“It has always been this way”
The governing of the United Kingdom centres upon sentiment to provide for the legitimacy of government, indeed the wider social structure. Even during times of significant social change the pillars of traditional authority have been maintained, and this has ensured a continuity of power and influence by the few. Even though Oliver Cromwell established a Republic, he was reluctant to remove the monarch and indeed the campaign to enthrone him as King such was the “legitimate” authority held by the Crown in the eyes of the people. In further illustration consider that Henry VIII was able to dismantle and demonise the Church, which itself was central to personal, family and community life at the time.
Whilst, on first reading history (this can be depressing read) it suggests that the fundamentals of common beliefs – the ideas and values on which community and nation are built – can be changed. Many examples of contemporary revolution, much through armed struggle but some through the ballot box too. What is different is that it is more difficult today, certainly in the developed world, to hide the truth and destroy ideas. But, what remains are the social and personal pressures, these are complex and compiled from the needs of the individual emotionally, materially and even psychological nourishment. In our view of the world, when condemning acts of barbarity and watching the apparent complicity of the majority, we should at least consider the possibility that many might oppose what they seem to will.
The real measure for change, for acceptance of social values, is not in the immediate aftermath, rather it is reflected in how people live their lives – and what is said outside of the public areas. There is legitimate tension between people wishing for change, which usually means improving their lives, and the disruption that change might bring, and of course the impact of unforeseen consequences. Great political leaders have the gift to inspire, to provide assurance and you might even suggest provide faith, to guide people through the disruption of change. The adage of “better the devil you know” holds strong draw. It can be argued that there are understandable social reasons for this to be the case, indeed many people will embrace security of the known against the uncertainty of change, but mostly it has been those with greatest material investment who will consider the best way to promote and protect their interests. It is these few people who would use all strategies available to engage and mobilise widest possible support through the promotion of a concept of shared interests which might ultimately be presented as patriotism.
As British society developed, and with technological advancement, a rapid expansion of the economy, and so those with an investment to protect broadened and for some their interests deepened. Each stepped change in social advancement, driven by economic necessity, would also introduce opportunity for diversity and even schism within social and political alliances. A rapid promotion of class interest in the 19th Century, which the Establishment would fail to absorb, would finally express itself in the formation of trade unionism and latterly the Independent Labour Party. The introduction of funded education, improvements in public health and housing would ultimately help to build a whole series of forces for change.
When Churchill exhaled “I call upon you to march with me under the banner of freedom” he was making a claim which had been made a thousand times over many hundreds of years and we still have not got there. However, the simple mechanism of a marching, united, under a colour, to identify allegiance with brethren, Lord or ideology remains a resilient and effective restraint. Even today, in a modern democracy, where it is accepted we have government by consent, the basic principle of kith and kin and the need to defend your lands remains central to much policy and much more to rhetoric to change policy or in criticism of a threat. As national and international politics took on greater influence on daily lives, and today we have immediate access to news and media, the influence of the Church, and the identity of the monarch have diminished, but they remain as talisman and drawn out when required. Through modern history though, even within the forces of change, the prevailing culture remained of deference, and order. An acceptance that the (established) Church, the Crown and (ultimately) Commercial interests were the essence of the nation, and that all change must ensure this continuity. It was this mission which has been held as a representation of patriotism. By counter any policy or argument which challenged these interests or proposed change be considered a threat (to the state).
The adventure of Empire would be the hiatus of the British monarch in modern times within terms of measuring public political influence, and the accumulation of wealth. For many decades the authority of the monarch had been diminished in public life under the premise of democratic accountability but it is well documented that whilst not controlled there remained incredible reverence and “account” of the views privately expressed by Queen Victoria. During this golden age many conscripted soldiers and sailors would journey the world in “patriotic” endeavour which in reality only sought to establish – if necessary by force – ownership of resources and commerce in direct competition with other European, primarily French, interests. Even those nations or peoples who willingly accepted British rule would be subject to martial law as well as loss of their natural resources. The wealth created from the Empire helped to further stoke industrial development in the UK but this did not lead to any wider sharing or social investment from the state.
