One Nation – Many Rivers:
Towards an England of the regions – a view from the left
This is a shortened version of a longer paper. For the full version go to: http://www.paulsalveson.org.uk/2014/08/31/one-nation-many-rivers-the-full-works/
It’s time for a new radical English politics which can build on the best of its democratic, socialist, liberal and co-operative traditions – but can also learn from other parts of Britain and the world. As the Scottish referendum approaches, it’s clear that not just Scotland, but England (and also Wales) are becoming different places, with a worrying growth of right-wing English nationalism – led by UKIP with the EDL lurking in the background. There needs to be a strong alternative which doesn’t cow-tow to the populist right but asserts a broad and inclusive radical politics. Within England, there are many traditions – often regionally based – that make up a distinctly English radicalism. Hence ‘one nation – many rivers’, reflecting the great diversity of this nation. The vision outlined here is of an England of the regions, as part of a democratised UK, which could live with either an independent or more devolved Scotland. A new England should arise, with a re-balanced and equal relationship with all of its neighbours.
Our radical heritage
We need to rediscover our radical political heritage. It goes back a long way – to 1381 and the Peasants’ Revolt, and more recently to Tom Paine, the radicals of the early 19th century and the Chartists of the late 1830s and 1840s. This British radicalism has been founded on ideas of popular democracy and human rights, rather than state control or ownership. The co-operative movement grew out of northern Chartism, a truly home-grown working class solution not only to short-term ‘consumer’ issues, but offering a ‘new moral world’ based on co-operative communities. The radical Liberalism which flourished in the 1880s in parts of the North as well as Wales, Cornwall and much of the Midlands, was another very important part of the patchwork of political radicalism in the UK that, at least in part, flowed into the Independent Labour Party, or continued within Liberalism.
It was communitarian in spirit. The state could not be trusted to usher in the new utopia: working people would do it themselves, through their own institutions. For many on the left, well into the 20th century, the aim was ‘the co-operative commonwealth’ not a monolithic socialist state.
Today, we need to construct a new radical coalition which has to go well beyond Labour, whilst recognising that it might be the largest partner in any such coalition. But a genuine coalition, or better still alliance, isn’t about allocating ‘power’ based on size. It’s about recognising the strengths each partner brings to the table and treating everyone as equals. It’s also about creating a new way of doing politics, learning from groups as diverse as Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece.
There are some rich seams of early radical history that we can mine to identify some values which remain relevant. The period between the 1890s and 1900s saw a flowering of radical alternatives, such as the Clarion cycling clubs and choirs, the Labour Church and the Socialist Sunday School movement. Hundreds of socialist clubs blossomed in the Northern industrial towns promoting a distinct socialist culture. Many of these have relevance in creating a 21st century politics which – to use Edward Carpenter’s words – forms part of a values-led ‘Larger Socialism’. The values of the early English socialists were based around democracy, equality, co-operation and good fellowship. And they had a sense of humour. It never completely died.
Jon Cruddas and ‘Lansbury’s List’
This radical tradition continues within Labour through thinkers like Jon Cruddas, whose George Lansbury lecture at the LSE last Autumn offered some important insights that could inform a new politics. Lansbury was a key figure in the Labour Party prior to the Second World War and was a much-loved figure in London working class politics, leading the Poplar housing struggles. Based on Lansbury’s own ideas, published in the mid—30s, Cruddas suggests five key themes:
- a ‘national popular’ patriotic socialism
- A transformative agenda that rejects a shallow and transactional labour politics
- A socialism hinged on gaining power to give it away- a trust in people and a radical democratic bent
- A feminism driven by a specific understanding of human equality.
- An ethic anchored within a conception of the human condition and its creative possibilities, duties and obligations and sense of fellowship”.
These five points form a part of what could become a new radical politics, but need to be informed by an environmental awareness and internationalism, both of which have deep roots in the English socialist tradition. And we could – and should – learn a lot from other movements in different parts of the world.
