Issues of security and identity have been unexpectedly prominent since 1997. On this terrain, New Labour has found itself squeezed between its liberal supporters and its anxious ones. The two can be reconciled in a politics of liberal realism, based on a robust defence of national citizenshipby David Goodhart / June 25, 2006 / Leave a comment
This essay is based on the pamphlet “Progressive Nationalism,” published by Demos in May 2006. To read the full pamphlet text, click here, and to read replies from Neal Ascherson, David Blunkett and others, click here.
The foreign prisoner debacle that cast a shadow over the recent local elections, and the government reshuffle that followed, marked one of the lowest points in the long New Labour hegemony. They were also a reminder of the unexpected dominance, since 1997, of the “security and identity” issues: crime, terror, asylum and immigration, race and national identity, hostility to free-riders, rising incivility and so on. Partly thanks to events—Iraq, 7/7, increased immigration—and partly to the fading of the old left/right, state/market conflict, these themes have dominated domestic politics, alongside public service reform, in Labour’s second and third terms.
The security and identity issues have not, historically, been strong themes for the centre-left. They seldom lend themselves to technocratic solutions and give rise to emotional, sometimes irrational, responses that liberals find hard to understand. When Labour came to power in 1997 it had clear social, economic and constitutional goals, many of which it has achieved. This has been far less true for the security and identity themes, although the famous “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” slogan and the “rights and duties” approach to citizenship signalled a reasonable attempt to combine liberal principles with tough-mindedness.
This combination has become harder to pull off in recent years as public opinion has grown more polarised between on the one hand, a cosmopolitan minority with a universalist, rights-based, post-national ideology that is comfortable in today’s more fluid, pluralist society, and on the other, a more traditional group that is sceptical about rapid change and more concerned with roots, reciprocity and “something for something” citizenship.
Labour’s problem is that both groups are part of its historic coalition. On the cosmopolitan side is much of the liberal middle class (plus some ethnic minority voters), and on the traditional side is a large part of the white working class. To try to accommodate them all, Labour rhetoric has swung, sometimes alarmingly, between the two poles—from David Blunkett’s tough talking on crime and immigration to the post-national rhetoric of “cool Britannia.”
Moreover, Labour has had conflicting goals on some of the key security and identity themes. Consider the issue of immigration itself. On the one hand, Labour has…