In the summer of 1939, Clement Attlee was ill. The Labour leader had been hospitalised in early June after party conference and spent the summer months recovering from two prostate operations. The timing could not have been worse. An incompetent Conservative government, led by Neville Chamberlain, had failed to halt Hitler’s advance, yet the Leader of the Opposition was recuperating in a nursing home in North Wales. When Germany invaded Poland on 1 September, Attlee heard the news over a little portable radio while he was laid out on a beach in Nefyn.
The responsibilities of party leadership fell to Attlee’s deputy, Arthur Greenwood. Greenwood was a popular figure among the party membership and a ‘very dear friend’ of Attlee’s. Had it not been for his alcoholism, Greenwood may well have become Labour leader — a fate he shared with other brilliant Labour figures with alcohol addictions: Victor Grayson, Ben Tillett, Jimmy Thomas, and George Brown. On this occasion though, Attlee later recalled, Greenwood ‘rose finely to the occasion’.
As Chamberlain read his statement to the House of Commons on 2 September 1939, MPs waited with bated breath to hear that Britain was ready to spring to the aid of the besieged Poles. Instead, the House only heard dither and delay from the prime minister. Greenwood was clearly as shocked as his fellow MPs. He began almost remorsefully, ‘I am speaking under very difficult circumstances with no opportunity to think about what I should say; and I speak what is in my heart at this moment.’ As he said this, a cry of ‘Speak for England, Arthur!’ rang out from across the chamber.
Greenwood quickly found his footing, accusing Chamberlain of ‘imperilling the very foundations of our national honour.’ Greenwood argued that the Conservatives had been weak in the face of fascist aggression: ‘The moment we look like weakening — at that moment, dictatorship knows we are beaten. We are not beaten. We shall not be beaten. We cannot be beaten.’ Chamberlain fidgeted uncomfortably as he listened to Greenwood’s impassioned denouncement. The prime minister removed his glasses; then put them on again. He clasped and unclasped his hands. From that moment forward, Chamberlain’s government was doomed.
Greenwood’s ‘Speak for England’ speech is famous in Labour Party lore. It was the defining moment of Greenwood’s life, and when he died in 1954, Attlee eulogised, ‘No one could have had a more loyal colleague. Everyone will recall the famous speech that he made at the critical time’.
Labour’s actions during the Second World War ensured its status as a patriotic party. On that night in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher teamed up with the Liberals and SNP to bring down the Labour government, Michael Foot recalled this ‘finest hour’. He reminded the House, ‘It was on a motion of the Labour Party that the House of Commons threw out the Chamberlain government in 1940. It was thanks to the Labour Party that Churchill had the chance to serve the country in the war year.’ With his characteristic flair for the dramatic, Foot opined, in the face of bleating from the Conservative benches:
It is sometimes in the most difficult and painful moments of our history that the country has turned to the Labour Party for salvation, and it has never turned in vain. We saved the country in 1940, and we did it again in 1945. We set out to rescue the country — or what was left of it — in 1974. Here again in 1979 we shall do the same.
The Tories’ National-Popular Project
Debates today around patriotism seem far removed from those days when Michael Foot and his colleagues published Guilty Men, lambasting the British establishment for its appeasement of fascism and claiming the mantle for defending this country’s democratic traditions. It was the context created by interventions such as this which allowed the Labour Party’s 1945 manifesto to proclaim so confidently:
The great interwar slumps were not acts of God or of blind forces. They were the sure and certain result of the concentration of too much economic power in the hands of too few men. These men had only learned how to act in the interest of their own bureaucratically-run private monopolies which may be likened to totalitarian oligarchies within our democratic State. They had and they felt no responsibility to the nation.
Similar forces are at work today, of course. But they find little articulation in the dominant narrative about patriotism — one relayed by the right-wing newspapers owned by tax-dodging moguls, which seem to resort to the flag only as a means of covering for the latest government scandal. In fact, those who claim the mantle of patriotism today seem to care very little about the people, places, and institutions which stitch together this country’s social fabric: they have refused to support living wages for those workers on the front line of the pandemic, overseen the tearing apart of our National Health Service, facilitated the sale of Royal Mail into private hands, written the policies which hollowed out our high streets, allowed local councils to wither on the vine, and even accepted the mass firing of British Gas engineers for the crime of defending their terms and conditions.