The idea of ‘patriotism’ needs handling with care. In recent years it has become the monopoly of the right. Yet it wasn’t always so, and ‘patriotism’ in the 1830s and 1840s was very much part of the Chartists’ political toolbox. It is not the same thing as chauvinism or xenophobia – at one end it is buttressed by ‘civic pride’ at the local level, whilst at the opposite end by internationalism and friendship between nations. Labour and radical Liberalism share a common heritage in opposing imperialism and jingoism. A modern patriotism should be about pride in our democratic heritage and love of our country and its inhabitants – but sharply self-critical of our colonial past and not pandering to UKIP-style jingoism, reflected in its current anti-Scots and anti-European rhetoric.
This links to Lansbury’s third point, about ‘a socialism which gives power away’. England remains enormously centralised and the left needs to work with allies to promote a decentralised England – an England of the regions, with real power devolved to regional assemblies elected by PR and set up to encourage active participation. As it stands, England is hugely unbalanced, with an over-heated London and the South-east and a struggling North, with similar but perhaps not quite as acute problems in the Midlands, South-West and East of England. It’s hardly ‘patriotic’ to defend this huge structural inequality. We need an inclusive and forward-looking ‘regional patriotism’ alongside – and informing – an English patriotism. This has to be sensitive to the importance of re-balancing the nation and encouraging strength through diversity and decentralisation.
Changing the way we do politics is one of the most urgent issues facing Labour and the left. The recent Guardian/ICM poll showed how angry – not bored, angry – people were with politics and politicians. And they have every right to be. Labour far too often comes across as narrow-minded, tribal and intolerant. Labour needs to much more effective in working in alliances, both locally and nationally. Not for short-term expediency, but because it can often bring better outcomes. My own local authority has a substantial group of Green and independent councillors who are not short of good ideas on both environmental and community politics. Yet many party members treat them like lepers because they are not part of the Labour ‘tribe’. That attitude has got to change so that building alliances becomes the natural way of doing things, not the grudging exception. Part of that must involve long overdue political reform through proportional representation.
There’s also the way we do politics in the community. Far too often our model remains the transactional approach of ‘we’ll sort it for you’, rather than encouraging united community action – which very often we’re scared of, unless we can control it. The fact is that we’re increasingly not able to sort it out for people and the old paternalist approach towards politics is all but defunct. We need to encourage new forms of community organising and create neighbourhood institutions to give people real power over their communities and lives.
We need to move away from the redundant Labourist idea that all public services should, invariably, be delivered by the state – be it local or national – and look at ways in which people can be given direct power through co-operatives and worker ownership, supported and facilitated by the state. We need a new settlement between what a democratic state should provide directly and what others should be encouraged to offer which rejects the neo-liberal ‘shrunken state’ of recent years but isn’t a return to the discredited Labour-statist model either.
Whilst we need to decentralise power from the national level to the regions, it should not end there. Local government has been allowed to wither to the degree that many senior local government professionals are questioning whether it can survive in its present form. We need to re-think local government and build a new civic politics which involves re-balancing what the local state does and what is provided by community enterprise – with the local authority’s support. We need to go much more local. The stakes are very high: if we do not empower communities at the neighbourhood level, we can’t expect democracy to flourish on a wider scale. The US radical activist Gar Alperovitz has argued: “Is it possible to have Democracy with a Big D in the system as a whole if you do not have real democracy with a small d at the level where people live, work and raise their families in their local communities? If the answer is no, then a necessary if not sufficient condition of rebuilding democracy in general is to get to work locally.” Labour and its allies should embrace a ‘neighbourhood politics’ where it is people themselves, through co-operative organisations, who deliver most of the services to the community.
Radical regionalism: Towards an ‘England of the regions’
The issues of local, regional and national democracy are intimately related. Within the British Isles we should build a vision for a Federal Britain based on largely autonomous – or independent -governments for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Should the Irish Republic have some status within this? I would argue it should, if there was a desire within the Republic to form a link. We need to draw a line under centuries of oppression and contempt and build a new relationship with Ireland. In years to come the prospect of a united Ireland may not be beyond the bounds of possibility and forming part of a Federal Britain might make it more rather than less possible, politically. How do we structure a new relationship? England, if it was just left to an ‘English Parliament’, would dominate all the rest, as it has always done. Within England we need an ‘England of the regions’ based on large, well-resourced, regions – the North, Midlands, East of England, South-West, London and South-east. London does of course already have its own regional government. Most ‘domestic’ powers should eventually be devolved, over a period of 5-10 years, leaving a limited number of core functions such as defence and foreign policy at the centre. Within this structure there should be no reason why the English regions should not form a loose federation to discuss issues of common ‘English’ concern, though the main federal parliament should cover the British Isles as a whole.
