Not so long ago, the idea of a progressive or liberal nationalism would have seemed like an oxymoron to most people on the left. But as memories of nationalism’s ugly excesses fade, at least in western Europe, and worries grow about the withering of any sense of collective identity and purpose, a reassessment is underway. And Gordon Brown has placed himself at the head of it. As the first Scot since devolution to aspire to be prime minister of the English, he has a personal motive for talking up British values. And as a centre-left political leader at a time of creeping social anomie, he has a more disinterested reason to reinforce the idea of “we’re all in this together” national solidarity. On what other grounds, after all, can he take from the well off and give to the less well off?
There are no purely British people in Britain—it is, strictly speaking, a state not a nation. Its strength is that it accommodates multiple allegiances, as it was designed to for England and the Celtic nations and has come to for ethnic minority Britons. Its weakness is that it commands less and less loyalty as memories of the second world war fade, devolution takes hold and diversity brings new commitments. Britishness faces a further challenge if Englishness awakes. And if part of the answer to the new English question—as some of our roundtablers propose—is to make Englishness as open to non-whites as it has been to immigrant sons such as Michael Portillo, then the point of Britishness may further diminish.
Whatever the ambiguities, Brown is right to appropriate the rhetoric of national citizenship. It might seem odd at a time of unprecedented transnational interconnectedness to complain about Britain’s unusually indistinct sense of itself. But when the outside world comes calling—in the shape of European integration or immigration—we are less likely to shrink from it if most citizens have a secure idea of their collective identity. The alternative to a confident, outward-looking national story is a shrill, inward-looking one. It is the core belief of the left that there is such a thing as society. But that always means a specific national society, giving priority to its own citizens’ interests. The left should now put aside many of its historic reservations and, like its pro-European counterparts in France, start to feel as comfortable with the language of the nation as…