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The University of Southampton
Centre for English Identity and Politics

Liam Byrne

“An Englishness open to all”

31 March 2017

University of Winchester

Liam Byrne, Labour MP


This is an uncorrected transcript of talks given at the ‘An Englishness open to all’ seminar held at the University of Winchester on 31 March 2017.  Please do not quote without seeking permission from the speaker.

I am going to follow the pattern of introducing myself by sort of self-declaring my various identities, so I am an Anglo-Irish with about a quarter Danish, grew up in Harlow in Essex, just about lost the white socks and moved to the ancestral home in Birmingham, where I work on a couple of things and the research that I am going to tell you about this afternoon, is research that comes from a group called Red Shift, which is a group of Labour MPs outside London, who are all MPs with very sort of down to earth attitudes towards politics.

The work I am going to give you, some of it is quite current, so all of this has to be off the record I am afraid, because I am also the Chair of the West Midlands Metro Mayor campaign, so I have kind of just sort of stepped out this afternoon because I want to share with you some of the work that we are doing, actually road testing Englishness in a political campaign.

Now I have sort of talked about this with John and Sunder and many of you here for many many years, and a lot of the research that I am going to talk about today actually has taken shape over the last eight years since my time as the Immigration Minister.  So I was Immigration Minister for 2.5 years, I created the UK Border Agency, brought in the Point System, and then actually overhauled that immigration and citizenship legislation to create what was called Earned Citizenship, very much influenced by the debates that David and I used to have back in 2006/2007.

Now hopefully there is going to be some slides that are going to emerge behind me in a minute, but let me just kind of give you my starting point and my challenge, if you like as a Labour politician.  So if you are a Labour politician, you are basically a collaborationist, you believe, as it says on our membership card, that we can achieve more together than we can achieve alone, and our kind of dilemma in the Labour Party is that although there remains a very strong degree of economic unity across our coalition, if you look at the social cohesion of our electoral coalition, it’s completely fallen apart.  And so if you look at a range of social questions like for example on the importance of faith, or on the importance of immigration, or on the importance of free movement, what you see is massive massive gulfs between those who traditionally have supported Labour.  And so the challenge if you like for a Labour politician is that if you are trying to knit back together a coalition, and if you are trying to knit back together a country, because you believe that collaboration is really really important, what we are now looking at is how can you use patriotism and indeed a sense of Englishness to try and rebuild the bridges between the coalition.  What we know is that we can’t reunite a socially divided coalition by talking about things that divide them, that doesn’t work.  And so what we’ve got to do is find ways of bringing people back together.

And so my sort of starting point is a quote that may or may not come up on the slide, but it is actually a quote from a book that was a best seller last year called ‘Sapiens’, and the argument basically in Sapiens is that as a species we are pretty much the most successful in world history, but we are successful because we are inherently social creatures.  But the challenge since the agricultural revolution 10,000 years ago when we all started coming together in cities is that to survive and to thrive in dense communities we have to learn important values like cooperation, like collaboration, and like altruism, that is how we manage to sustain to live together.  And therefore, we have to devise tactics for that pro-social behaviour, and what the author of Sapiens calls imagined orders, religion obviously very powerful, more recently patriotism is one of the most potent to.

Now the challenge for those of us on the left therefore is to try and govern and build a political majority in this society where levels of social trust are in decline.  And when you look at levels of social trust there are two kinds of important trends that sort of emerge. 

The first trend is the gap between generation X and generation Y and the baby boomers.  So baby boomers have much much higher levels of social trust than generation X, so as that generation begins to die off actually the country becomes a lower trust society.  But the second thing that’s quite interesting is that across all demographic groups levels of social trust took a nose dive during the financial crash, a period of time that also of course coincided with the expenses crisis too.  So as a country Labours challenges, we are a we party, we believe in doing things together.  The Conservatives are a me party, we are a we party.  We’ve got to try and persuade people to do more things together at a time when social trust is falling.

Now we could have an extended argument about why that is, I think there’s a couple of reasons.  The class basis of society is obviously changing very dramatically, age of the mass workplace is gone, Britain is now a majority middle class society.  So sometime about the turn of the century, sort of late 1990s, middle class size in this country basically outstripped the size of the working class.  If you look at for example levels of inequality, the top 1% in this country now carries off a massively higher level of national income.  If you look at levels of immigration, levels of immigration have doubled since the size of Europe doubled, so for many communities particularly like mine in East Birmingham, you’ve got massive massive social change in a very very short space of time.  You’ve got self-reported racism now on the rise, so if you look at the long run numbers on people who self-declare as a racist soon they will be able to sort of, correct me if I have got this slightly wrong, but you can basically see from about 2000 to the most recent figures there has been about a 5% increase in the number of people (aside from audience: they are not originally being racist they are admitting to having prejudices) they are admitting to having prejudices.  People who are self-declaring to be very prejudiced or prejudiced against people of other races.  If you look at the way that Islam has been deliberately used by particular parties, particular politicians like Donald Trump, you can see another very potent force for social division. 

