When does solidarity occur?
There are many reasons why the campaign to keep Britain in the European Union failed, many of them flowing from a condition that long predated the referendum: at a cultural level, the UK had never joined the European project in the first place.
There was institutional membership, signatures on treaties and technical integration. But the foundational ethos of the community, as conceived after the Second World War, was never incorporated into British nationhood; that kind of “Europeanness” (as distinct from the simple fact of geographical location) was not a resonant part of our identity. That is why the UK didn’t join until 1973.
As one of the victorious forces that liberated the continent from Fascism, the UK felt no obligation towards collective atonement, nor great moral urgency in subordinating national politics to supranational, continent-wide authority. And there was the recent memory of Empire for comfort, albeit illusory. At the very core of the EU proposition is a concept of solidarity that has not taken root in Britain.
A lot of politics is defined by questions of who is prepared to pool resources with whom, what are the fairest mechanisms for doing it and who gets to decide and enforce the rules. An electoral majority has rejected “Europe” as a unit by which that kind of solidarity might be denominated – too large, too remote, lacking the emotional glue of shared cultural reference points.
But the UK itself is vulnerable to the same judgement. Scotland voted to preserve its union with England but nationalism’s defeat was not politically convincing. Nicola Sturgeon calculated that enough Scots saw themselves as part of a distinct community from the English to keep the independence question simmering away, never far from the surface of politics north of the border. And that dynamic has provoked an English nationalist backlash. Resentment of what is perceived as an habitually demanding Scotland, taking more than its share of British resources and showing no gratitude, threatens to unpick the threads of union from the southern side of the seam.
Zoom in closer and the difficulty in persuading large volumes of people to imagine themselves as part of a single political unit with common interests is replicated across multiple axes. London takes pride in its status as an engine of prosperity and considers any transfer of wealth to other regions as, at best, charity. Large parts of the country resent the capital as a selfish hoarder of income and opportunity.
Geography is by no means the only factor in solidarity. Ethnicity and class matter, although not always in the ways that validate a Marxist (or quasi-Marxist) analysis. There is a rhetorical habit on the British left that treats all voter discontent as an expression of distributional injustice. So when people say they are annoyed by high levels of immigration and that they feel their community has been disturbed by social and demographic change to which they did not give consent, the underlying cause of their anger is said to be inequality. In this account, anger at perverse outcomes from an antiquated benefits system would be washed away if the sluices of wage growth were unblocked. Anti-immigrant feeling might be obliterated in a frenzy of house-building.
Economic structures are central to the question of whether people feel they have things in common, but the relationship between cohesion and wealth isn’t simple. Accounts of current social and economic malaise tend to focus on two factors: stagnation in median wages in the UK, dating from around the middle of the last decade, and public spending cuts that began after Labour left office in 2010. A broader left analysis sets the clock back further, to the 1980s, to blame the liberalising economic policies of the Thatcher era for undermining the very concept of society – transferring public assets into private hands and by promoting a culture of greed and individualism, expressed through a radical conservative ideology that made personal ambition the engine of prosperity.
The right has a different interpretation. Crudely speaking, Conservatives identify three likely causes of shrunken solidarity (although the word itself is not one that leaps naturally to the Tory vocabulary). First, an excess of state meddling. The theory is that too much government interference deprives citizens of agency and responsibility, suffocating the natural processes by which societies thrive. Second, liberal social attitudes, elevated into a doctrinaire cult of a “political correctness” are said to have alienated people who don’t automatically share those values. And third, mass migration and a fetish of “multiculturalism” are said to have undermined an indigenous sense of belonging and national identity.
For most of the period over which those debates have played out, party allegiances have also become more volatile. In the 1950s, Labour and Conservatives enjoyed a broad duopoly, with well over 90 per cent of voters lining up behind either the red or blue banner. That share dipped to 67 per cent in 2015 but bounced back to 82 in 2017. It is too early to know if that signals a reversal of the decades-long trend of diversification. Many MPs report that the legacy of “leave” and “remain” positions in their constituencies are just as salient as traditional party allegiances. And on the Labour side it is hard to forecast the durability of a peculiar voter coalition that includes people who rallied to the party because they were inspired by Jeremy Corbyn and those who stuck with it despite being highly sceptical of the leader’s readiness to be Prime Minister.
