UK future depends on Labor revival in England | Labor
FIn the recent census, I hesitated before choosing British over English from the menu of national identities. The correct answer is both. The GB team for the Olympic Games, England for the World Cup. After that, it becomes difficult to separate the different cultural elements that connect me to the country in which I was born but which my immigrant parents chose. In the chemistry of belonging, Britishness is a compound, not a mixture.
I didn’t appreciate the strain of Brexit demagoguery which sought to restrict patriotic belonging, by excluding those of us who felt an attachment to Europe. I have Scottish friends who dread the prospect of a second independence referendum because their preference to stay in the UK will be seen as a lack of national pride.
If this plebiscite were organized and won by the nationalists, two countries would hatch – a post-union Scotland and a truncated Britain. Neither would be entirely new, in the long run of history, but both would be unknown, and only one of them would have voted for his changed status.
This is not an argument in favor of some kind of national ballot. The point of self-determination is that Scotland decides its fate without having to ask for permission. England’s digital supremacy, spawning Westminster regimes without a Scottish mandate, has been the most generous provider of arguments for independence in recent history.
Brexit occupies a prominent place in this category, since two-thirds of Scots were against it. Being outside the EU also makes the practical task of building an independent Scotland much more complicated and expensive, but at the moment that argument does not have the same force. An aggravating factor is the radicalism of a Brexit model imposed by a Prime Minister whose reckless and arrogant style is his own catalog of reasons to escape the reign of the English conservatives.
The policies of a government should not be decisive in the resolution of constitutional questions. Boris Johnson’s mismanagement is temporary; the break with England would be permanent. But in practice, the case for the union is clouded when the entire political foreground is taken up by Johnson in its ostentation.
Unionism is not the property of the Conservative Party. It should hardly need to be said, but Labor’s claim to be a party for all of Britain is diminished when it seems so far from taking control of Westminster. Common majorities of 80 are not usually overthrown in a single election. The task is made even more difficult by the fragmentation of the voice of Labor. The core is divided along the axes of geography, demography and culture – the older, the working class, the old industrial centers and the younger and richer metropolitan centers. Appeals to one audience repel the other and efforts to straddle the divide alienate both – as happened with Labor’s tortured ambiguity over Brexit.
Of course, it’s more complicated than that. A more subtle (but still dark) account of the problem is contained in Hearts and minds, a collection of essays by Labor MPs, published this week by the Fabian Society. The analysis largely absolves Keir Starmer of responsibility for his party’s weak polls, given the extent of the rot and the few opportunities he has had to deal with it during the pandemic. But when the public is more ready to listen, it won’t be easy, preaching a political gospel that moves hearts in Hartlepool as well as in Hampstead.
It is possible to merge disparate electoral blocs into a winning whole. The Conservatives won Workington and Winchester in 2019. The first was 61% for holidays in 2016; the latter was 60% to stay. Johnson’s majority is not shaped just from Brexit, but it is very English.
The Labor Party is the main government party in Wales. It also dominates decentralized politics in London, Manchester and Liverpool. But Starmer won’t be Prime Minister unless his party experiences a simultaneous push in Scotland and England. It is a unionist ambition even if it is not yet qualified as such.
The Fabian brochure briefly mentions the Scottish Labor mission, only to set it aside as a low-key (and by implication, even more confusing) issue. But the party’s massive eviction from once-secure Scottish seats was, in many ways, a harbinger of what to expect in areas captured by Johnson years later. There was a ‘tartan wall’ in Scotland, like the English ‘red wall’, and they collapsed for similar reasons: Voters were unhappy to be taken for granted by a party deemed complacent by years of local monopoly and culturally distant from the people it represented.
The abandonment of the Labor Party was faster and more decisive in Scotland because nationalism offered an alternative allegiance without the demand to overcome the visceral hatred of the Tories. And as opposition to independence is led by Conservative governments, Labor is trapped, tactically and emotionally, between historic attachment to the union and the compulsion to be against whatever Johnson is for.
This dilemma is not confined to Scottish Labor. There are English voters whose strongest political allegiance in recent years has been rage against Brexit. And while they would mourn Scotland’s separation as well, they can understand why independence appeals to their neighbors as a cure for Tory rule (especially with Nicola Sturgeon so adept at playing the role of doctor at the firm hand).
English opinions will not decide a Scottish referendum, but the vitality of the non-conservative opposition in England affects the climate in which the issue is debated. It’s hard to sell a democratic partnership of nations from a stall that only has conservative governments. Trade unionism needs a Labor revival in England. As if Starmer’s burden weren’t already heavy enough, the existence of the British state in its present form depends as much on him as it does on Johnson. Maybe more. There is a mode of britannicity which is cultural and not political – an identity of belonging shared to an island. But without the credible prospect of regime change in Westminster, staying in Britain will still sound, in Scotland, like a submission to conservative England.