After 'New Britain'

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The question that hovers above the Iraq inquiry is - since the evidence on Saddam Hussein's weaponry was so flaky and the post-war planning so atrocious - why on earth Tony Blair did it. One theory, albeit not the one likely to be offered by Mr Blair himself, is that his militarism and messianism, the mix of responsibility and entitlement that he evinced, are part of the inheritance of all post-imperial British leaders...

If empire is the backdrop of Britain's foreign entanglements, it is also implicated in the country's exposure to another great debacle, the financial crash. The City and the empire grew up symbiotically. Imperial trade and investment made London a world financial centre; the City became vital to the British economy, while at the same time, preoccupied as it was with foreign deals, largely separate from the rest of it. The empire thus bequeathed commercial habits, and an overmighty financial sector, which British taxpayers now have cause to regret.

Bagehot, The Economist, 5 December 2009

We stand at a critical point in Labour's fortunes: sixteen years of New Labour; the exhaustion of a prescriptive, limiting way of understanding, enacting and doing politics, and the end of the line for the incantation of 'modernisation' and 'New Britain'.

The definitive story of New Labour has yet to be written. When it is, it will clearly be a lot more sophisticated and nuanced than the politics as personality of Andrew Rawnsley's interpretation (2010) - the dominant media account of the period - or those of the main players who have put pen to paper so far (Mandelson, 2010; Campbell, 2010; Blair, 2010). The experience of New Labour has to be put into a longer-term perspective which locates it in the evolution, crisis and ultimate demise of Labour Britain's once powerful story. This story gave the party a party a purpose and animating project which was its 'soul' and 'utopia' for much of its existence, and which now stands exhausted, humiliated and defeated (see Shaw, 2007).

The five Labour leadership candidates have much to contend with, including the shadow of New Labour, yet one area they have shown little understanding of is the need to address the terrain of the story of Labour Britain. The numerous leadership debates have shown no awareness of the need to explore the question of how Labour understands Britain as a country, state and set of nations. How does the British state and government act in a progressive manner which has an over-arching UK-wide purpose, while acknowledging its multi-national character, wider geo-political context, and the territorial dimensions which inform it? To put it simply, how does Labour tell a story of a 'Labour nation' and state after New Labour?

The story of Labour Britain

The march is not yet over. It is only just beginning. These fifty years and the years that went before them are but the prelude to the greater story. Now, as it makes ready for a new advance, Labour calls to its ranks as throughout its history a great company, the company of those of all ages and all classes who are not afraid to fight for the progress of mankind and to give their fidelity to the cause of the brotherhood of man.

Francis Williams, Fifty Years' March: The Rise of the Labour Party (1 950)

There was once was a powerful, resonant story of Labour Britain. It was a profoundly British story, about progress, the forward march of working people, interwoven with the claim of organised labour having its place recognised under the right, enlightened leadership. This story gave the Labour Party a sense of moral mission and purpose and carried an appeal well beyond its natural boundaries. It was a story of 'the Labour nation' which Labour had deep ambivalence about, in the main because of the powerful Tory association with the nation and from this with Empire, xenophobia and imperialism. Labour was a deeply British party, shaped by the culture, codes and history of these isles - insular, self-congratulatory, suspicious of foreign ways, and yet at the same time it saw itself as part of an international calling and crusade. …