Clearly there would be a risk of new regional bodies becoming just as bureaucratic and remote as the centralised institutions they replace. That’s why it would be important to ensure the regional assemblies are genuinely new forms of governance, learning from experience elsewhere across the world and ensuring they are fully representative of the communities they represent.
Within the English radical tradition there are plenty of positive examples of thinkers who see politics as going beyond the conventional formula of being allowed to vote every five years, who were committed to real, grassroots democracy. William Morris is someone we pay lip service but who is seldom read. Writing in Commonweal in 1889 he said: “…it will be necessary for the unit of administration to be small enough for every citizen to feel himself (sic) to be responsible for its details and be interested in them; individual men cannot shuffle off the business of life onto the shoulders of an abstraction called the State but must deal with each other.”
We need to re-visit the work of Michael Young, who was a veritable ‘ideas machine’ in the 1940s and 1950s yet whose work has been almost forgotten in mainstream politics. He had much valuable things to say on local democracy, consumer rights and community politics. In the Labour Party pamphlet Small Man – Big World he makes a powerful case for ‘neighbourhood democracy’ arguing for neighbourhood councils in urban areas, working in partnership with existing, larger, local authorities. He suggests they could “build and run community centres where old and young could dance and sing, act and paint…they could open new playing fields, children’s playgrounds, swimming pools…they could establish restaurants, local museums and galleries.” He goes on to suggest that the local authority could delegate some existing functions, including responsibility for managing local schools, health centres and housing estates. As he points out, “Local government at all levels should flourish more than ever before in the new democracy.”
Nothing has happened in the last 66 years to weaken anything suggested by Young. The idea of neighbourhood councils is now more than ever appropriate. But could they be constituted in ways which ensure higher levels of participation, structuring them as a community co-operative? The original local co-operative societies of the mid to late 19th century ran libraries, laundries, restaurants and produced furniture, flour and a range of other goods and services.
A co-operative nation
‘Lansbury’s List’ does not directly include economic activity, which is a surprising omission. But if we look at it from a socialist and democratic perspective, the old certainties of the past are no longer tenable. Socialism should not be reducible to state ownership, and attempts to do that have led to disaster. We have a rich tradition within English radicalism which has promoted ideas of industrial democracy, from the early co-operators like William King of Brighton and Manchester’s John Doherty, to Edward Carpenter, whoseTowards Industrial Freedom represents a very different approach to workplace democracy, and industrial production, to what became the accepted norm. The Bolton worker-philosopher Allen Clarke’s Effects of the Factory System, published in 1899, offers a critique of industrial capitalism and a Tolstoyan manifesto for small-scale production which is perhaps more relevant now than ever.
It’s ironic that the obvious way forward for a socialist economic policy has been staring us in the face for decades and we’ve done precious little about it. The co-operative movement, rooted in North of England working class radicalism in the 19th century, is in good shape for all the recent problems with the Co-operative Group and offers a viable economic model for a wide range of services and sectors. And without wresting some control over economic activity from the huge trans-nationals, ‘One Nation’ will be a meaningless abstraction. ‘The nation’ no longer belongs to us, be it train operations, energy supplies, manufacturing industries or football teams – and we need to find ways of getting it back, through co-operative ownership.
A radical economic policy needs to dovetail with plans for regionalisation with democratically accountable regional development agencies supporting research and development and providing grants and loans to start-up social enterprises, in collaboration with their local government partners. Small clusters of business based on shared resources should be developed at neighbourhood level, in creative partnerships between local social entrepreneurs, councils and a reformed regional banking system.
