberal, individualistic market-based culture. It is a rhetorical means to assert their own national power against what many see as a renewed form of empire, not to undermine the political form of the nation state. The assertion of the post-1945 principle that national sovereignty is the basis of international order renders such a framing unnecessary.

Indeed, the turn to culture is entangled within the processes we need to push against. It has occurred as policymakers have (re)turned to liberal market economics (neoliberalism). As many scholars have argued, throughout the world cultural nationalism and liberal economics are partners: as we have given up on economic protection and the organisation of solidarity around labour, political leaders have focused instead on cultural protection and the creation of community through opposition to a cultural Other.3 Thus liberal economics creates identity politics. Culture is a dead end for the left, an approach followed by parties under attack from the right which don’t have the freedom or leadership to create more effective forms of solidarity and control.4

Instead of an abstract sense of cultural identity, we propose a new sense of national belonging rooted in reality – in particular, an economic model and a concrete set of institutions that create a shared sense of participation in a national society and economy. Here the Attlee government and the post-World War II settlement – in particular, the National Health Service, the last remnant of this settlement – are again an important resource that we as Labour can draw on for inspiration. As David Edgerton has pointed out, the Attlee government was ‘deeply nationalist’, but this was ‘a distinctive nationalism based on a nationalist critique of free enterprise British capital’.5

Of course, we cannot simply recreate the post-World War II settlement. We need to recognise that the institutions central to the post-1945 order collapsed because society changed. As left observers from the 1950s onwards – from Tony Crosland to Eric Hobsbawm – noted, Britain became more individualistic, less deferential and less hierarchical, and people had greater aspirations.6 One particular shift has been the strengthening of multiple national identities within the UK – which has driven, and been driven by, devolution since 1997. This raises difficult questions about the union – as leaders in Scotland and Wales talk about their national institutions and national economies, there is need for a process of English nation-building.

Our institutions now need to bring the members of a fragmented society together, perhaps more than they needed to after 1945.7 But that very fragmentation has created an appetite for solidarity on both a local and national scale, evident in many local collective responses to COVID, and in support for the NHS. In their national institution-building during the 1940s, Labour leaders often felt they were forcing community on what they feared was an essentially atomistic, individualistic society.8 As the pendulum has swung the other way, and social, political and economic power has atomised, a Labour-supported process of national institution-building would be run with the grain of peoples’ aspirations for collective action and common life. In contrast to the frequent elitism of the 1940s though, that process needs to very consciously built up from the autonomous voice of citizens.

The new set of inter-connected institutions would support peoples’ journey through life, give them a sense of collective influence, and in doing so create a sense of participation in community. In particular, this means the coordinated creation of good jobs to meet a clearly identified set of challenges for the country (decarbonisation, infrastructure building, social care, food supply, etc.); investment in localities, in the civic and physical infrastructure of villages, towns and cities; and the active expansion of structures of popular involvement in decision-making throughout both the state and economy, with workers on the boards of businesses, and the extension of decision-making over key issues through citizens assemblies, juries and so on – in short, radical democratisation.

These institutions can be the basis for a new national story about the way that people in this country can work with others to check and challenge power, poverty and inequality. In place of a static and homogenous culture or civilization, Labour should root its politics of nation-building in the long history of efforts to stand up for the people of the country as a whole against the assertion of powers that undermines peoples’ security, prosperity and dignity. The story we tell about the relationship between the Labour party, our nations and the world should recognize Britain’s equality with other nations, which have parties and movements that share our aspirations.

However, although membership of the national community is independent of ethnicity or cultural identity, it does entail participation in a shared history which stretches back and forwards in time, and connects to the history of other nations. That national story begins with the premise that the UK is a plural society made up of multiple cultures, nations and places. It would of course recognise and respect those differences. But it would not end with diversity. The challenge is to incorporate the UK’s territorial and cultural diversity into a single story, a crucial part of which is to explain how no one part will dominate the others in the future.

A different kind of internationalism

What is needed, in other words, is both a practice and story of national participation which appeals beyond current cultural and political divides. Running through this is the effort to make popular sovereignty practically manifest in peoples’ everyday lives, rather than – as in the Brexit campaign – leaving it as an abstract ideal. Such a practical, inclusive ethos of national participation would allow Labour to have a strong sense of what we stand for in the world as the basis for a foreign policy that speaks to, and works for, ordinary people. It would provide a clear sense of who we are and what we stand for as a starting point for thinking about specific foreign-policy challenges the UK faces and to which Labour must have answers. In particular, it would provide a basis for a different kind of internationalism that avoids the mistakes of the New Labour era.

