There have been many calls over the last few weeks and months for Labour to rediscover patriotism and embrace the idea of a distinctively English – or possibly British – version of socialism, consistent with national identity. This is of course bound up with debates about Blue Labour and the Brexit referendum.
However there are good reasons for being sceptical about this approach, and for looking instead to a combination of localism, regionalism, and internationalism as being more in tune with left values and the needs of our times, which are obviously very different from those at the peak of Labour patriotism in the 1940s.
The clearest argument against English or British identity as the basis for a politics which can challenge what has in effect become a Tory/Ukip coalition is to look at the nature of our national identity now and the attitudes and policy ideas which have become associated with it. English and British national identity has become, following Thatcher, Ukip and the EU referendum, more closely identified with the right and with racism than it has been for a very long time.
National identity, like most other forms of identity, is built as much – and often more – on who we are not and who we are against as it is on who we positively feel we are. The different manifestations of nationalism seen in the revolts against colonialism were rejections of the colonial power as much as assertions of nationhood. Scottish and Welsh nationalism rose because of a rejection of the dominance of England, London, and Westminster. British nationalism today is articulated largely as anti-EU. English nationalism is defined against both Scotland and Europe – and sometimes against American influence too.
Patriotism today – in the sense of passionately wanting what is best for one’s country – ought to mean support for, co-operation with or within the EU, and across the world. But although that is a perfectly reasonable argument to make, it is hard to make it sound like an assertion of distinctive English or British identity.
And aren’t we, in calling for a distinctly English socialism merely beating about the bush rather than dealing with the issues that most touch people’s lives? The public are not really so concerned about whether we love Wordsworth or William Morris. They are much more interested in what they would recognise as sensible policies about immigration, welfare benefits and housing. Talk of “English socialism” functions to a worrying extent as a substitute for the difficult thinking required to arrive at such policies and articulate them.
There are progressive identities right the way across the UK. The identity of London is progressive through its diversity and openness to the world. Increasingly the West country has an identity bound up with giving priority to quality of life. Scottish and Welsh identities have tended to be based on different (and generally more left-wing) attitudes to morality, religion, and the place of culture than in England. The north and midlands have kept their reputation for practicality and realism.
Of course all of these are to a large extent stereotypes and simplifications. But the point remains: there are positive progressive senses of national and local identity all across Britain. It is at the national level that things are different. These identities are also to a large extent oppositional: everywhere against London, and London against Little Englandism.
The assertion and development of these different progressive identities surely calls for a politics of pluralism and devolution: a United Kingdom and an England that celebrate the diversity of their component parts rather than submerging them in a single hard-to-define national identity. This in turn implies the need for a set of policies that includes the renewal of local government, the development of more resilient local and regional economies and finance systems, and a return to the question of regionalism within England. This is an agenda perhaps more in tune with radical liberalism and co-operative socialism than with the more statist and centralising elements in the Labour tradition.
We also need a politics which is internationalist, because that is where the biggest issues we face today are to be found. The appreciation of environmentalisms of “place” and locality is important, but it is not a recipe for the success of the environmental movement, because the need for a politics that worries about rainforests, oceans and polar ice caps is absolutely urgent. We should all care for our local parks and other green spaces but that is not going to save us from catastrophic changes in the global climate.
Similarly there is a need for an internationalism concerned with peace, financial stability, closing down tax havens, establishing fairer trade arrangements, and co-operation across Europe. These are all hard to package as being about national identity, but they remain important parts of what progressive politics should be about.