Labour should fuse patriotism with progressive politics

John Osmond reports that the Shadow Secretary of State for Wales believes his party needs to embrace a national mission

Owen Smith MP Shadow Secretary of State for Wales

According to Owen Smith, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Labour’s success in harnessing patriotism in support of progressive political aims holds key lessons for Labour across the whole of the United Kingdom. Writing in 25/25 Vision: Welsh Horizons across 50 years, a new book of essays the IWA is publishing this week to mark our 25th anniversary, Owen Smith says that, in delivering devolution Labour responded to a popular renaissance of Welshness. He says:

“It is this fusion of progressive politics with a national mission – this capture of patriotism from the right – that Labour needs to understand and adopt across the UK if we are to return to power and to shape the future of Wales and the other nations of the British state over the next 25 years.”

Smith asks how realistic is it to expect Labour to capture a new British patriotism in a multi-cultural country where ‘identity politics’, compounded by immigration, devolution and political cynicism, may have fatally compromised the notion of a British ‘nation’:

“The answer is that we must. We must if we want to fulfil our mission of creating a more equal, just and fair society for all of the people of Britain. Because in the UK in 2012, as in 1945, or 1966 and 1997 – or 1789 in France, 1960 in the USA, and 1959 in West Germany – the lesson is that the Left needs the Nation if it is to galvanise its citizens behind a programme for national renewal through social and economic reform. We need the nation because without it there are no citizens, just consumers, clients, or customers. And we need the nation because it is the most effective means by which we enlist the majority of those divergent citizens to that uniting cause for egalitarianism, social and economic justice.”

In pursuing this project Owen Smith says British Labour should learn how Welsh Labour managed to benefit from a surge in patriotism when many traditional parties of the left across Europe have failed to do so. He cites four reasons:

  • Welsh Labour benefited from an ‘institutional’ strength of the left in Wales which made it a natural vehicle to express the new sense of Welsh national pride.
  • Welsh Labour remained authentically linked to its radical roots, refusing to follow New Labour and instead committed to a collectivist community-driven delivery of public services. Smith says that in pursuing this endeavor, Welsh Labour has been fortunate in finding in Rhodri Morgan and Carwyn Jones two leaders  who are “in instinct and action, undeniably Welsh and undeniably Labour”.
  • In a globalising world Welsh Labour acknowledged a sense of lost control by allowing greater local accountability.
  • By embracing devolution Welsh Labour responded to a growing sense of Welsh identity that has overlain a previous adherence to class.

Within Britain Owen Smith believes a key lesson for Labour is to build on its heritage as a party of the left, rooted in the Trades Unions and representative of the concerns of ordinary working people across the whole of the UK. As he puts it:

“The post-Thatcher coalescence of British politics around a centre ground, from which orthodox wisdom says elections are won, has diminished our authenticity, blunted our language and stunted our ambition. Labour has to be the party of hope, the party that believes we can be better, and that our nation can be made to serve the many once more – not just the lucky few.”

He says Labour needs to discover the radicalism that inspired it to create the Welfare State following Word War II, and calls for a “new national mission for the re-invention and renewal of Britain”. He adds:

“That doesn’t mean just recalling or celebrating those values, experiences or institutions – fair play, The War or even the NHS – that have defined Britain for previous generations. That isn’t enough any more. Instead it means inventing and implementing the values, experiences and institutions that might define it for the next.”

According to Smith, this might require “a new constitution, written perhaps, to enshrine national standards and common values and to frame a more formal, confederal architecture of British Government, including at a more local level in England, as in Wales and Scotland.” And he goes on:

“It may entail the creation of a new National Care Service, as some Labour colleagues have suggested, to provide equitable and decent care for our burgeoning elderly population. Or a new period of national, civic service for our young, inculcating values of tolerance, responsibility and duty. Certainly, it will demand a new social contract around welfare, one which reconnects provision with contribution and desert. A National Day and a State of the British Union Address are other ideas that have been canvassed and that might usefully play a part in this task of re-invention.

“These new inventions could create a new spirit and rhetoric of fraternity and national solidarity – of common endeavour and collective enterprise – to replace the narrative of individual rights and personal achievement that has dominated our political discourse for much of the last 30 years. It might also provide a framework within which we could more easily recognise the gross inequality of wealth, education, opportunity and even life expectancy that persist in Britain, and enlist a majority in favour of their eradication.”

In his essay Owen Smith also hints at some new constitutional thinking that is emerging in Welsh Labour. In a recent speech (here) Carwyn Jones made a bid for a new devolution settlement across the UK that would be decidely federal in character, a radical notion. In his essay Owen Smith speaks of a federal relationship between Welsh and British Labour. He says that devolution not only brought the National Assembly, but also an internal adjustment of Labour’s internal operation into a

“…de factor federal structure that the Labour Party has adopted between Wales and Westminster.  And both have allowed the creation of a new set of symbols and institutions of the new Welsh nation in a Welsh civic society, focused on a Welsh legislature and thinking geographically and politically in terms of Welsh-shaped solutions.”

What is interesting about Smith’s essay is the way he urges the Labour Party to engage simultaneously with both Welsh and British nationalism. Some will argue that there is a contradiction here. They will say that this is simply papering over the divisions between centralists and small ‘n’ nationalists within his party. However, in his intriguing used of the word ‘confederal’ to describe the architecture of future constitutional relationships across the UK, Smith may have hit upon something which has the potential for profound change. Only time will tell if it is merely a throwaway line, or a harbinger of real change.

John Osmond is Director of the IWA. 25/25 Vision: Welsh Horizons across 50 years is being launched by the IWA at an exhibition of photographs of the contributors to the book in the Old Library, Cardiff, at 6pm on Thursday this week, 27 September. Tickets for the event, which will be followed by a dinner in the St David’s Hall are still available and can be ordered here