In seeking a new balance between openness and deep integration on the one hand and national and popular sovereignty on the other hand, we may seek to revert in some ways to the earlier, more moderate form of global integration associated with the post-World War II settlement, which acknowledged the sovereignty of nation states as its basic element. But here it is important to recognise that globalisation has different elements – and as Labour we should be more supportive of some than others. In particular, we should be critical of the way barriers to the free movement of capital and goods have been removed since the 1970s, and may want to pursue economic policies that were once considered normal are now dismissed as ‘protectionism’. Again, instead of embracing a kind of free trade fundamentalism, this is something we should own.

Here, we argue that Labour should adopt a nationally oriented approach to key, sectors of the UK economy, and encourage other countries to do the same. Those sectors would focus on meeting key, nationally defined challenges, such as decarbonising energy production, building physical infrastructure, providing social care and maintaining a high-quality food supply. These would be financed by domestic capital, may be protected by barriers to the flow of capital and goods from overseas, and involve business models that involve good pay and conditions. Our approach is not one of competitive protectionism; we would support other societies to become more resilient and develop greater national control as we do ourselves. The argument should not be a critique of either foreign ownership and international trade in themselves. Foreign ownership will remain vital in key sectors (for example the car industry), and many goods continuing to be imported (we won’t create a mobile phone or t-shirt industry, for example). The aim instead is to ensure people have a greater sense of control in key ‘foundational’ sectors.

Taking a critical approach to ‘hyper-globalisation’ also means being critical of elements within the most recent version of ‘rules-based international order’. The post-1945 international order established a set of universal, globally agreed norms to maintain global security, the most important of which is the respect of national independence based on the way each state choose to interpret popular sovereignty, a central element of the post-1945 settlement. To implement those rules, it created a hierarchy of institutions, from the UN Security Council and the International Court of Justice to technical bodies like the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea to implement them. This version of the rules-based order remains important for maintaining global peace and order.

However, since the end of the Cold War, and as part of the shift towards ‘hyper-globalisation’, the US, UK and other states have sought to expand the system of rules beyond this minimal framework centred on, and supporting, nation states to something much more expansive that undermined national sovereignty. In particular, it sought to make trade liberalisation part of the rules-based order – for example through the World Trade Organization. Labour’s foreign policy goals now, particularly the protection of democracy and promotion of better labour standards, require a different approach, based in particular on the creation of alliances on particular issues between like-minded states. That means a sharp break with both the last Labour government’s foreign policy goals and the means it used to implement them.

Since at least the Iraq War, Labour has been challenged for an approach to foreign policy which does not put the people of this country first. United by little else, Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn have both been criticised for a lack of concern with the interests of the British people at large, in particular their interests as workers – the interest Labour was created to represent. Instead, Labour should develop a foreign policy rooted in the interests of people throughout the country. This does not mean setting the interests of British citizens and workers against other societies. Instead, we should recognise both that peace and prosperity depend on international cooperation; and that international cooperation relies on confident national societies whose people are able shape their own destiny.

Jon Wilson is Professor of Modern History at King’s College London

Hans Kundnani is a Senior Research Fellow at Chatham House


1 On ‘hyper-globalization’, see Dani Rodrik, The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the Future of the World Economy, New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2011).

2 See Hans Kundnani, ‘Can a nation be both open and in control? The UK is about to find out’, The Observer, 1 March 2020,

3 The Thatcher government involved exactly such a combination, connecting a culturally inflected and racialised idea of citizenship with the extension of liberal economics. Such a shift can also be seen in the rise cultural nationalism alongside economic liberalism in India. More recently, Emmanuel Macron’s idea of a Europe qui protege, or ‘Europe that protects’, shifted to cultural protection after Angela Merkel thwarted its earlier focus on economic protection.

4 An example of a party following this path is the Danish Social Democrats under Mette Frederiksen, who have come under pressure from the far-right Danish People’s Party.

5 David Edgerton, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation. A Twentieth-Century History (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2019), p. 227.

6 For a discussion of these shifts and the relationship to the left’s politics of community see Jon Lawrence, Me, Me, Me. The Search for Community in Post-war England (2019)

7 The mid-century settlement brought capital and labour together, but our fragmentation now is more deep-rooted and multi-dimensional.

8 Steven Fielding, Peter Thompson and Nick Tiratsoo, ‘England Arise!’ The Labour Party and Popular Politics in 1940s Britain (1995).