As part of a 'Call Keir' scheme, intended to allow him to gather with Labour activists remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sir Keir Starmer recently 'met' with his party's supporters in Bury, Greater Manchester. The significance of Starmer's choice of location was clear to see; both of Bury's seats in Parliament had fallen to the Conservatives in last December's General Election as part of the thoroughly picked-over crumbling of the 'Red Wall' in the North of England.
Asked by one activist to condemn the unpleasantness some Labour members had received over recent years for their support for the monarchy and Brexit, Starmer told the meeting that the Labour Party and patriotism were 'two sides of the same coin', emphasising that 'I wouldn't be leader of the Labour Party if I wasn't patriotic'. For the newly elected Leader of the Opposition, his love of country was not patriotism for its own sake, but a civic mission, rooted in his sincere desire for Britain 'to be the best it possibly can be'.
Despite its widespread coverage, Starmer's tone is not as novel as has been suggested, and in fact embodies an older but frequently revived aspect of Labour thinking. Patriotism, laced with responsibility, has been a staple of Labour's identity throughout its existence and chimes with the mission of its most reforming administration, led by the mousey but formidable, Clement Attlee. At Labour's 50th annual conference, held in Scarborough in October 1951, Attlee declared that 'the crucial question' of the coming election, was 'what kind of society do you want?'. For Attlee, the answer was clear: the Labour Party wanted a 'society of free men and women, free from poverty, free from fear and able to develop, to the full, their faculties, in cooperation with their fellows'.
Despite not possessing Churchillian flights of oratory, Attlee was an endearing and persuasive speaker, able to convey his deep-rooted patriotism and sense of civic duty without unnecessary emotion. He told those assembled on the North Yorkshire coast that Britain should be 'a society bound together by rights and obligations' and, in a classic example of Attlee-ese, foresaw 'rights bringing obligations, obligations fulfilled bringing rights'. To rapturous applause, the Prime Minister ended what was to be his last major speech as Premier by urging his supporters to 'go forward into this fight in the spirit of William Blake', asserting that 'I will not cease from mental fight, nor shall the sword sleep in my hand, till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land'.
For John Bew, in his rightly acclaimed biography of Clem, Attlee's declaration was 'the clearest exposition of a belief system that had begun to take shape almost half a century before'.
Seventy years after Attlee's declaration, Starmer's Labour Party now faces a difficult balancing act. With most of Labour's MPs in England, and Ian Murray's Edinburgh South its last parliamentary bastion north of the border, the party is now rooted in one nation of the Kingdom in a way that it certainly was not during Clem's time at the top. Whilst needing to recapture its past dominance in Scotland, and to a lesser extent in Wales, to allow it to get back into government, Labour must also avoid losing sight of the distinctiveness of England.
Nearly half a century ago, and over two decades before the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999, one of Starmer's predecessors as Labour leader was faced with an equally complex dilemma: how to balance the distinctiveness of the culture and politics of each of the four component nations within the framework of the United Kingdom?
For James Callaghan's much, and unfairly, maligned administration, the answer lay in refashioning the very fabric of the United Kingdom, in order to give Scotland and Wales greater autonomy from Westminster. After a Royal Commission and two White Papers, the Government published draft legislation, outlining its plan to establish legislative assemblies for Scotland and Wales, intended to allow their politics to reflect the distinctive identities of both nations.
The devolution settlement that Callaghan's administration was advocating was distinctly asymmetric, establishing a model that the next Labour Government would follow at the turn of the millennium when laying the groundwork for the Scottish Parliament. Whilst Scotland and Wales were to receive directly elected assemblies, England's political system would remain unchanged, with the move to a two-tier 'County and District' local government system in 1972 remaining its most recent refurbishment.
After extensive consultation, the Callaghan Government decided to categorically rule out the creation of a new English legislature, believing that it would 'damage the structure' of the Kingdom 'in ways which the creation of a Scottish Assembly would not'. In a White Paper put out to MPs at the tail-end of 1976, the Government argued that it was willing to facilitate the idiosyncrasies of each nation, seeing 'great advantage in avoiding the harmful effects of unnecessary standardisation'. However, it maintained that, given that England contained almost 85% of the UK's populace, an English Assembly representing such a large portion of the population 'could hardly avoid becoming a rival to Parliament', especially in the event that the two bodies came under the control of opposing parties.
Deciding that the creation of an English Assembly represented a material threat to the cohesiveness of the United Kingdom, the Government gave some consideration to creating a series of regional assemblies. For John P Mackintosh, academic surveyor of Cabinet government and Member of Parliament for Berwick and East Lothian, who had advocated the same solution in 1968, only the breaking-up of England and greater decentralisation across the whole of the Kingdom would solve the Government's conundrum. However, as the Government was quick to point out, were these regional assemblies to receive legislative powers (akin to those heading towards Edinburgh and Cardiff), education, health, housing, land use and local government would now be determined region-by-region, creating 'marked differences over short distances'.
In short, England, the nation of counties, cricket clubs and National Trust members, was too substantial to ignore but too complex to get a handle on. The Government's decision, however, did little to endear it to Labour's 'heartlands' in the North. Reporting on a conference held by Tyne and Wear County Council, in the Royal Station Hotel in Newcastle upon Tyne, in January 1977 – which attracted an anti-devolution delegation from Shetland – J J Gardner, the council's chief executive, forecast that devolution would now 'bring about an economic imbalance favourable to Scotland at the expense of the North East'. This would, in Gardner's eyes, 'inevitably lead to a break-up of the fundamental unity of the United Kingdom'.
Then, as now, what might loosely be called 'the English problem', remained unanswered. Without a distinctly English national forum, England is yet to embark on the process of rediscovering and reinterpreting its identity, values and culture, as Scotland and Wales did after the creation of the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly in 1999.
One particularly striking example of this might be how Scots singing Flower of Scotland
, which was voted Scotland's preferred choice for its national anthem in 2006, is felt by many to be a great statement of Scottish patriotism, but the English singing Land of Hope and Glory
, or even Jerusalem
, is seen by some as being unpleasantly nationalistic. Putting aside the complexities of where an English legislature would sit and what it would do, which have scuppered it in the past, there is a case to be made that disaggregating England's politics from the UK Parliament at Westminster could help to ease the tensions and the fraying ties between all four of the UK's component nations.
In his 1939 addresses, On England
, Stanley Baldwin, the then recently-retired three-time Prime Minister, characterised himself as 'an Englishman, not without connection with a certain part of Scotland', able to 'offer a few observations on the virtues of the Scot and on the impression that the Scot has made in England'. Of Baldwin's observations, one is particularly noteworthy: he declared that 'nothing fills me with more admiration' than Scotland's distinguishing 'plain living and high thinking', and concluded that this quality and more have meant that 'the English have always taken Scots to their hearts as blood brothers'.
For any future UK Government, reconciling these now-estranged blood brothers remains a pressing and some fear insoluble dilemma, but one which is critical to the endurance of a fragile and somewhat unloved antique Union. For Peter Hennessy, lamentably, the Union is 'no longer a fixed map in the collective UK mind; no longer an automatic pilot guiding shared consciousness'.
If Starmer is to be delivered the keys to No.10 Downing Street, the electoral arithmetic states that he must find a way to reverse that and bring England, Scotland and Wales into one collective endeavour. Quietly delivered, civic patriotism, which draws on the wells of fellow feeling across the border, combined with a deep desire to deliver real change, may go some way to achieving this.