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The Progressive Policy Think Tank

What national story does the centre-left need to tell?

Nick Pearce and Mike Kenny ask what the centre-left's national 'project' needs to be, at a time when the institutions and verities associated with the UK, and the primal values of unitary sovereignty and parliamentary government, face serious threats. How can social democracy relocate its sense of national purpose and orientation?

Watching over the central lobby of the Houses of Parliament are four mosaic panels representing the patron saints of the constituent nations of the UK. Originally intended to frame 'the centre of the British Empire', in the laudatory language of the Victorian parliamentary clerk Erskine May, these works remained incomplete for lack of funds and political squabbling until the early 1920s. They were completed at the very moment that the United Kingdom began to come apart, rent asunder by the Irish war of independence. As a reflection of these altered circumstances, St Patrick's mosaic was reworked: he was flanked by St Colomba, patron saint of Derry, atop the Red Hand of Ulster, and St Brigid, resting on a harp, symbolising the Irish Free State. The partition of Ireland was thus inscribed into the decorative motifs of the epicentre of parliament. 

Today, a question mark hangs over the UK once again. The SNP surge, and the collapse in political support for the unionist parties north of the border, have put the question of the future of the United Kingdom squarely back on the political agenda. And so too has Labour's inability to grasp the potency of the Conservatives' appeal to English anxieties about the role of the SNP in a potential Labour government, sentiments that represent the tip of a much more complex iceberg: the gradual development over the last two decades of a more self-conscious and sensitive national identity among the English. To the questions posed by these national challenges, Labour appears to have no answer.

And so the question of what now should be the national 'project' of the centre-left needs to be at the heart of the debate about the renewal of social democracy, and of its political cousin, progressive liberalism. Relocating a sense of national purpose and orientation is imperative in a situation in which the institutions and verities associated with the UK, and the primal values of unitary sovereignty and parliamentary government – all of which have been intrinsic to Labour's constitutional and national thinking – are facing serious threat.

Crumbling foundations

The foundations of this mindset, which shows all the hallmarks of Labour's historic attempt to establish itself as a respectable part of the British political tradition, are – quite literally –crumbling. The Houses of Parliament stand in a condition of serious disrepair, their ornate decoration rotting and rusting. The fabric of the building, neglected and worn, is coming apart, and it offers a very tangible metaphor for the diminishing force of the national forms of understanding upon which the 'Mother of Parliaments' rested. A country that was once so sure of its destiny that it could erect a monumental edifice to host its parliament and symbolise its core national virtues, is now increasingly unsure of its place in the world and its own identity as a state. The Byzantine trepidation etched into the faces of the central lobby's patron saints by their 1920s arts and crafts designer, Robert Anning Bell, has become all too apposite.

The decoration of the central lobby, with its four nation saints at the 'centre of an empire' encapsulates one of the pillars of the British tradition: the idea that the external dominions which Britain ruled, and the internal arrangement of its territories, were deeply interwoven. At the heart of this relationship stood Britannia, an outward-facing, trading, sea-faring and liberal power, which was home to a variety of distinct peoples and territories, joined together in imperial, commercial and military enterprises.

But, increasingly, the UK's role in the wider world, and its internal configuration, have become the objects of deep disagreement. Internally, the most pressing questions are whether Scotland will remain inside the UK and, if so, whether the increasingly asymmetric character of the union and the lack of devolution for England begin to pull the fabric of the state apart. Behind this lurks the question that is unavoidable for a country that still holds to the founding myth of parliamentary sovereignty: does a federal constitution represent the best, or perhaps only, way to hold the country together?

This is not the first time that federalism has forced its way into the political mainstream in modern British politics. When Irish nationalism became a potent force in the second half of the 19th century, there were extended arguments about 'home rule all round' for the UK's constituent nations, England included. Those who think that the English question is an invention entirely of David Cameron's making would do well to recall this. Some in this period advocated the creation of an imperial federation for the entire empire, a movement that would eventually provide some of the intellectual seeds for the commonwealth. Federalism therefore has deep roots in our political history.