Nor does Labour’s relatively strong performance, confounding prophecies of doom, prove the existence of a renewed appetite for orthodox policies of redistribution based on abstract notions of national solidarity. Labour’s manifesto offered specific rewards to different social segments – pension protection for the old; free university education for the young – and was cagey about how it would be funded. Corbyn appealed as much to multiple, fragmented self-interests as he did to a unitary national interest. Meanwhile, opinion surveys also show a decline in support for redistributive policies in each successive generation since 1945. This runs counter to a received wisdom that the young tend generally to be more left-wing than their elders.
A Mori poll from 2014 found 18-30 year olds half as likely as the wartime generation to agree with the proposition that “the government should spend more money on welfare benefits for the poor, even if it leads to higher taxes”. Other similar statements saw even wider disparities. Where the merits of redistributive state action are concerned, “millennials” appear more sceptical than their parents and grandparents. On social attitudes they are more liberal.
Cause and effect can be hard to disentangle. The decades immediately after the War, the hey-day of British welfarism, were marked by relative income equality and social mobility – with the important caveat that women were still structurally excluded from swathes of the economy. Did political support for the ethos of that time wane because the methods stopped working or did the system stop working as values changed and support for the ethos declined? The answer is likely to be both, in a feedback loop, just as both left and right accounts of the causes of social fragmentation are likely to contain truth while neither side can claim to own the whole explanation.
An underlying process in all of this might simply be the passage of time. The Nazi threat, placing the nation in a state of existential jeopardy, can be seen in retrospect as a massive infusion of solidarity. To this day the Spirit of the Blitz is invoked as the apogee of British collective resilience and determination. The war effort also demanded huge acts of economic collectivism, while levelling incomes. Post-war austerity and rationing prolonged the egalitarian dynamic. A Tory Prime Minister led the nation to victory in war but, in 1945, Labour won the peace.
Britain’s distinct perspective on the Second World War and its aftermath determined our ambivalence towards the European project. The fading of that memory is surely also pertinent to our sense of 21st Century nationhood. The UK has been spending from its reserves of solidarity without finding galvanising ideas or missions to restore them. The left has tended to retreat into a kind of reactionary social democracy — seeing its best hope in defending territory won in an era of post-War consensus. The right flirts with crude, sometimes xenophobic rhetoric, combined with post-Imperial nostalgia, when trying to gee up a spirit of national purpose. Moderate liberals in the centre are paralysed by fear that their intellectual incumbency is being torn down by radicals and populists.
The mistake that politicians often make in this respect is to imagine that there is some off-the-peg national project that can restore a sense of collective purpose. There is a lazy impatience – exemplified by a fashionable revival in vacuous appeals to “one nation” politics – for some rhetorical device that will bring people together across regional, racial and class divides. The truth is that the “nation” as a whole might not be available any more as a unit for organising meaningful solidarity. Europe is clearly too vast a unit to command visceral collective identification and the UK might be going the same way. If that unravelling is to be reversed, the bonds of solidarity have to be rewoven at closer quarters. The cultural deficit needs to be paid off in currency that voters recognise, which is likely to be much more locally defined. It is easier to persuade people to join a collective endeavour if they live on the same street and their children attend the same school – or if they are part of the same Facebook group; locality can mean proximity on a network, not just a geographical space.
But tiny units have no capacity for mass mobilisation. The street, the school, the Facebook group can pool resources but they might not amount to much. So the essential question is this: what is the smallest large unit (or the largest small unit) of political organisation in which a plausible sense of communal identity is available and with sufficient resources to make big policy projects feasible? What is the ideal unit for rebuilding solidarity? It could be the borough council, a combined regional authority or, devolved parliament. It might be a digital denomination, not a geographical one. There is no fixed answer. But it is probable that the ambition to revive a truly UK-wide account of shared political enterprise is so big that, to succeed, it must start small.
Rafael Behr is a political columnist at The Guardian
This article first appeared in Localis’s essay collection ‘Neo-localism: rediscovering the nation’