In 1962 US Secretary of State Dean Acheson famously observed that ‘Great Britain has lost an empire and not yet found a role’. He might be surprised to see how that traumatic change is still working its way through the politics, culture and economy of the United Kingdom. Time may be running out to define a new national sense of purpose.
The very idea of ‘Britain’ was forged to bring England and Scotland together at the heart of Empire. Today ‘being British’ has lost much of its compelling unifying power. While the immediate prospect of a new referendum has receded as the Tories and Labour have gained ground, Scotland’s political culture and debate is still largely distinct and separate. Further south, fewer people see English and British as the same. Englishness is reflected in political choices as well as cultural identity. Northern Ireland’s precarious ‘foot in both camps’ is less stable. Wales has confidence in its own identity but with little power to pursue a course of its own.
For half a century, Britain’s collective leadership has been wedded to unchallenged assumptions. Decline was unavoidable; it could only be managed as part of a greater whole that offered a safer economic environment. This pessimism became unnecessarily wedded to an ideological belief that government was powerless to reshape national economies. The only option was to open as much as possible of the economy and society to the buffeting forces of a globalising world.
It didn’t matter if British business was sold abroad to owners who cared nothing for the long term success of either country or company. There was nothing to worry about if finance and the making of money itself displaced the creation of useful goods and services. Immigration could not – and should not – be managed tightly. Occasional bouts of military assertiveness have only served to remind the world how little we can do on our own.
In some ways the chosen path was understandable. Markets were indeed increasingly defined by multilateral trade agreements and the single market of the EU in particular. Britain could certainly hope to have more influence through active engagement with the EU, NATO and UN and other international institutions. A more assertive, less ideologically blinkered, British leadership might have been successful. But believing itself powerless to effect real change, the state shrugged off the more damaging consequences of its chosen path – a perceived loss of sovereignty, mass immigration, and an economy that increasingly failed a majority of citizens – as unavoidable and a price worth paying. Increasingly Britain was divided between those for whom this deal worked, and those for whom it didn’t.
Deep down we had lost any sense of shared national purpose or drive. Our leaders – in politics (including the government of
which I was part), Whitehall, much of the media, academia and culture – had not even realised how out of touch they were with those who were being left behind.
When voters had the chance to give their verdict on this strategy the majority took it. The optimism of ‘take back control’ defeated the pessimism of ‘we can’t manage on our own’. A narrow vote should not disguise the truth that many more ‘Remainers’ shared the doubts of the ‘Leavers’ than the other way round.
So now we have no choice but to rise to Acheson’s challenge and find a new role. The hard headed calculation of tariffs and barriers tells us that every option will be harder outside the EU. But at the same time comes the opportunity to rebuild a shared sense of national purpose. Can ‘take back control’ become ‘let’s take responsibility for our own future’?
There are real strengths on which we can draw. Hard facts ‘on the ground’ and powerful shared national stories that can inspire.
A certain pride in just getting on with the job, sticking together when times are hard, a self-effacing resolution. A belief in public service, community, in looking after one other. We value good government and the power of voluntary effort and organisation. We know that, even today, we have extraordinary strength in our universities, research, innovation and creativity. Our cultural contribution to the world remains immense.
With resolve and imagination, Britain’s union can be reformed as a partnership of nations, coming together on issues of common interest. Within England, the most centralised country in Europe, radical devolution can free the towns and cities from the dead hand of Whitehall pessimism that has stifled enterprise and initiative for too long.
History leaves us speaking the world’s global language; migration a population with unparalleled links of family, culture and business to every corner of the globe. At the heart of the nation must be a renewed commitment to a fundamental value: the test of government, the test of every public policy, and the test of every powerful organisation and individual must be whether they serve the interests of the majority of the nation or just of a few.
This is the test against which we can measure the conduct of powerful enterprises, including those who treat their employees badly or avoid a fair share of tax. It is how we settle a fair immigration policy. It can be the foundation of a new deal on welfare that respects responsibility and contribution as well as need. It is a test of politics and power, yes, but a guide to civic action too.
Above all, it is a re-statement of the belief that we can do much more to shape our society in our own national collective interest. After years in which morale has been sapped by the apparent inevitability of decline and the claimed impossibility of political action, a new national self-confidence is possible.
We cannot wish away the power of global economics or the limits of political action by one nation. But a focus on what can be done, not what cannot, would be a profound change.
If there is a doubt, it is whether we can find the leaders to hone this focus. Only those who are not trapped in the pessimistic stories of the past can find the way to the future. Before the 2017 election the EU debate was a tussle between the ideologues of ‘Hard Brexit’ with their fantasies of Empire 2.0 and those Remainers whose real complaint is their own lost privilege. The election gave a glimmer of hope that many people are looking for something different both at home and abroad. But it’s a long step from one snap election vote to a confident movement with a shared, powerful, radical, national story.