But what makes the current political moment so fraught is that, as well as growing controversy over these constitutional questions, we are simultaneously facing a reckoning about the UK's role in the world. This is most apparent in the debate that will dominate British politics during the current parliament – whether we should remain in the European Union.

The external facade

The different peoples of the UK have always been divided in their views on Europe, and have often been inclined to some degree of scepticism. In historical terms there are good reasons for this ambivalence, with considerations weighing on either side. Neither history nor economics have endowed Britain with particularly strong institutional anchors for its European relationship. At the same time the UK has, over the last few decades, drifted back towards its continental neighbours out of a prevailing elite view that this was the best way to offset post-imperial decline. But the lingering appeal of Atlanticism in some parts of the establishment, and the revival of the dream of an alliance across the Anglosphere that lives on in parts of the political right,[1] means that the UK is yet to make up its mind on this fundamental question. There has grown an abiding sense that the country is strategically adrift, unable to chart an enduring and influential course for its international alliances. A palpable sense of disorientation and retreat currently hangs over the UK's foreign policy, a legacy of both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the persistent uncertainty among Britain's governing elites. The lack of any serious discussion of foreign affairs in the general election campaign was ample confirmation of this.

These internal and external questions are indissolubly related. It is hard, and perhaps impossible, to consider the democratic configuration of the UK without reference to the pooling of sovereignty in the EU. Likewise, debate on the future role of Britain in the wider world cannot advance very far if the identity of the state itself is up for grabs. It is said that when David Cameron tried to discuss the Ukraine crisis with Vladimir Putin, Russia's leader retorted by telling him to sort out his own problems in Scotland. Both questions require the construction of a new sense of national identity and purpose, and a political leadership that is capable of articulating them. How can the UK survive in the 21st century? What, above all, is our national mission to be?

Starting the renovation

Finding answers to these questions is especially demanding for the centre-left because the two principal traditions that have shaped its ethical and political thinking are both in retreat. On the one hand, the liberal tradition that has been a vital part of the DNA of progressivism in Britain has been electorally devastated and intellectually weakened. On the other hand, the labourist tradition, which has prized the idea of class solidarity across territorial differences, and which renounced its Europhobia in the 1980s, appears dazed by its collapse in Scotland, hamstrung by its inability to offer a positive and convincing answer to the English question, and inhibited by its inability to work through the contested legacy of New Labour's immigration and foreign policies.

If Labour is to respond to these challenges, and play any sort of role in the debate now taking shape about Britain's future, it needs to move beyond the two main versions of the national story that it has told in recent times. The one that dominated the New Labour years involved the renewal of a confident, cosmopolitan and modern Britain, exerting political influence in Europe and bridging between it and the US. This vision captured defining characteristics of contemporary Britain, such as its openness, creativity and extensive global links, and harnessed a sense of repressed energy felt across the country after a long period of Tory government.

But its relentless appeal to an Anglo-American modernity, and its deafness to the pull of tradition and identity, had major downsides. It reprised the idea of the UK as an untrammelled global leader, a stance that underpinned Blair's ever closer relations with the US and infused British foreign policy with an ill-fated hubris. And, increasingly, it ran against the grain of patterns of national sentiment within the UK and turned away from powerful demands for change from below. These demands are now deafening in Scotland, and gathering in England. 

The main alternative to this national vision to have emerged in recent years is the revived language of 'social patriotism', associated with nostalgia for the 1945 Attlee government. This seeks a national mission in popular, everyday struggles for social progress, and celebrates the particularities of the British peoples rather than the universal march of globalisation. It argues for a repatriation of power from the political class at Westminster to civil society and local government, and is sceptical of free markets and state bureaucracies in equal measure. Its vision of national renewal is of a social transformation achieved by the democratic agency of a newly united people.

