Ed Miliband embraces Englishness, but still has to grasp the nettle on immigration

identity, migration, UK politics

Author(s):  Matt Cavanagh
Published date:  07 Jun 2012
Source:  Spectator, Coffee House Blog

I hope that CoffeeHousers, regardless of political affiliation, will welcome a speech by a Labour leader that is explicitly patriotic, about England as well as the United Kingdom. As Ed Miliband said today, Labour has too often seemed either uninterested in Englishness or embarrassed by it, when there is nothing in its history and values that justifies this. Miliband was also right to emphasise the legitimacy and strength of ‘multiple identities’ — whether English and British, Scottish and British, Indian and British, or British and Muslim. And he was right to urge the English to ‘embrace a positive, outward looking version’ of national identity.

Ideas of national identity that are essentially negative — shaped by a common enemy or an existential threat — are easier to build and almost always more powerful. This power can be turned to positive ends even if its source is essentially negative, as happened in the post-war settlement in Britain. But negative ideas of identity are more limited in time and scope, and more prone to going bad. Building a positive version of identity, based on shared history, traditions, language, values, or institutions, may be more difficult, but is ultimately more worthwhile. In the case of Englishness, building an identity which is positive and outward looking is even harder: while Britishness has clear associations with our maritime and trading history and — for better and worse — with empire, many connotations of Englishness are inward-looking, based on place and landscape, as the conservative thinker Roger Scruton has argued.

Miliband’s speech also reminds us of the dilemma inherent in any attempt to build or shape a national identity based wholly or in part on values. The dilemma is whether to opt for abstract, universal values (democracy, liberty, tolerance, etc.), which are more inclusive but less distinctively British; or whether instead to opt for a richer, more distinctive set of values which will necessarily find it harder to attract consensus. Gordon Brown chose the former path, and risked accusations of vacuity. David Cameron has veered from one path to the other, sometimes choosing to define Britishness in terms of abstract, universal values like liberty, equality, and the rule of law; at other times choosing to emphasise narrower ideas like ‘Christian values’. Miliband today had some interesting things to say about values, but skirted round this basic dilemma.

But, however tricky it is to navigate these issues of national identity, it is easy compared to confronting the current debate over immigration — particularly for the Labour Party. Though Brown’s attempts to redefine Britishness were ultimately disappointing, they were received with respect across the political spectrum, including by conservative commentators like Matthew d’Ancona. By contrast, when talking about immigration, like most Labour politicians of recent years, he struggled to persuade people that he even cared.

This is a problem Labour still faces — and one that Ed Miliband needs to tackle head-on, sooner rather than later. Today’s speech mentioned immigration only in passing. Clearly his exhortation to be outward-looking rather than inward-looking has implications for immigration, as well as other areas of policy. But is it enough? Ten years ago, Labour ministers hoped that they could persuade people to take a positive view of globalisation — including by appealing to Britain’s history and traditions — and also hoped that, by doing so, they would encourage a more positive attitude to rising immigration, which they saw, with some justification, as one aspect of globalisation. But they were never entirely successful even in the first part of this strategy, and since the financial crisis people’s attitude to globalisation has soured. Today, whatever the intellectual merits of linking the two subjects, as a political strategy it is more likely to infect people’s views of globalisation with the negativity surrounding immigration, as to provide the immigration debate with the broader context it so badly needs.

In large part this is because people have lost faith in their leaders on both subjects. Surveys show that voters don’t have any real confidence in Conservative pledges and policies on immigration; they just expect them to be in some generic sense ‘tougher’. This presents an opportunity for Labour, if it can link its views and policies on the economy with its views and policies on immigration. In doing so, it can help shift the immigration debate away from its current, fundamentally misleading position. The current focus is on how the parties propose to control the supply of immigration — with the Tory ‘cap’ and net migration target squaring up against Labour’s points-based system — when in fact the bigger difference between the parties is over how to control the demand for immigration. (Neither party’s policy on controlling the supply of immigration covers migrants from Eastern Europe, who are the most obvious competitors for low-skilled jobs.)

The Conservatives believe that the real cause of the demand for immigration is welfare dependency; and so the solution is welfare reform, which they argue will incentivise the unemployed to compete harder with immigrants for low-paid jobs. Labour’s view — so far more implicit than explicit — is that the real cause is our model of capitalism, which is not generating enough ‘good’ jobs at the lower end of income distribution, instead generating the kind of jobs which attract migrant workers rather than the unemployed: demanding but low-paid and low-skilled, often temporary, and lacking career progression or development. On this view, whatever the merits of welfare reform in other respects, as a way of reducing the demand for immigration it will be less effective than, for example, increasing the minimum wage and enforcing it more rigorously, and using public procurement to require employers to train their workforce rather than relying on a constantly churning supply of migrants.

Miliband was right today when he said that ‘Britain is at its best when it looks out to the world’. But British workers on median incomes can be forgiven for asking whether, over the last thirty years, our outward-looking stance has benefited them as much as it did their better-paid compatriots in the City and elsewhere; and how politicians of both parties intend to ensure that the benefits of globalisation are spread more evenly in the future. A convincing answer to this question is a vital part of rebuilding a positive, outward-looking sense of national identity, British or English, for the decades to come.