Jesus said unto the Pharisees: “Every kingdom divided against itself will be laid waste, and a house divided against a house will fall.” Far be it from me to assume that Jesus was foretelling the future crisis of social democracy, but the Britain and the Labour of 2017 could be aptly summed up in this parable.
Out of deference to Alastair Campbell, this will be the last time I “do God” on Labour Vision. Biblical omens at this point in history are not overly dramatic, though, for the truth is that this United Kingdom has never looked more divided. And in that truth, there ought to be a stark realisation for Labour, the last truly unionist party in Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
If our unique Union fails, which will be almost certain if the increasingly likely prospect of a ‘hard Brexit’ materialises, then there will be no plausible future for a party that claims to represent all four home nations. Despite Theresa May’s warm words about the ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’ she leads, the Tories know very well that they can continue to win elections by shoring up their wide support throughout the Midlands and the south of England.
UKIP, despite being the only major British party to mention the United Kingdom in their title, have an appeal confined to England and Wales. The Liberals, meanwhile, take their identity from defining themselves simply as the opposite of their main rivals in whichever locality they are present. This is an unsurprisingly self-defeating approach in the confused battleground of Scottish politics. I won’t waste words on the Greens.
Which leads us back to Labour. Although the party of Keir Hardie was recently all-but-evicted from the country of its birth, Scotland, Labour’s history would suggest its political identity cannot so easily be separated from the motherland. Scottish politics remains – superficially at least – left-wing, so it would seem illogical for Labour to cut and run from Scotland, even if this former natural party of government in Scotland now languishes in third behind the Tories.
Labour has a special relationship with Wales, too, and can still call itself the largest party in the country of Kinnock and Bevan – even though Wales voted ‘Leave’ in the EU Referendum. As for Northern Ireland, senior figures within Labour have recently mooted the suicidal suggestion that the Party could stand candidates of its own in future elections. Why anyone would think that simultaneously alienating unionists and republicans would bode well for Labour is for the birds.
Painful though it is to admit, the United Kingdom that so heroically saw off the Nazis is not coming back. As Matthew Hexter argued on Labour Vision at the end of last year, it was only ever a matter of time before this marriage of convenience – no longer sustained by the economic and political benefits of empire – began to break up. The narrow vote against Scottish independence in 2014, and the equivalent vote for English independence in the shape of Brexit, merely serve as catalysts for this coming parting of ways.
If and when Scotland goes, Northern Ireland may well follow suit and the dream of ‘a united Ireland’ held by so many for so long – including one or two very senior Labour MPs – would come to fruition (although how that would be achieved in an orderly and dignified fashion is anyone’s guess). Under these circumstances, the ancient union of England and Wales would remain. Thankfully, the nationalists in Wales – Plaid Cymru – have been very inconsistent their commitment to independence.
Labour can either accept these inevitabilities or continue vaingloriously to try and stretch itself across four increasingly different nations. However, to admit reality invites a further problem – Labour is hated in much of England. One only need vacate any of the major English cities and head out into the country, or even to any of England’s hundreds of smaller towns, to encounter on the doorstep a mixture of outright hostility and strained indifference towards Labour.
There is, however, a noble tradition in Labour politics closely aligned with the particular spirit of English radicalism. A cursory glance at the writings of a wide array of Labour figures, from Clement Attlee through to Tony Benn to Jon Cruddas and even the fine musician, Billy Bragg, will reveal a rich relationship between the principles of democratic Socialism and the understated, often misunderstood, nature of England’s history and her politics.
Divorce is never easy, but if Labour is to survive, it has no choice but to accept that the route to its recovery lies not in trying to patch up irreconcilable differences between the Home Nations, but in rekindling its romance with the country whose seats it has always needed to win a majority of in order to hold real power – England.
While I am not at this stage suggesting that Labour should simply abandon any pretensions of power in Scotland, I do believe Scottish Labour should become properly independent. This is in keeping with what I have said before about the need for a federal – or devolved – Labour Party for the English regions. The point is that the national Labour Party should turn its focus towards England, and allow the Scottish and Welsh Labour parties to effectively become self-governing.
Labour’s status as an internationalist party means that it must never cut its ties with fellow democratic socialists throughout the world, but unless Labour can become once more the party of England, it may cease to be a major political party at all.