There are powerful elements to this social patriotism. It speaks to the fundamental requirement of an egalitarian sense of national mission – the idea that, as figures like George Orwell and Michael Walzer have argued, to love a country is to seek its betterment. Yet post-war social patriotism gave expression to an era of national unification in which the working-class was strong, whereas today it is fragmented and politically weak, and the unitary sovereignty model is becoming increasingly exposed as the UK inches towards a more federal, multi-levelled polity. 

Neither of these national visions is adequate in the current situation. The political challenges that Labour faces in fighting simultaneously on different fronts across the UK demand that it becomes a federal party, with autonomous organisation, policy and strategy for its constituent nations. This means allowing Scottish Labour to pursue its own reinvention freed from accusations that it is controlled from London. And it means inventing an English Labour identity and exploring the institutional implications of an English Labour party. Politically, Labour's brand is utterly tarnished in Scotland, and severely damaged in England outside the major urban centres. In places like inner London and the South West, it needs to make common cause with liberals and greens; elsewhere its challenge is to draw support away from Ukip or the Conservatives. Its new leader will have to display great dexterity in giving the party a clear, strategic direction, while allowing it to shape its politics to the realities of a Britain that is now fundamentally broken-up in geo-political terms.

A new national story

Underpinning these strategic challenges is the need to craft a new national story, distinct from those that the left has long been inclined to tell. To begin with, it needs to align with demands for English devolution and decentralisation, rather than sidestepping or finding reasons to aver from them. This needs to be combined with a clear statement of a direction of travel towards a new constitutional settlement, including moves towards a federal system, deeper English devolution and a full-blooded decentralisation of public spending and fiscal powers to the counties and cities of England. A silver lining of Labour's electoral disaster in Scotland is that the party is now freed-up to think through the rising power of political forms of Englishness and the growing imperative to frame a progressive English politics. In policy terms, this means acknowledging that English nationhood should be recognised, if not in an English parliament then at the very least in reforms to the House of Commons, and by recognising that parts of the central state are in effect governing England alone. And in Wales, Labour needs to indicate a desire to follow the devolutionary ambition of the St David's day agreement, rather than seeking to find reasons to object to it. Federalism should also be given constitutional expression in a reformed House of Lords.

Conversely, it is vital to continue to make the case for the importance of risk pooling and fiscal transfers across the nations of the UK. Full fiscal autonomy or 'devo max' would end UK-wide counter-cyclical fiscal transfers, opening up the potential for a eurozone-style scenario in which the UK's constituent nations would be forced to increase borrowing or seek bailouts during an economic crisis. Other forms of social union based on the pooling of contributions, such as the basic state pension or unemployment benefits, would also disappear, removing redistributive mechanisms for social protection. The defence of these should mark out the limits of a progressive federalism.

Recasting the UK's role in Europe and beyond

A federal model might also create the conditions for a strategic and more internationally focused centre of UK government. In recent weeks, pro-Europeans have been making the substantive and patriotic case for Britain's continuing membership of the European Union, in contrast to the centrist and bloodless discourses that have characterised the 'staying-in' campaigns of recent years. This is an important development as it prefigures the second major strand of a new national project. 

This involves recasting Britain's European commitments and, instead of resisting a two-speed or multi-tier Europe, acknowledging the eurozone's need for greater political and fiscal union, without which monetary union is unworkable and undemocratic. The eurozone is mired in worsening economic inequality and the legitimacy problems that theorists such as Colin Crouch have associated with 'post-democracy'.[2] A lasting solution requires greater political and fiscal integration of eurozone members, with appropriate supra-national structures of democratised governance, coupled with a penumbra of involved, but more autonomous, states outside the core – with the UK among them. Key areas of EU, such as the single market, would continue to be decided by all 28 members on this model, but there would be distinct fiscal policy and democratic governance for the eurozone. 

Recasting the UK's relationship with Europe in these ways would have distinct advantages. It would place the British centre-left firmly on the side of economic reform in the Eurozone, not just in respect of familiar structural reforms of labour or product markets, but against the mass unemployment, economic inequality, and social catastrophe that has been inflicted upon the peripheral euro states. Fealty to German-led austerity in the eurozone has all but destroyed mainstream social democratic parties in Greece and Spain, and may yet do so in France. The British left knows this, and should say so more clearly. 

