Distinctively British

The efforts to shoehorn and impose a British identity onto people in Scotland, and England and Wales is a strange phenomenon.

Today Keir Starmer, spluttered out an assembly of words, some of which didn’t really mean anything at all, like ‘A productive Liverpool is good for Birkenhead. A strong Dudley is good for Birmingham’, all in an effort to make himself Tory-friendly with some barely coded ‘pro-business’ rhetoric.

He said he won’t be ‘ideological’, which we all know is code for “I will be ideological just in right-wing terms that are deemed non-ideological”.

Only the left has ideology. The right is just ‘common sense’.

In Starmer’s keynote speech, delivered in Liverpool, he promised that Labour would not be “trapped” in its history, and would focus on growth rather than redistribution. This again is code and a declaration of intent. Week by week Starmer is dismantling his own programme so the right wing media don’t have to.

The speech was a mixture then of hints at a drift to the right, abandoning promises he ran on and flying the flag for British nationalism, plus disinterring Gordon Brown for some vague waffle about ‘economic devolution’.

It’s all strange not just because the notion of Britishness is a dying identity, but the opportunity for a different politics after twelve years of Tory rule is so potent, so palpable you can taste it.

Instead you get this uber-bland watered-down nothing politics. His latest climb-down was to back his shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, who suggested Labour had ditched plans to take rail, water and energy back into public ownership. Asked on the Today programme on Monday whether Labour supported the nationalisation of rail, water and energy, Reeves pointed to the fact that Starmer had scrapped the 2019 manifesto, and suggested the policy would conflict with her determination to balance the books.

Yet considerable evidence shows wide public support for public ownership:

And so you are left with a meaningless futile opposition when the Conservative’s are at their lowest ebb, exposed as never before and about to elect a halfwit.

But these two phenomenon are linked.

The demise of British identity is intimately linked — not just with the rise of distinct Scottish and English identities among new generations — but the closing down of meaning in Britishness is also connected with the privatisation of much of the nominally ‘British’ economy. It’s ironic then, that the people who most obsess about Britain and Britishness are the same people who sold it all off.

Having sold off BP (stakes sold off between 1977 and 1987), British Airways (1987), British Steel (1988) and Coal (1994), and all the utilities: gas (1986), electricity (1990–1995), telecoms (1984–1993) and water (1989), now they want you to get all patriotic?

Only the NHS stands a sort of iconic, symbolic emblem of Britain, as the rest of the family silver has all been flogged off, and even here you can see the Tories salivating at the prospect of further privatisation.

Now as ‘the country’ is literally crying out for change, they are being presented with a programme that is indistinguishable from the Conservatives (not the current mad Revolutionary Conservatives) but the old pre-Boris Tories:

Starmer’s Labour are messaging like a milquetoast version of the Conservatives with more Union Jacks.

But the open door being missed here is not just the obvious opportunity for drawing on a narrative of national reconstruction and unity that should be easy-meat for a Labour Party. The ‘country’ is crying out for a figure to construct a story about post-covid, post-Boris, post-Brexit recovery. But it’s not just the economic and social crisis that should be low-hanging fruit for any half-decent Labour front bench. It’s obvious now that ‘England’ itself as an emergent inchoate entity is an obvious and natural vehicle for a radical left.

This might seem counter-intuitive but the opportunity to garner some of the energy behind Brexit and re-direct it for positive change seems obvious. Post-devolution Britain is a very different place, and the pandemic only amplified these differences and contradictions. A progressive left with some guile and imagination could easily move forward with a programme of social and constitutional reform that made sense and gave England both voice and place.

That’s not going to happen. Instead we will have a return to a compulsory nationalism and a forced Britishness — which is a cultural and electoral dead-end.

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