Whose Britain is it anyway? The blindsides of British Labour and the left: whatever the outcome of the 2014 referendum, the debate on Scottish independence requires Labour to rethink its relationship with the territorial dimensions of the British state.

AuthorHassan, Gerry

British Labour tells a powerful story about Britain. However, it has never really adequately understood the nature of the United Kingdom or had a curiosity, critique or inquiry about the character, make-up, and role of the British state.

It is important to define what is meant by 'British state'--in particular, by two dimensions. One of these Labour has occasionally engaged with, if inadequately and superficially. The other has completely blindsided it, with huge and damaging consequences.

This is shown by the formation and evolution of such issues as the dynamics of social classes and forces; the rise, fall and remaking of absolutism; the emergence and decline of feudalism, and rise of Britain as the world's first capitalist economy, and related to that the importance of empire and the City of London and its impact on society, culture and the economy. All of this has contributed to Britain as a 'global kingdom' and London as a 'world city', at the nexus of a whole array of economic and political relationships and elites.

Secondly and related is the question of the territorial dimensions of the British state. This has a number of layers. One is geo-political--focused on how the UK situates itself in international alliances and relationships. There is the usual litany: the so-called 'special relationship' of the US and UK, membership of the G8 (or G7 as it has at least temporarily become), the EU, NATO and other bodies. More intangibly, there is the Churchillian idea of Britain at the intersection of a set of circles: which has been updated by Andrew Gamble to four (from Churchill's original three): of British union, Anglo-America, Commonwealth and Europe (Gamble, 2003). Related to this is the politics of 'the Anglosphere' or, echoing Churchill, 'the English speaking democracies' (Roberts, 2006).

There is the also the domestic side of this, centred on the make-up, composition and character of the UK. On both of these Labour has shown little curiosity or understanding for its own politics, and the consequences which flow from this. This has also been true of most left, radical and socialist or social democratic traditions through Labour's history--from New Left to post-left, Bevanite and Bennite to Blairite, and 'Blue' to 'One Nation Labour'. The only difference is that the consequences of this denial and collective myopia are growing more serious by the year.

This territorial myopia has had deep, long lasting consequences. It can be seen in how the British state and its agencies were regarded as being uniform and not differentiated across the UK (the Northern Irish situation apart). Such issues as spatiality and geography, and even place, proved to be ones that Labour has shown little real grasp or understanding of at a strategic or institution-building level.

Labour's lack of territorial understanding has to be compared with the Tory tradition pre-Thatcher--of an organic, patchwork, pragmatic unionism, based on the Burkean 'little platoons', an understanding of place and traditions, which contributed to British Conservatism being suspicious of the state, centralisation and grandiose political plans. With the near-total collapse of this tradition and the decline of an intelligent Tory statecraft of the union, there is a political class consensus which not only represents a narrow, partial version of Britain, but has become disconnected from the multi-dimensional territorial, spatial and geographic realities of the UK.

Some will question whether any of this really matters in comparison with the bread and butter issues of the economy, the Coalition's cuts programme and austerity, but matter it does. For one, the multiple crises of the UK are all inter-related in a way Labour does not grasp and reflect in its politics--the Scottish question, the English dilemma, the disconnect of Westminster from the UK, the rise of London as a 'world city', and the European issue. All of these challenges interweave the fault-lines and tensions of the UK geo-politically and domestically. New Labour had a certain set of answers to these dilemmas--which entailed accommodation to the dominant political and economic forces in the UK without attempting to remake the political weather in a social democratic direction. The summation of the bankrupt place in which Blairism ended up in can be seen in such comments as John McTernan recently taking umbrage on Twitter about talk about London and elites, proclaiming, 'There is no London elite'; Peter Mandelson celebrating the City declaring 'There's almost nothing in the world to rival it ... You want to advance it and you want to grow it', or Peter Hyman saying of Blair that he 'hates losers, hates impotence, hates meaningless protest' (Rawnsley, 2010, 480; Hyman, 2005, 94).

Subsequently, post-New Labour projects, whether 'Blue Labour' or 'One Nation' Labour, have tried to answer one or more of these dimensions, but have failed in any convincing manner to address all of them or the inter-connections. Perhaps, most crucially, they have stayed clear of addressing the mega-narratives driving where we are now. These cut to the heart of Labour's understanding of Britain, the British state, and its crises--economic, social, democratic and political--and the implications which follow for progressive politics.

Whatever happened to 'Labour Britain'?

'Labour Britain' represented a certain take on politics, society and community. At its peak--in the late 1940s to mid-1950s--it was a highly ordered, deferential society --one of rational, supposedly enlightened authority, experts and managers. It is also true that its peak years and period was probably very short, between the end of 'the people's war' and the mid-1950s, as individualism and consumerism began to transform working class culture. It was as early as 1959 that the first seeds of New Labour revisionism could be seen in Mark Abrams and Richard Rose's Must Labour Lose? after three election defeats, itself drawing on the writings and thinking of Tony Crosland and John Strachey (Abrams and Rose, 1960).

Despite this the 'Labour Britain' vision retained its central characteristics until and post the Thatcherite experience; indeed, so strongly has Labour been addicted to centralisation and command and control that it not only survived the 1979-97 generation of opposition, but became one of the main drivers of New Labour delivery, and still has life in it to this day.

Pivotal to 'Labour Britain' was an idea of the state and government doing things--improving lives, changing attitudes and outcomes, but also believing that human beings and the idea of self could be altered. It was a Fabian social engineering project built upon parliamentary sovereignty, centralisation, standardisation, and not letting go of powers or authority. In this vision, localism, devolution and decentralisation represented people and values holding up the inevitable march of progress.

There is of course a particular territorial and geographic story of 'Labour Britain'. It may have attempted to and aspired to a politics of standardisation and one size fits all--wrapped in the positive language of welfare citizenship--but human life provided more complex and messy (along with the nature of the UK). In some of the Labour heartlands where the party's dominance began in the 1920s and 1930s Scotland, South Wales, the North East, Liverpool and Sheffield for example--an inward-looking Labour machine politics took...

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