Ethics and equality
Lansbury was one of the many Labour men in the early years of socialism who were strong advocates of feminism. He was part of an honourable tradition that included Morris, Edward Carpenter, Keir Hardie. There were outstanding women socialists, particularly in the ILP tradition – Hannah Mitchell, Selina Cooper, Isabella Ford, and Caroline Martyn to name only a few. Not many would say that the battle has been won, either within society as a whole or within the Labour Party and other parties of the left and centre-left. And obviously it is not just about women’s equality, it’s about class, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age and other factors which make each of us different. If we’re serious about a new form of democratic government, and a dynamic economy, a new radical politics must be much more emphatic about embracing diversity. The proposed new regional assemblies represent an opportunity to find new forms of representation which encourage young people, women, people from non-white ethnic backgrounds and other minority groups to play an active role. We’ve got to stop accommodating to right-wing anti-immigration rhetoric and recognise that immigration brings huge economic and cultural benefits.
Lansbury talked of ‘an ethic anchored within a conception of the human condition and its creative possibilities, duties and obligations and sense of fellowship’. Sounds strange to modern ears, but a socialist in the 1890s would have recognised exactly what Lansbury meant. William Morris was the great prophet of ‘fellowship’ and his motto “Fellowship is Life – Lack of Fellowship is Death” became the rallying call of the Clarion movement and inspired several generations of socialists.
Getting off the sofa and joining in
We live in a cynical world where the privatisation of individual existence has gone a long way. But people do yearn for community and this gets expressed in a million different ways. We are a nation of ‘joiners’ – anyone who says that people don’t want to ’get involved’ should look at the membership of charities like the National Trust and its Scottish sister. People do want to get involved but they’re fussy what they get involved in! And that rules out most political parties, including Labour. We don’t make it very attractive to people. But look at Scotland, where the independence debate has energised thousands of people who have never been engaged previously. As one elderly Scotswoman who has become involved in the ‘YES’ campaign said “I’ve got off my sofa and I’m nae going back doon!” That same energy and enthusiasm could develop in at least parts of England around a new radical regionalism.
‘Fellowship’ is the sister of ‘community’ – it might be a community of place, neighbourhood – or it might be a community of interest, ethnicity or age. But fellowship also suggests an active engagement, a warmth that ‘community’ on its own doesn’t offer. Cameron knew he was on to something with his ‘Big Society’ and we didn’t help ourselves by cynically dismissing it. We need our own socialist take on community action which recognises its positive nature and gives it more depth and wider involvement. There is plenty of experience within England on good practice in community development and we need to use the skills that are out there, and usually sympathetic towards the left. And we need to look at ways in which we ‘do’ our own politics, making it a much more attractive and creative activity. This means far fewer boring meetings, many more sociable events and activities and outgoing campaigning. We need to copy some of the ‘yes’ campaign’s ideas, like the ‘yes shops’ where people can pop in for a coffee and talk politics and whatever else.
Lansbury’s point about people’s ‘creative possibilities’ should strike a chord with many people today, from young people forming a band, people involved in writing groups, painting – as well as the much wider sense of creativity, expressed through work and careers. Far too many people’s creativity never gets a chance. Philip Snowden, in his lecture ‘The Christ That Is To Be’ set out his vision of a freed people: ”I see a people healthy, happy, cultured, contented whose wealth is life, full and free..”
Beauty in civic life
The issue of climate change is probably the single most important challenge facing humanity. Under the current Government it has been relegated to a fringe interest and within Labour there is a sense that it is less central an issue than it was five years ago. Yet it would be a monumental error, and a huge dereliction of responsibility, if we followed the Tory line that ‘the environment’ was less important than ‘jobs’. We know all the arguments that the two should be inseparable. It is not just about the long-term but also how we live our lives now. Issues like better public transport, safe walking and cycling, pleasant places to live and work mean a lot to people. Protection of open spaces and the natural landscape can be some of the most powerful motivators of people and can sometimes run up against developer pressures and local authorities’ desire to create jobs at any costs. We urgently need to move away from the current neo-liberal approach towards landscape and built heritage and recognise both as precious.