Yet, despite this reality, the Conservative Party has built a political project which pivots around similar terms to Labour’s 1945 manifesto — they too now rail against the very ‘blind forces’ of international capitalism which they helped to unleash, and position themselves as defenders of the nation against these unaccountable transnational forces. Under Boris Johnson, they have adapted best to the realignment of politics accelerated by the Brexit referendum, in part by default, due to Labour’s failure to articulate a left-wing vision for a United Kingdom outside of the EU, so disconsolate were Labour politicians and members from the loss of the Remain vote. The Tories may be more responsible than any other institution in Britain for the devastating impacts of globalisation on so many communities, but they now quite successfully position themselves as the voices of those who feel they have lost out in the process.
In some ways, this is a new departure. After many years of austerity which saw the Tories adopt small-state policies and favour spending cuts and deficit reduction, their latest government has advocated for spending increases — £18 billion of them, in fact, even before the pandemic in Rishi Sunak’s first Budget. This has been followed by further infrastructure announcements and even commitments to tax increases, including those in areas such as corporation tax which outstrip Labour’s. Of course, it has also meant shovelling significant amounts of public funds into the hands of Tory donors and friends of cabinet ministers, but the point remains that there has been a departure from the status quo of the past decade — in fact, of recent decades.
On the other hand, many of the themes the Tory government are utilising to cohere this political project are familiar. The so-called ‘culture war’ and identity politics might have the appearance of a novelty, but in reality, culture and identity have almost always been at the heart of political struggles. The Conservatives have often used the politics of nation to divide the politics of class. The Left have historically aimed to make the politics of nation and the politics of class cohere: the ‘Bevin Boys’ were the patriotic heroes of the war effort, not Thatcher’s ‘enemy within’. The liberal tact is to reject one or both, yet given the inescapable potency of both national and class identity in the hearts of millions of voters, such an approach is one that leads to electoral oblivion.
With the embarrassment of their fascist appeasement in the 1930s aside, the Conservatives have spoken with greater confidence about this country’s national tradition. Historically, they were the party of the Union, the established Church, the Crown, and the Empire. Their narrative of tradition could weave its way (however intellectually wanton) from Burke to Churchill, through the Acts of Union, aristocratic privileges, the establishment of Empire, and defence of British ‘liberty’ from a red menace. It is coherent, if reactionary, and resonates with people’s sense of place through its ability to speak to the history they were taught in school, see in the media, or experience in local remembrance celebrations. It is, therefore, easy to project across the public sphere through their allies in the press and other powerful institutions. The question for Labour is not whether this kind of politics works — we know now that it does. The question is whether it can be responded to with a narrative of our own.
The English Radical Tradition
All nations are, in a sense, ‘imagined’. This does not mean that nations have no basis in reality but that the meaning endowed to national identity is constructed collectively. The first Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald defined it quite well, writing, ‘the nation is not an abstraction but a real community — a community perhaps within which the relationship of classes requires readjustment. But it has a common life, it is an historical product.’ MacDonald emphasised that the nation is not fixed. It is constantly being made. ‘It has a law of evolution’, he wrote. And a capacity to ‘transform itself’ through ‘social agitation’ and ‘communal growth’. This gives nationhood a flexibility which allows it to be open to the Left and the Right.
Englishness, the most neglected national identity by the UK’s political actors, but the one which the Tories are most reliant upon, has a vibrant left-wing tradition, in spite of its unfortunate associations with the far-right today. As David Lammy rightly argued in a recent LBC phone call, Englishness is not an ethnic or racial identity. Using the language of the early twentieth century, the founder of the Universal Races Congress and future Labour MP Harry Snell said that the strength of the English people was in the ‘continuous admixture of different blood.’ In a 1904 Independent Labour Party pamphlet, Snell called the welcome of refugees ‘a tradition that has remained unbroken for hundreds of years; that has given us material prosperity and moral strength.’ To deny refugees entry was for England to have ‘lost its spirit and forgotten its history’. All five Labour MPs voted against the Aliens Act 1905, introduced to restrict Jewish immigration into Britain.
Instead, in those early days, what marked out English identity was its proletarian character. It was premised on the idea of ‘Merry Old England’ or, simply, ‘Merrie England‘: a bucolic land in ‘ancient times’ where all was shared in common. Labour’s first leader Keir Hardie, a Scot who represented a Welsh constituency, nonetheless subscribed to this English idyll, writing one year before his death, ‘I would have England a merrie England’. Hardie wrote in his book From Serfdom to Socialism, ‘the golden age of the English workman’ was when ‘food was cheap, wages high, and an eight-hour day the rule’.