If you look at safety nets that used to kind of bring us all back together, whether it was social housing or whether it was welfare state, you have seen a collapse in things like contributory benefits, so people are now putting an awful lot of money into the shared systems and getting very little back out, so Britain now has one of the smallest contributory elements of the Welfare State.  So for lots and lots of different reasons you can now begin to see levels of social trust, the kind of appetite for collaboration, begin to fracture and fray.  This is a very very significant problem for a party that trades on a sense of fraternity and collaboration.  But it is a national problem because if you look at the challenges of the future as a politician, they require collective solutions, so climate change is the most obvious example, but if you look at the rise to the robots in the labour market there is no way that we can build systems that help skill and reskill and reskill again peoples whose jobs are destroyed by changing technology without more and different collective solutions.

There is no way that we can shift the National Health Service into an age of personalised and precision medicine without collective investment and collective solutions.  There is nowhere we can rebuild places for our young people to live without collective solutions.  There is no way in which we can build new assets, whether it’s the way that we govern data in this world or the way we retrain people without collective solutions.  So in every sort of field of public policy you can see substantial challenges now that are going to require collective solutions exactly at the time when levels of social trust are under massive kind of pressure. 

So the problem if you like for the Labour party is can we use patriotism in a way that allows us to remake that feeling of solidarity and fraternity?  And we have to be really careful in politics and we are often tested in politics because we have to distinguish it from nationalism, so there is a lovely quote that’s well known from Charles de Gaulle,  ‘patriotism is when love of your own people comes first, nationalism is when hate for people other than your own comes first’.  You know if sometimes in politics and in this xxxx and xxxxx of Westminster that can feel like quite a tight rope to have to walk. 

We in Red Shift are trying to build, develop, experiment with a very kind of George Orwell definition of patriotism and the quote that I pulled out was a quote from the ‘Lion and the Unicorn’ which I think Sunder you may have sent me, which was ‘patriotism is nothing to do with conservatism, it is actually the opposite of conservatism, since it’s devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same, it’s the bridge between the future and the past’.

Now the reason that this is so important politically for parties like the Labour Party, is that the most significant fact in British politics today is the fact that the Conservatives have a two million majority amongst the over 65s, two million.  It’s bigger than their overall majority.  No party gets elected in Britain unless it can master the new politics of gerontocracy.  At the next election 51% of voters will be over the age of 65 for the first time.  And so this is an important sort of dimension for those who are sort of thinking through, how do use patriotism to rebuild a sense of fraternity yes, but also a renewed political appeal to.

Now in the West Midlands Metro Mayor campaign we are obviously quite interested, we are a patriotic bunch in the West Midlands Labour Party, we come from a particular tradition in the Labour Party, we are very very interested in how you use a much stronger appeal to Englishness, and so we’ve been very clear that we will champion Englishness.  We will look for the way of reknitting a sense of unity in our community using ideas like St George’s Day, using ideas like patriotism in a way that a lot of politicians have been fearful to do in the past.  We think that politics is now much more cultural than it has been in the past, it’s not just an economic offer that you’ve got to give people. 

And so that’s why thinking through, we had that sort of question earlier about how do you define English values, well you can define them in all sorts of ways.  Rules are very important, there is a sense of tolerance, there is a sense of compassion, there is a sense of being outward looking, a celebration of old local traditions, being radical about power, championing science and the rational world, thinking about beauty, thinking about nature, thinking about the green and pleasant land, and standing up to underdogs.  These are not quite a random list, these are all characteristics that I think are quite common when you start to get people onto conversations about Englishness.  And actually, what we are finding in the Manifesto we launched yesterday and the campaign that we are running that they are actually pretty good sources of inspiration from running a political campaign too.

So we will be able to tell you the results of how we get on in about 5 week’s time, but I have seen enough now and we’ve tested enough now to be confident that this is a very very potent source of political renewal, and I think it would be a good thing to watch how different political parties muck up with this project over the year ahead.

Thanks a lot.



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