It is not just about the countryside; it’s about how our towns and cities function. The work of Ebenezer Howard is an important part of the English radical tradition, but we also need to acknowledge the more recent work of anarchist, Colin Ward,in developing a radical, democratic and humane view of planning. Encouraging a new sense of ‘beauty in civic life’, as Edward Carpenter called it, would differentiate us sharply from current free-market laissez-faire. We should be sharing ideas with the Greens, not running away from them as rivals. There is enormous scope for local energy-generating schemes which provide an environmentally-friendly source of power, create local jobs and potentially generate a surplus to invest in community facilities. Similarly, community enterprises – or the local neighbourhood co-operative - could run what are currently dismal unstaffed railway stations and develop them once more as hubs of community life instead of abandoned shells, offering bike hire, shop facilities and other services that meet local needs.
A real internationalism
Britain is an old imperial power which has left all sorts of residues, mostly bad ones. These include racism and militarism, but also a sense of our own entitlement in the world, reflected in a willingness to spend over £100bn on Trident replacement. It’s sad that the real democratic potential of ‘the Commonwealth’ was never realised though it was inevitable that the emerging nations would want to draw a line under the imperialist past. Today, Britain no longer has a clear place in the world, though it does still command some respect, not least for our role in the Second World War in defeating fascism. Internationalism ran through the early socialist movement like ‘Blackpool’ through a stick of rock. It was fundamental to socialists’ sense of being part of the world. It sprang from radical Liberalism and earlier Republicanism and in turn Chartism – a profoundly internationalist mass movement. We need to champion a new internationalism which resists the seemingly constant temptation to use force in foreign conflicts but instead plays appositive and peaceful role in world politics, using our armed forces for good (e.g. flood relief, other natural disasters, skills development in developing nations, etc.).
We need to end the uncertainty about our place in Europe. There’s plenty that needs to be done to improve the EU but leaving it will not help. We need to build positive relationships between communities in Britain and other parts of Europe – as well as in other parts of the world, through the internet and actual exchange visits. That also means that radicals in the UK should have stronger ties with activists in other parts of the world. Internationalism isn’t about a few diplomats jetting across the globe, it’s about meaningful solidarity and friendship and a new international sense of ‘fellowship’.
Conclusion: In praise of Slow Politics
This paper has argued for the re-discovery of traditions which have been all but lost over the last 50 years. We need to integrate them with modern-day approaches to radical political activity that have been developed both in Britain and in other parts of the world. We need to recognise the strengths and also the weaknesses of the Socialist tradition. Its fetishisation of state control and centralism is politically redundant. But its’ championing of co-operative ownership, fellowship, internationalism and perhaps above all equality should be cherished. Socialism needs to re-connect with radical Liberalism and the newer forces in the Green, feminist, anti-war and communitarian movements. It needs to reach out to the nationalist movements in Scotland and Wales and not see them as ‘the forces of darkness’. There is a shared radicalism out there but we need to spend time building a new progressive alliance.
A friend of mine, from a quite different political tradition and a younger generation, made some very telling comments after reading an earlier draft of this paper. He suggested we need to welcome diversity and difference because it makes us better and stronger. “It’s about anti-homogenisation, anti-globalisation, it’s ‘slow politics’, like ‘slow food’. That’s not the same as reviving a tradition just because tradition is good in itself, it’s that places should grow their own, and when they do, they grow things that are rich and meaningful”
I’ve written this as an English Labour political activist, stressing an English radical tradition that we need to re-energise, based on progressive regionalism. Strong radical movements in Scotland and Wales can only help propel that forward. The campaign for ‘radical independence’ in Scotland has been at the forefront of creating a new radical politics, though sadly most of the English left is either completely unaware of what has been happening, or overtly hostile to it. A new English politics is about moving away from the spurious ‘unity’ of Great Britain which only served to hide the reality of English – read London – domination, by a highly privileged elite. The future must be a federation of free nations and – within England itself – regions. We should start by developing friendly ties with campaigners in Scotland and Wales who share similar values to ours, not assuming any mantle of superiority.
Can we recapture the élan of the early days of socialism in a way which really does speak to people’s hopes and dreams today? Labour has the chance to put play a leading role in a new progressive movement which recognises regional and local distinctiveness and is willing to devolve (and share!) real power, both political and economic. It will not be able to do it all on its own and has to learn the positive art of alliances and creative partnerships. We do not have all the answers in what is an increasingly uncertain world. For now, Labour is the largest player in this new ‘red and green’ radicalism for the 21st century – but it will only work if built in partnership with others.