By Colin Crouch
‘One nation’ makes simple sense as the 19th Conservative slogan it originally was: an appeal to lower classes to maintain their loyalty to the national elite despite their deprivations; and to the elite itself to make some sacrifices to earn that loyalty. As a centre-left slogan for the early 21st century, when large parts of the elite have moved themselves fiscally offshore, it is more complex. There is no point in the Labour Party appealing directly to that elite. However, it does make political sense to shame its political representatives, who still need the nation, by pointing to the ways in which today’s privileged groups escape national responsibilities while expecting the country to rally round them when they are in difficulties. The ‘one nation’ slogan needs to have bite in it to achieve that.
But how is the mass of the population meant to respond to the call to believe in ‘one nation’? It can include Labour’s normal appeal to middle-class people to support the welfare state as an act of compassion towards less fortunate members of the nation. That raises some tricky problems around immigrants and recently settled ethnic minorities who are not yet widely accepted as being part of the ‘British nation’. The call to national solidarity has always been an important component of the politics of the welfare state, and it could accommodate small minorities. When these minorities become large there is a tricky path that has to be found between sacrificing the power of that call or lurching towards xenophobic exclusion. Finding that path is now an important task.
However, it is also necessary and entirely possible to move beyond seeing social policy as compassion towards the unfortunate, in two different ways.
First is the old social democratic argument, in danger of being lost when discussion of social policy focuses on efficiency and effectiveness: the universal benefits of the welfare state are a badge of national citizenship. We all have an interest in them, and this is shared across the nation. It may well be accompanied with acceptance of the obligations of citizenship, such as to work and to pay taxes. But this vital concept has been disappearing as successive governments have seen social policy in terms of measures to target efficiently on the poor, with all parties using the language of individual consumerism rather than citizenship to describe our relationship to the welfare state. The one nation concept could be useful in reversing this drift.
Second, many elements of social and other public policy serve a general national interest by equipping an advanced workforce and economy. Active labour market policy, education, childcare, infrastructure spending and other components of the social investment welfare state all contribute in this way.
This idea of nation as a shared social citizenship fits well with a social democratic vision, but ‘nation’ also presents problems. Inevitably, national election campaigns in which parties stress their attractiveness to as many voters as possible lead all to engage in patriotic bombast. During this age of globalization, when the corporate interests that are creating problems for the mass of citizens operate across borders, playing governments off against each other, the illusion of an autonomous national politics is dangerous. Labour would only be able to create an acceptable international economic environment if it played its part as one of the leading countries of the European Union, using the Union to achieve positive goals.
At present Labour stands alongside the Conservatives with an approach to the EU that just says ‘hands off our nation’ and little more. This is fine for neoliberal Tories, who do not want any institution to have the political competence to challenge global capital. It is of no use to Labour. If we are dissatisfied with current EU policies, as we should be, the answer is to join with allied parties across Europe to change them, not to sulk on the sidelines muttering about vetoes and opt-outs.
This cannot be one of those policies achieved by stealth, keeping up a heady separatist rhetoric while co-operating behind the scenes. Britain’s national interests need to be understood as gaining power by being pursued alongside colleagues within Europe. It is possible for voters to understand that, but they can only do so if political leaders turn them in that direction. So far not only has no start been made on that task; it is running in reverse.
Colin Crouch is Professor Emeritus of the University of Warwick Business School. He is the author of Post-Democracy (2003) and The Strange Non-Death of Neoliberalism (2011)
This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList