The Spirit of Britain, Purpose of Labour, the new book edited by Stephen Kinnock and Joe Jervis, raises a key question: what, today, do we mean by Britain?
Britain was forged in the furnace of expansion, conquest and trade that created the empire. Empire gave the British nations a unifying purpose of imperial, not national, government, and its institutions reflected this role. Without empire, the ideas we have of Britain today would never have formed.
But the empire – notwithstanding a few notorious tax havens – is over, so what is the point of Britain today? It is 50 years since a US Secretary of State observed that ‘Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role’. The implied query is still hanging in the air.
As I make clear in my chapter in the book: we cannot defend Britain by saying it has always been there, or that the alternatives will be worse. We were told the Scots only cared whether independence would make them a few quid better off, but the referendum turned into a debate about a nation’s future. Brexit was lost, in part at least, because our original entry to the common market was presented in transactional terms by Britain’s declinist elite; the remain campaign made little effort to change that debate into one about Britain’s future role in the world. The argument for future Britain must be bigger and more inspiring than that.
It is no surprise that England provided the lion’s share of the Brexit vote when England was denied any political identity, institutions and national debate of its own
Each part of the union is on an unresolved quest to settle its identity and relationship with the rest of the union. The process began with the partition of Ireland, and extended through Scottish and Welsh devolution and the peace process. Only England’s domestic policy is permanently determined by the UK government. While devolution has given other parts of the union some opportunity for political self-expression, the state centralism of successive Labour and Conservative governments has stifled the English radical democratic traditions of local action, voluntary association, cooperation, local self-government, and popular consent for the law. It is no surprise that England provided the lion’s share of the Brexit vote when England was denied any political identity, institutions and national debate of its own.
None of these national debates are resolved, and England’s has hardly begun. Forging a new British story should not curtail these debates but deepen them. England needs the creation of a national civic debate, equivalent democratic rights to determine domestic policy, and a Parliamentary identity perhaps within the Westminster parliament. While England needs radical and statutory devolution, there is no case for an artificial regionalisation under the control of the UK government.
Britain’s role has given the left a troubled relationship with national identity. It is the reason so many liberals tend to squirm about expressing Britishness
All this means that there is no prospect of reasserting the old British unitary state as the dominant shared identity or system of government. ‘Future Britain’ needs to be the coming together for mutual self-interest of self-governing nations in a bid to widen our global influence and enhance the interests and opportunities for our nations and our citizens. Key arenas of external relations – trade, foreign policy, international relations and representation, defence – must be tackled by the largest possible unit
Finance inevitably draws the nations together. The Barnet formula can no longer be sustained. It is deeply unfair on Wales, and the UK government has consistently refused to give fair treatment to the English regions. It needs to be replaced by a needs-based UK wide formula, with national budgets created from the fair distribution of resources to local communities.
For the left, this post-imperial agenda is a pressing challenge. The legacy of empire includes its contribution to inculcating racist attitudes, and Britain’s role has given the left a troubled relationship with national identity. It is the reason so many liberals tend to squirm about expressing Britishness and, more recently, Englishness. But migration to Britain – largely because of empire – has changed our country for ever and is the reason why – through our diversity, internationalism and language – Britain is so well equipped to face the modern globalised world. Future Britain is explicitly post-empire, built for the 21st century.
Future Britain is not at the heart of empire but the coming together of self-governing nations who see the benefit in working together on external relations, internal cooperation and fair distribution of resources for the common good. To create future Britain we will need a process and at least an outline of the destination. The formal process is likely to be some form of constitutional convention leading to a new federal union settlement. England must have its own presence in that federation but will also need to accept that future Britain protects the interest rights and views of the smaller nations.
And, while the left is best placed to sketch out an inclusive politics of future Britain, the lesson of the collapse of social democratic parties across Europe is that the left will fail unless it learns to express its radical politics in the language of progressive patriotism. Future Britain needs a progressive politics that cannot just inspire its current support, but support from those for whom the future of nation, people and place has found a renewed importance.
John Denham is a former minister and director of the English Labour Network. You can download Spirit of Britain, Purpose of Labour here.
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