Something very interesting appeared in Tuesday’s Guardian. I was on a train, perusing a social media feed, when up popped an editorial by Polly Toynbee and David Walker. Yes, it was focused upon the upcoming election, and yes it took a pop at Conservative ‘privatisation’ and ‘austerity’ (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose), but what caught my attention wasn’t the claims of attacks upon food health inspectors, no, it was the use of a particular set of interconnected words. It seemed to me that Toynbee and Walker were really writing about patriotism, nationhood and Britishness.
As I read on, my eyes growing wide in wonder, it dawned on me what the atricle was actually about. On the surface, it was an attack upon an alleged, 40 year old Conservative plan to shrink the state and, in the process, enrich the private sector and cut welfare for the poor.
Then I reached the following:
‘What is the social glue that binds us to Britishness if not the things we share collectively?… Marketisers, outsourcers, asset-strippers and state-shrinkers are not patriots: they surf the world on seas of money, undermining community and nationality.’ And then, finally: ‘in a renewed state lies strength and identity – and a reclaimed sense of lost nationhood.’
The punch line was that, ‘since the Thatcher privatisations, the UK has been subject to a giant experiment in the ability of markets to sustain the common interest, with light-touch regulation.’ A good point, well made, and one with which I increasingly sympathise.
But, to get back to the paragraph above, what on earth is going on? Is the editor-in-chief of the Guardian now calling for a renewed sense of British nationhood? Is the Devil going to have to invest in a pair of ice skates? Whatever next! Because if some form of renewed sense of nationhood is indeed what Toynbee and Walker are calling for then this is significant. In fact, it arguably represents something of a sea change at the heart of Britain’s foremost left-wing newspaper.
For years now, perhaps even decades (one thinks back to George Orwell’s comments about the national anthem), ‘Britishness’ has been a dirty word to many on the left, patriotism something to be mocked and derided. Flying an English flag outside your house marked you out for, at the very least, a bit of subtle eye-rolling. Many social democrats that I know have, in the past, sneered at anything so distasteful as an English, or British identity. They prefer to see themselves as ‘European’. Their outlook is global, not national. They see all societies and cultures as equally valid, and judging other countries by western standards is an arrogant crime. After all, who are we to judge?
The reason for this often sneering attitude is complex, but has to do with a lingering, Marxist-derived sense of international brotherhood, the collapse of the pillars upon which a sense of Britishness used to rest (predominantly, shared Protestantism, and the business of Empire), and the decades of self-reflection since the 1950s, during which historians highlighted the less jolly, more blood-soaked episodes in Britain’s stint as world superpower.
The result has been more than half a century of national cognitive dissonance,
an uncomfortable sense of shame, tempered by a sense that the empire wasn’t wholly negative, and that perhaps the British Isles has given a great deal to the world and has, collectively, much to be proud of. Such sentiments linger on in many people’s hearts, but during the EU referendum debate, I began to get the sense that many people (the English in particular) are beginning to tire of this self-flagellation, particularly in the face of unabashed Scottish or Welsh nationalism.
So what about the Guardian editorial? Well, if national pride is on the verge of making a comeback, then what for those on the left who shudder at the mere mention of the idea? How will they close the gap between their university-educated sense of European identity and national self-loathing, and those millions of UKIP voting, ex-Labourites, particular in the north of England, who may not share their metropolitan sensibilities?
My sense is that Toynbee’s and Walker’s article is a beginning of something new, of a desire, or at least a realisation, that times they are a changing, that patriotism isn’t quite the four-letter word it used to be in the heartlands of England. Clever and thoughtful souls that they are, they have realised that if they want to connect with the disaffected and the disgruntled Labour voters of old, then they may have to move at least half way towards acknowledging a sense of pride in something larger than the local community. And to do this, whilst simultaneously avoiding any overlap with the less savoury aspects of British nationalism, they will have to remould British nationhood into something that is at once both patriotic, yet palatable to social democrats. What better way to do that than to rekindle a sense of nationhood built around a strong state and high levels of public services? Well plaid, Toynbee and Walker. Well played.