If the idea of progressive patriotism was once anathema, for ‘One Nation’ Labour it’s a powerful framework for centre left values. If we once thought progress meant weakening national identities there has been a profound rethink.
Opening the British economy to globalisation with no national industrial strategy left it weakened. Reclaiming St George in Euro 96 and the Union Flag around the Olympics showed patriotic symbols expressing a progressive idea of who we want to be. In devolution, progressive national stories become the framework for social democratic politics. Governments concerned about social behaviour have realised a nation depends on how its citizens behave, and whether these reflect a shared values.
We make our own national stories. While the reactionary and the progressive have always struggled for ascendancy we can choose which parts of our past to celebrate to shape a progressive story for the future. And we can shape a state to support it.
New Labour lacked confidence in the state’s ability to shape the economy, but believed a target driven, top down state could shape society. Britain was painted as a nation of public service consumers, distrustful of democracy, relaxed about the efficacy of markets, scornful of professionals, unconcerned about unaccountable power and confident in technocratic solutions.
We need different values for a progressive national identity.
The patriotic economy has an active state that promotes national economic interest. Cadbury, Pfizer, Autonomy, Bombardier and now Ford have left us all saying ‘This wouldn’t happen in Germany’ as the state abandoned its job.
Our state would engage actively with private business to shape the economy. The rules on corporate governance, investment and finance need to work with the effective use of regulation, procurement and long-term public policy to create market opportunities and certainty. Not to turn our backs on globalisation but to succeed in it.
We need a national mission, not technocratic policy. National economic renewal must be the value of the boardroom and the shop floor. A shared mission will help Labour let investment in infrastructure and innovation trump the demands from public services. But a shared mission won’t grow in a wildly unequal society, so we can make Labour’s commitment to economic justice part of our national story.
Policy must reinforce popular progressive values, not undercut them. The NHS has a popular resilience because its basic principle: ‘we all pay in and it’s there when we need it’ ; says something about how we see our country. By contrast, consent for the social security system has fallen steadily. The needs based-responsibilities blind allocation of housing, services and benefits seen as ‘fair’ by the left was out of touch with rugged British sense of fairness, based on responsibility and contribution as well as of rights. The progressive patriotic welfare state must reflect contribution and earned entitlement; values that bind us together, not pull us apart.
Popular sentiment often supports a progressive story. By all means use private companies to tackle a public service problem but we don’t want services run for profit. The idea of a public space, a common good, that lies beyond markets and individuals is deeply held and a foundation of any progressive national story.
This is not simple populism. We have to challenge the reactionary as well as build on the progressive. We can shape old ideas into radical change. So the new story for a less centralist state will draw on historic pride in our towns, cities and distinctive regional identities. Those values should be reflected in the leadership of local institutions, including those we elect. We should remake community institutions, and voluntary organisations in our tradition of tackling problems for ourselves, not as subcontracting partners of a centralised state. Do this right and empowering local institutions can be the story of English renewal within a strong Union.
Progressive patriotism has been missing in the debate between multiculturalism and integration. Multiculturalism has fostered respect and mutual coexistence but tells us little about the country we share.Like ‘integration’, multiculturalism makes migration and culture ‘the problem’. But our national story is shaped more by wars, religious schism,invasions and empire, Chartism, unions and suffrage, the NHS and the welfare state than by migration. By focussing on nation building, patriotism can tell an inclusive story in which our new diversity is part of a longer history.
Teachers welcome migrant kids with high aspirations. Manufacturers envy the status of German technicians. Atheists acknowledge that faith communities volunteer more. The Finns have tackled obesity. Stories of ‘how people like us behave’ are influential and there is space, too, in our progressive national story to reinforce the values of aspiration, self-reliance, looking out for each other and defending the common good that we would all want see in a good society.
John Denham is Labour MP for Southampton Itchen, and a former Minister
This piece forms part of Jon Cruddas’s Guest Edit of LabourList