The progressive national state

November 12, 2012 11:30 am

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

  • Dave Postles

    ‘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.’
    This concept of the symbolic construction of community (Tony Cohen) doesn’t resonate. It’s meaningless and intermittent (pace Charles Taylor, its periodicity is not a constant binding force). In practical economic terms, let’s start from the simple notion of supporting one’s neighbour: we buy goods manufactured in this country to provide more employment; we boycott companies which are perceived not to pay their due taxes because they undermine the prospects of our neighbours who need our support. There’s no need to colour it as ‘progressive patriotism’ or ‘community’. It’s a simple idea: we support out neighbours.

    • FreedomNow

      Denham is on to something: A national rallying cry and a recognition that labour’s economic policy needs a post Brown, post – ballsian settlement. Thoughtful, radical, vote finding

  • Daniel Speight

    So let’s use corporate taxation to enforce those ideas of corporate behaviour. Let’s not cosy up to corporate leaders while turning our backs on the common people. No more corporate or lobbyist parties at conference possibly?

  • PaulHalsall

    “By all means use private companies to tackle a public service problem but we don’t want services run for profit.”

    This is incoherent. Why else would private companies want to tackle a public service problem if it were not to make a profit?

  • franwhi

    It seems incoherent that you talk of how the Labour Party can work to support and strengthen a developing UK national narrative while here in Scotland the party do their utmost to distort and scotch every national narrative accusing those who are building this narrative of separatism, damaging small mindedness, cultural chauvinism and anti-English bigotry. How come on the one Labour hand it’s a manifestation of something positive and forward thinking yet on the other Labour hand a well rounded Scottish national identity which naturally seeks greater political self-determination is viewed as a damnable thing by the party establishment ? I don’t understand. Can you please explain ?

  • Serbitar

    Reading this disjointed and disconnected article was weird and comedic.

    ” The Finns have tackled obesity.”

    They also chose to weaken the level, qualification criteria, coverage, and time limits associated with social benefits during the 90s, which I am sure Mr. Denham would also applaud privately if not publicly. (Like many in the Labour Party John considers a bit of unpaid labour bracing for the poor.) Sadly Finland’s departure from the post-war Nordic model of welfare failed to increase labour market demand, as hoped, while part-time work and underemployment boomed just like here in Blighty, although prolonged unemployment and underemployment does probably encourage slimness in those affected, although not in a good way it has to be admitted. .

    Well, folks, it cannot be too long now before articles begin appearing advocating a consequentialist “contributions based” revamp of the welfare system which seems now to be considered Labour’s “last best hope” to win over the “squeezed middle” and not to look too compassionate (that is to say soft!) as far as all those indolent benefit claimants slumbering behind “closed curtains” at five o’clock in the morning goes.

    It’s the same undercooked b*llocks served on a platter by every political party it seems.

  • Serbitar

    This disjointed article was as weird and comedic as a Monty Python sketch.

    ” The Finns have tackled obesity.”

    They also chose to weaken the level, qualification criteria, coverage, and time limits associated with social benefits during the 90s, which I am sure Mr. Denham would also applaud privately if not publicly. (Like many in the Labour Party John considers a bit of unpaid labour bracing for the poor.) Sadly Finland’s departure from the post-war Nordic model of welfare failed to increase labour market demand, as hoped, while part-time work and underemployment boomed just like here in Blighty, although prolonged unemployment and underemployment probably would help encourage slimness in those affected, although not in a good way it has to be admitted.

    Well, folks, it cannot be too long now before articles begin appearing advocating a consequentialist “contributions based” revamp of the welfare system which seems now to be considered Labour’s “last best hope” to win over the “squeezed middle” and not to look too compassionate (that is to say soft!) as far as all those indolent benefit claimants slumbering behind “closed curtains” at five o’clock in the morning goes.

    It’s the same undercooked b*llocks served on a platter by every political party it seems.

  • http://twitter.com/bencobley Ben Cobley

    I’d be interested in any thoughts about my own article on One Nation, the Olympics and Danny Boyle’s Opening Ceremony – spare no venom! See here: http://shiftinggrounds.org/2012/10/one-nation-olympics-opening-ceremony-revisited/

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