There is a golden thread which runs through British history, of the individual standing firm against tyranny and then of the individual participating in their society. It is a thread that runs from that long-ago day in Runnymede in 1215, on to the Bill of Rights in 1689 to not just one, but four great Reform Acts within less than a hundred years.
Gordon Brown, Hugo Young Memorial Lecture (2005)
'Come on', he said. 'It's not a trick question. Just name me one thing he did that Washington wouldn't have approved of. Let's think.' He held up his thumb. 'One: deployment of British troops to the Middle East, against the advice of just about every senior commander in our armed forces and all of our ambassadors who know the region. Two'--up went his right index finger--'complete failure to demand any kind of quid pro quo from the White House in terms of reconstruction contracts for British firms, or anything else. Three: unwavering support for US foreign policy in the Middle East, even when it's patently crazy for us to set ourselves against the entire Arab world.'
Robert Harris, The Ghost (2007)
Gordon Brown has for the last few years aspired to construct and articulate a progressive sense of Britishness, ranging from attempts to define its key values, to proposals for a 'National Day' and 'Veterans' Day'. This article aims to assess this project--if this word can be used--examining the historical background before analysing the contemporary context and future prospects. In so doing it should be seen as complimentary to an earlier Renewal essay on Blair and Britishness (Hassan, 1995).
The Labour story of Britain
Gaitskell once pledged to defend '1,000 years of history'; Brown has talked of '2,000 years' that shaped 'a characteristically British set of qualities' (Brown, 1997). The reality is rather more complex.
The UK is not an ordinary state; but a hybrid bringing together four nations (1). Its founding dates from the 1603 Union of the Crowns and 1707 Treaty of Union between Scotland and England. The name of the space we now live in--the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland--dates from 1922 and the current governmental framework dates back only to 1948 when the Republic of Ireland fully established itself as independent: a mere sixty years ago. More profoundly, the 'United Kingdom' is not itself a nation. There is a whole school of academia studying places like Scotland and Catalonia, which go by the name of 'stateless nations'. The UK is the exact opposite phenomenon: a 'nationless state': a strange entity whose only precedents have all bitten the dust: Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and the Soviet Union.
Neverthless, differing notions of the 'British nation' have been able to co-exist with each other (Aughey, 2001; 2007). There is the story of the Tory nation of Empire and reactionarism which for most of the twentieth century has been the dominant account. There is also a Labour version, seen as a peoples' story centred on the advance of social-democratic, enlightened values. This story connected the progressivisation of Britain to the forward march of Labour seen in the works of GDH Cole and AJP Taylor, each one influencing and justifying the other (Cole and Postgate, 1946; Taylor, 1965; Williams, 1949).
The British state has for most of the history of these isles seen itself as unproblematic, the Irish question apart. It reflects a seamless advance of political, economic and social progress slowly accumulated by the people via the action of the state. Progressive opinion has been much influenced by this and the view that state power is something which is 'neutral' and can be used for benign and centre-left aims. Labour politicians as eminent and radical as Michael Foot and Tony Benn attest to the appeal of this dominant Whig establishment view.
The British political establishment have long understood the UK as a unitary state: a place with one centre of power and authority. However, the UK has never been a unitary state which implies a significant scale of centralising standardisation. It is a union state, which has a complex set of different local, regional and national diverse arrangements: hence the Scottish, Northern Irish and to a lesser extent, Welsh experience in the union. This misunderstanding of the basis of the union has had huge consequences for how the political centre perceive and rule the UK and has contributed to the over-reach of Thatcherism and Blairism, and, as we shall see, the character of Brownism.
What happened to the Labour story?
The Second World War and its aftermath mark the high point of the Labour story of Britain. Anthony Barnett's wonderful polemic about the strands of British nationalism which coalesced around the Falklands War found a common thread going back to the creation of 'Churchillism' in those crucial months of 1940 (Barnett, 1982). Since then Labour's relationship to the British state and polity has become more and more one of incorporation. But from the 1960s onwards this has become increasingly problematic.
It is no accident that the challenges the Wilson government faced in the mid-1960s about the competitiveness of the British economy occurred at exactly the same time as Scottish and Welsh nationalism began to emerge as serious political forces (Hassan, 2007). These very movements were a product of a loss of faith in the ability of the British state to provide economic and social benefits to Scotland and Wales. This process reached its crescendo in November 1967 with the humiliating devaluation of the pound and the abandonment by the government of its economic growth plans. This interaction of internal and external factors continued into the 1970s, with the OPEC oil price hike coming just as North Sea Oil was about to come on stream, contributing to the next wave of Scottish nationalism.
Moreover, the crises of the 1960s and 1970s challenged the assumption that the British state had the competence to navigate difficult economic waters, contributing to the demise of social democracy (formally pronounced dead by Crosland after the IMF crisis of December 1976), and leading ultimately to Thatcherism. This story of the politics of retreat thus directly leads from Wilsonite modernisation and the first 'New Britain' to Blairism and the second 'New Britain'.
Thus, where once there was a potent, powerful Labour story which ran down through the years, now there is merely a void, filled by retorts to Labour loyalism and tribalism, playing to diminishing audiences, and over the course of the last decade, an explicit account that there is no alternative to New Labour. This has ended up as being part of the new consensus of which Brown and Brownism is a key pillar.
New Labour and the state
Labour's fundamentally uncritical view of the state has continued under New Labour in a very different and radically altered politics (see historically Jones and Keating, 1985). Previously, Labour saw the state as a force for good, for lifting up working people, redistributing between regions and groups, and acting to ensure fairness. New Labour has seen the state as a vehicle to pursue, through similar means, very different ends: re-ordering relationships in the public sector and public realm which aid the marketisation of society.
New Labour's language under Blair and Brown has been filled with paradoxes: talking one kind of language and doing the exact opposite (Fairclough, 2000). It has talked a language of diversity and decentralism, while embracing even more fundamentally a mindset of authoritarianism and centralism which has built on and extended Thatcherism (Jenkins, 2006). This has been a government shaped by command and control, from the approach to the public sector, to the dual monarchy of Blair and Brown, to the rival power centre under Brown of the Treasury (previously an institution Labour politicians looked to curb the power of). This was partly the result of personalities, but much more was due to an ideological disposition to enforce a political order which did not command widespread support in Labour, the trade unions or public sector. (We need to ask who, apart from corporate accounting firms, consultancies and a few think tanks, actively advocated such an agenda when New Labour was elected and a more progressive approach was possible?)
It is in this context of the last ten years that Brown's agenda of Britishness has to be seen. The relationship of the citizen to the state has been fundamentally altered by a welter of initiatives, the use of PFI/PPP, marketisation and privatisation. Brown has stated...