The one-nation slogan has many possibilities. It can clearly mean many different things to different people. There is already gross confusion as to what it means when used by Labour politicians. It is not a magic wand which will, when waved at a largely empty policy cupboard, suddenly fill its shelves. Neither is it an analytical concept that will, by itself, help us to understand our social reality with greater clarity.
The one-nation slogan (and for the moment it is hardly more than that) is a declaration of intent. It is meant to indicate a direction of travel, a purpose underlying all Labour’s policies. As such it could be a powerful way of summarising Labour’s central purpose and of unifying its various policies, as they become available.
The problem with “one-nation” is that until it is spelled out in sufficient detail, it suffers from a fundamental ambiguity: it could be saying (1) essentially we are one-nation, but it is only bad government decisions that make it otherwise or (2) that our society is fundamentally fractured into incompatible interest groups and needs a radical structural transformation. So far, one-nation statements from Labour sources have not got beyond hovering between these alternative and incompatible meanings of the term. Both interpretations can be found jostling with each other in Ed Miliband’s Bedford speech (of 14/02/13).
The first interpretation sees existing society as essentially unified and only becoming disunited by the wrong political decisions. This idea not only projects a vision forwards in terms of “responsible capitalism” but backwards in terms of a reinterpretation of our past.
In the LabourList booklet One Nation Labour, edited by Jon Cruddas, Tristram Hunt says of the concept,“With one phrase Ed was able to offer a critique of the existing social order … whilst offering the hope of a better one under Labour.” If you can believe that “one phrase” can offer such a critique then this may make sense. You may be inclined to think that social analysis is more complicated. Tristram Hunt describes Disraeli as “perhaps the Conservative Party’s most celebrated champion of the working class”. Disraeil was many things but “working class champion” was certainly not one of them.
He initially opposed the extension of the franchise calling it “the doctrine of Tom Paine” but acquiesced to its extension as a means of preventing a rise in radical working-class activity. In this he may have been more far-seeing and less hidebound than many of his Tory contemporaries but that does not make him a working-class champion.
This line of reasoning was taken to its extreme point in Ed Miliband’s Bedford speech in February this year. He painted a picture of the industrial revolution and then of 19th capitalism as a whole as an example of one- nation politics and economics. It is difficult to know how this low point of an otherwise significant speech could ever have been allowed to get into the speech writing process. It is surely the reductio ad absurdum of the first of the above interpretations of one-nation politics. So long as Labour bases itself on a myth of past national unity, thereby glossing over society’s deep divisions and the historical abuse of working people, this mythical thinking will threaten the realism of its thinking about current problems.
There is no need for Labour to adopt a Gove-like interpretation of our “national story” in order to bend it to its own purposes. That story as one of progress through national unity is historical nonsense. If such nonsense is not challenged then it will become the mainstay of a new school of political charlatanism developed with the aim of tailoring it to drive up Labour’s poll ratings. In the stakes for political charlatanism and historical nonsense there is no point in challenging the likes of Gove. They are the masters of the art.
The second interpretation of one-nation Labour can also be found in Ed Miliband’s Bedford speech and in other Labour discussions. In supporting a Mansion tax and a restoration of the 10p tax rate, in pointing out that millions of people are working harder for less and rejecting the “trickle-down” theory of wealth distribution and the call for a reformed and fairer tax system he showed that a one-nation Britain is a project and not an underlying reality which we can find by digging down into fictitious past.
If a case is to be made for the second interpretation then we must recognise that our historical reality is not based on a one-nation society. We need look no further than education for this to be made very plain. Could Labour claim to have a plan for one-nation education which includes 10% of the nation’s children hived off from the rest on the basis of their parents’ wealth and in which military academies are proposed for high- unemployment areas on the argument that it will introduce the discipline and sense of purpose the children of such areas lack? Whatever that is, no one calling it one-nation education should expect to be taken seriously.
Pretending that we live in a one-nation society when we do not is to throw up a smoke screen that serves the rich and powerful but no one else. Setting politics on a course which progressively limits the power exercised through wealth (look no further than our newspapers), enhances democratic processes and ends the poverty that blights our society would make the idea of one-nation politics a meaningful political slogan.