It is important for the purposes of this essay to highlight that there were many enlightened people within powers of influence who did effect positive social change. The Non-Conformist Churches provided opportunity and support for the formulation and promotion of new liberal politics. The likes of Cadbury, Rylands and Burton sought to promote models of exemplary and progressive employers with provision of housing, education and improved working conditions. However, with very few exceptions, every one remained wedded to the principles of traditional authority. They did not question the suffering of many, many thousands of people at home and around the world for the profit of the few, and the promulgation of the status quo. True radicals would quickly gain notoriety, few figures would have the courage of their convictions and the access to resources to prosper. For the likes of Richard Cobden and John Bright each step away from Establishment’s objectives of serving Church, Crown and Commerce would further shade their reputation as a traitor. Still there were political agitators, writers, poets and politicians that did bravely stand – and their personal courage is deserving of acknowledgement and celebration – but ultimately they failed because of a lack of ambition, or perhaps insufficient inquiry by the populace against what they were being asked to accept as the truth.
During this period the embryonic labour movement, like The Chartists, remained in its infancy and remained largely divided along personality, and regional or trade interests. Wary of the previous stifling of opposition by the state, indeed it remained the case that local Magistrates, who would also be local land owners and of commercial interests, would regularly imprison, or restrain individuals and even call out yeomanry to put down protests. Whilst many Liberals were keen to the principles of suffrage and freedom many remained practically committed to full implementation until the early 20th Century. Paradoxically it would be the Great War, the last war of the Kings, which would usher any many of the reforms which we today take for granted.
I propose that the primary objective of progressive (not revolutionary) politics is the promotion and attainment of a new Commonwealth – the changing of economics and politics which is equitable, accountable and sustainable. Fundamental change in society is won and lost on ideas. As I have set out above, the forces of conservatism – the identification with flag and country (and exceptionally where it is needed attacks on migrants and even other nations) – is deeply ingrained within many. The liberal Left have failed to challenge the “baubles” of nationalism, failed to present an alternative representation of community or nationality. Most of the blood spilt on the battle grounds have come from the working classes, there is no challenge to their patriotism. We will not win an argument on the basis of principles as set by the Establishment – as defined by the interests of Crown, Church and Commerce. By their definition of patriotism we would surely fall, and as happened through the last 300 years all of their resources will be deployed in their robust response. Rather, we should clearly set out our own principles and promote our definitions and positions. It is not true that republicans are not patriotic; it does not follow that an anthem which supports a monarch is a sign of unity, and atheists will tell the truth without the need for a bible.
To effect genuine change, there must be boldness in the statement of intent, and belief in the outcome. I would argue that the single biggest social change in modern British history was the introduction of the National Health Service. It was derived through social need but ran counter to anything which had been delivered by central government previously and aggressively opposed by Conservatives. More than half a century later it remains today, a model of socialist policy; a sacred cow which all politicians have had to learn to work around regardless of ideology or antipathy. This is the perfect illustration of what change true vision and leadership can deliver against the prevailing culture, and contrary to wants of the Establishment. The New Labour governments from 1997 also delivered significant social change. Whilst many of the policies have started to have been undone by subsequent Governments there will remain legacies worthy of note including banning blood sports, the establishment of devolved Governments, the introduction of a minimum wage and the introduction of civil partnerships.
The issue of national identity is one of the ghosts which the Labour Party continues to dismiss in peril. In my assessment it was the primary cause of losing support in Scotland in 2015, and has been a contributory issue in the previous rise of support for UKIP elsewhere. Whether you believe in a federal Britain or not why was it not clear that (rightly) devolving power to Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish would also lead to resentment by people of England. If you accept the principle that all people have a right to self-determination (regardless of whatever political and/or economic apparatus sits above it) then of course each part of the UK should have equitable representation, power and resources. The Labour Party joining with the conservative forces of the Establishment – to argue at maintaining the current relationships – is the central illustration of my point. Failing to engage, embrace and ultimately to lead for change, which might even have included an enhanced position of Union. As an observer the argument seemed like all such battles to be largely emotive, with reference to all the comforts of the past. At the same time it should then have been understood that English people would then also start to question their position within the Union, again where is the (progressive) leadership? The Left must abandon the “baubles” of the Establishment and positively promote a new vision of patriotism and pride.
“I like to see a man proud of the place where he lives. I like to see a man live so that his place will be proud of him” Abraham Lincoln