Arguing for political reforms of the eurozone would also help put democratic life back into the European project. An explicitly multi-speed, multi-level Europe would enable some transfer of powers back to member states, as well as more effective and accountable eurozone-wide government, as the German theorist Fritz Scharpf has argued.[3] In the UK, Eurosceptics currently monopolise the normative territory of arguments about democracy in Europe, and the technocratic or arcane procedural reforms often advocated as answers to Europe's democratic deficit have little traction in response to these claims. 

None of this is easy. Institutional reform in the EU is painfully slow and difficult, and Britain currently has limited influence in European politics. But a new direction for its engagement with Europe is now needed.

The centre-left also needs to refine its understanding of the UK's brokerage power in the wider world, and to propose a 'realism' that has evaded a political culture which, over the last 60 years, has swung between the poles of hubris and declinism without finding a stable point of equilibrium between the two. There is no future for nation states of the UK's size outside regional power blocs, and that understanding ought to be central to the case for continued membership of a remodelled EU. The EU is the only route through which the UK can exercise political leverage on trade, climate change and other irreducibly multinational issues. Europe is also likely to evolve a more integrated defence and foreign policy in the coming decades, not least under pressure from its disputes with Russia, and the US will look to its European allies to shoulder more of the burden of defending NATO countries in eastern Europe. This will force the UK to get serious about how to align its defence capabilities, conventional and nuclear, with those of its key European allies, as well as its wider NATO partners. If it continues to stand aside from these debates, a Franco-German alliance will dominate European foreign policy, and the UK will both cease to have meaningful influence on the US and lose its chance to help shape the global contours of an Asian century. 

Yet it would be foolish for the UK to jettison its global post-imperial heritage, including its trading relationships, prestige in global poverty alleviation, and reputation for culture and world-class universities. On this score, perhaps the most interesting statement of national mission in recent times has come from a somewhat idiosyncratic source – Dominic Cummings, former adviser to Michael Gove. The UK, he has repeatedly argued, should become the world's leading country for education and science. This is an unduly singular ambition, but it has the merit of aligning national strengths with a credible and defined role for Britain in a global economy. The left needs to engage in exactly this kind of debate, and to start connecting the external role of the UK with the domestic projects that it wishes to advance – particularly for reducing inequality and reshaping the UK's political economy.

Unfinished business

The minimal requirement of any new Labour or Liberal Democrat leader is a strategic understanding of the pressures facing the UK in an increasingly challenging international environment, as well as a realistic appreciation of the diminishing power of the British tradition of parliamentary government and the national stories associated with it.

In one important sense, what we are proposing is a return to the past, rather than a break from it. For today's politicians are being required to revisit the unfinished business of their early 20th century predecessors. Then, the painful shift towards a new party system was complicated by a divisive politics of territory within the union state. The inability of elites to resolve those tensions in a new constitutional settlement was obscured by exogenous threats – the depression and the second world war– out of which a new sense of the meaning and purpose of Britain emerged. But this has turned out to be a temporary resolution. Once again questions of constitution and nation threaten to tear asunder the fabric of ties and institutions at the heart of the parliamentary state. This time around, the threats are of a more foundational kind, and bear down upon a governing class that lacks authority, confidence and big ideas. Forging a new project that might rally all the different nations of the union, and give meaning and purpose to the polity as a whole, is now the unavoidable national question of our times.

Michael Kenny is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London; Nick Pearce is director of IPPR, and writes in a personal capacity.


Notes

1. See http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/02/rise-anglosphere-how-right-dreamed-new-conservative-world-order ^back

2. See for example http://www.ippr.org/juncture/democracy-at-a-ttiping-point-seizing-a-slim-chance-to-reassert-democratic-sovereignty-in-europe ^back

3. See Scharpf F (2015) 'Democracy large and small: Reforming the EU to sustain democratic legitimacy on all levels', Juncture 21.4: 266–272 ^back