Labourism and Unionism: a Labour Party Conference Reading Guide
As Labour Conference gathers in Brighton Mark Perryman reviews books that seek to account for the party’s enduring unionism.
It’s been a while, Labour Conference and the attendant World Transformed Festival haven’t gathered since September 2019. Since then there’s been the disaster of the party’s 2019 General Election defeat, in Scotland back t the solitary seat Labour seat after the brief Corbynite recovery to six in 2017, but prior to the disastrous opposition to Independence in the 2014 referendum 41 seats. Despite a change of leader in Scotland, the signs of any Labour recovery are next to non-existent. We might think a reversal on this kind of epic scale, one that seriously undermines any prospect of a Labour overall majority at the next General Election might focus minds and generate a serious discussion on independence versus the Union. Not a bit of it, across almost the entire Labour spectrum.
What we have instead is Keir Starmer offering up ‘Progressive Patriotism’ as his new big idea. Yet this was Ed Miliband’s new big idea before him ‘One Nation Labour’. Gordon Brown before that with his infamous ‘British Jobs for British Workers.’ Arguably Tony Blair was the first with ‘ A Young Country’. Jeremy Corbyn would also speak of a national story that includes the Levellers, the Tolpuddle Martyrs, Cable Street. Progressive Patriotism is a multi-faceted idea that it would be quite wrong to write off as cover for a shift to the right, even if on occasion it is (mis) used for exactly that purpose yet it loses almost any sense without accounting for Scotland, Wales, independence and the Union. Hence Keir Starmer wrapping himself in the Union Jack while very publicly going to Wembley to cheer on England at the Euros.
A mess of contradictions, edited by the filmmaker Paul Sng This Separated Isle is a fantastic starting point towards a radicalised version of progressive patriotism via incredible photos and short punchy essays. Together these portray the entirety of modern Britain as a contested space of despair versus hope. Rather than ‘radical federalism’ which exists in denial of the independence dynamic, this is a contest that three independent nations on one small island would share, and progressives in each nation would co-operate to contest. Internationalism rather than this lazy suggestion trumps nationalism co-existing with it towards shared ends.
Owen Hatherley’s collection of his essays Clean Living Under Difficult Circumstances does something similar via his exploration of how architecture shapes lives and communities from Walthamstow to Edinburgh via ever-decreasing public toilets and the closure of public libraries. Enchanting and imaginative, the devastation of such public spaces is something we share, neoliberalism and its effects is no respecter of borders. Does that mean experiences are exactly the same? No, however, limited the powers the Welsh Labour government has tried to carve out a different politics to the Tories, and before them New Labour at Westminster, and with electoral success. Here there are lessons for a UK Labour Party out of office for 11 years and counting would do well to learn from its sister party.
A Small Man’s England by Tommy Sissons focuses, on England as a nation, one almost entirely written out of any discussion on the Union because for most intents and purposes it is treated as the Union, and never mind the rest. In contrast, Tommy’s book is a powerful argument for class solidarity that knows where it is coming from, England. Yes, that can take defensive, ugly, reactionary forms and any serious version of progressive patriotism cannot afford to either ignore or not contest in the cause of some misguided version of ‘Blue Labour. But to give up on an entire nation, its people, its history, its culture, what kind of politics is that? Unfortunately the politics of a certain kind of Labour leftist.
Of course, what this is up against, is the cultural and political legacy of an empire on which the sun never set, and from which Scotland, and Wales, is certainly not immune from. This is the subject of Peter Mitchell’s Imperial Nostalgia: How the British Conquered Themselves. The failure to find the means to let go of this particular part of Britain’s national story is why narratives around Britishness are so trapped in the imperial, and martial past in a manner that shapes our present. Independence represents an institutional break with such a history, we are fooling ourselves if we pretend on its own it will effect a political break.
The pre-eminent thinker on a politics that has latterly acquired this label progressive patriotism remains Tom Nairn. His seminal work The Break- Up of Britain first published in 1977 is out once more in a new edition with an entirely original introduction by Anthony Barnett. Tom’s argument is that the British state is mired in an outdated and unworkable union. Unionist Labour of course fundamentally rejects this and in Scotland has suffered the disastrous consequences with an absolute refusal to learning any lessons, instead calling in Gordon Brown the architect of that defeat to advise. Tom Nairn is very much of the New Left of EP Thompson, Raymond Williams and Stuart Hall. Yet his is a perspective scarcely acknowledged in left circles in and around Labour. Tom’s break-up has taken a while but while the Labour conference will scarcely countenance such a prospect few would doubt its coming.
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