At the heart of this account is the myth of the Norman Yoke. For centuries, English radicals argued that William the Conqueror destroyed the ‘ancient constitution’ that protected the liberties of the ordinary people, and instead imposed an aristocratic tyranny which dispossessed the common people and divvied up their lands to his Norman barons. Thomas Paine, who subscribed to this theory, decried the ‘French bastard [William] landing with an armed banditti and establishing himself the King of England against the consent of the natives’.
An 1895 poem in the socialist newspaper The Clarion shows that the Norman Yoke mythology carried into the dawn of the twentieth century:
The Norman came to England to take our land away.
We fought him, but he conquered. Alack, the woeful day!
He took our land and gave it to his soldiers fierce and bold.
And ever since they’ve held it, and still they mean to hold.
The sons of English freemen have toiled for lord and earl.
Still the Normans claim the rent, And the Saxon is the churl.
Tis time the Norman’s heavy hands were lifted from our head.
And England for the English were the English law instead.
In this spirit, The Clarion’s editor decried the aristocracy as anti-English in ways reminiscent of that 1945 Labour manifesto: ‘They claim the land as theirs because 800 years ago their fathers took it from the English people, but they deny the right of the English people to take it back from them.’ It is impressive to nurse a grudge for over 800 years, but such is the historical frame of English socialism.
Corresponding with this theory of the ‘Norman Yoke’ is the idea that since the Conquest intrepid bands of working-class Englishmen and women have risen up for their ‘ancient liberties’ in the face of a corrupt elite. Medieval peasant revolts, the Levellers and Diggers of the English Civil War, and the Chartists of the nineteenth century all were efforts to ‘reclaim’ lost liberties. An English ‘revolution’ really evoked the original meaning of the word: an attempt to turn the clock back to a past that was socialist and free.
This articulation arguably found its highpoint in the work of various post-war historians. Christopher Hill’s 1971 book The World Turned Upside Down revived interest in the radicalism (and particularities) of the English Revolution. It had been preceded by E. P. Thompson’s own masterpiece, The Making of the Working Class in England, which had a similar impact on the understanding of the conditions surrounding the later Industrial Revolution.
Of course, even the English radical tradition — which has deep roots in this country and its institutions — is not in itself an answer to Labour’s engagement with the questions of patriotism and nationalism. The party equally has a challenge to find the radical threads which correspond to the histories and experiences of Scots and Welsh. Yet, it is with Englishness that today’s Labour appears to have the most discomfort.
What makes these difficulties so painful is that Labour has a rich patriotic tradition on which to draw. Patriotism and socialism were understood to go hand-in-hand. To love one’s country was to love the people in it. In his book The Labour Party in Perspective, Clement Attlee wrote that the Labour Party was ‘an expression of the Socialist movement adapted to British conditions’. He wrote that British socialism ‘is not the creation of a theorist. It does not propagate some theory produced in another country. It is seeking to show the people of Britain that Socialism which it preaches is what the country requires in order in modern conditions to realise the full genius of the nation.’
Harold Wilson would make this distinction even clearer three decades later in his book The Relevance of British Socialism, writing ‘First we must say what British socialism is. I stress the word “British” because it owes very little to continental socialism, and has its roots in distinctively British ideas and institutions. Its ideas are the modern expression of that great tradition of British radicalism.’ Wilson went on to acknowledge the seventeenth-century Putney Debates which discussed common ownership and democratic political control.
Labour leaders of all wings of the party could speak and write eloquently on these matters. Hugh Gaitksell reminisced about the radicalism of William Cobbett, who agitated for the rural rights of ordinary Englishmen. When Tribune’s own Michael Foot ‘came out’ as a socialist to his father Isaac, a Liberal MP, Isaac replied, ‘If you’re going to be a socialist, then you had better read Hazlitt.’ Foot took this advice to heart and found profound inspiration from the works of English radicals, far more so than he did from Marx. It is worth remembering, too, that Jeremy Corbyn himself reached for the words of Ernest Jones and Percy Bysshe Shelley when trying to ground his socialist message in the traditions of the country he once hoped to govern.
For a long time, the Left in this country has struggled with questions of patriotism. Some of this is for good reason — it is important not to concede ground to reactionaries on the history of empire or the chauvinism of far-right politics at home. But in failing to tell its own story of this country and its real radical history, it has vacated a field which has now been ploughed and sown and reaped and turned into a great harvest for a vastly powerful Tory political project.
The Right in Britain understands something fundamental which the Left does not: that people yearn for stories which give them grounding in a world undergoing enormous flux. And until the Labour Party can do so compellingly, its prospects of slowing the Tory juggernaut seem minimal.