As a critically important Parliamentary year approaches, rumours continue to grow about the development of a new centrist political party. The new project, United for Change, is said to have already contacted potential supporters saying that it plans to ‘offer a visions of a prosperous, united and fair Britain… where hard work and contribution are championed and were all in society – government, business and individuals – play their part living up to both their rights and obligations’.
The notion of a values-based, ideologically-averse, pragmatic party, seeking to implement evidence-based policy has clear resonances in both the Limehouse Declaration that set in motion the formation of the SDP and Tony Blair’s underpinning political vision in the early days of the ‘New Labour’ project. The idea of balancing state support and personal contribution in the welfare system, which has attracted renewed interest in recent years, similarly also has a long history of public support which includes and pre-dates the development of the post-war welfare state.
In this sense, a project along the lines of United for Change, appears well-placed to lay claim to a political position that has attracted considerable electoral support since the 1980s. However, it is unlikely to achieve either the success of the SDP at the height of its popularity nor the electoral victories of New Labour if it presents itself primarily as a party of technocratic competence, splitting the difference between the increasingly extreme positions that have gained ground in recent years in both the Conservative and Labour Parties.
To imagine that such a technocratic political agenda could, by itself, appeal to voters fails to recognise the fundamental role that issues of cultural meaning and identity play in contemporary politics – a point most recently demonstrated in the 2016 EU referendum result. Michael Gove’s comment about voters having had enough of experts certainly contributed unhelpfully to the wider emergence of post-truth politics, but also spoke to a growing collapse in deference to expertise and authority across a range of social institutions. If voters assented to the notion of a values-based, technocratic New Labour Government, trusting it to balance both social fairness and economic prosperity, too many found their trust breached by the decision to invade Iraq in 2003 and the near collapse of an under-regulated banking sector four years later.
To overcome such distrust, a project like United for Change needs to create a new story of British society as a collaborative social endeavour with which voters can meaningfully identify. This cannot be done through superficial, ersatz constructions of national identity but through a substantial engagement with our national past. Too much of our current politics operates on the basis of a collective amnesia about the legacies and implications of Britain’s imperial past – exemplified, more generally, in the lack of a national museum dedicated to addressing this history. Without this we cannot understand how the social, political and economic ties of this imperial history have shaped the country we inhabit today, nor the ways in which Britain is perceived in other parts of the world. Similarly, the contribution made by Commonwealth citizens and citizens of many other countries to our national life – including giving their lives in military service – is too often forgotten and devalued, with these relationships seen instead through the negative tones of policy agendas around immigration and integration. We will also learn little about how British politics sought to move beyond this imperial history in the middle decades of the twentieth-century, and what proved successful and unsuccessful in that venture. Lack of understanding of the history of the religious, cultural and ethnic diversity of Britain creates a space for extremists to claim an ahistorical version of ‘British identity’ structured around a monolithic ethnic, cultural and religious identity, and leaves us at risk of repeating mistakes in how such diversity has been addressed in our national life over many centuries.
There is, clearly, no single version of this history on which our politics can draw. But the process of establishing what should be valued in our collective past, as well as the shadow-sides which must be remembered and owned, is a necessary part of articulating a political vision of what Britain can be in the future. In a wider context of cultural and religious fragmentation in contemporary British society, there is an urgent need for ‘centre-ground’ politics to address the need for a renewed sense of collective meaning and purpose in our national life. Such a sense of shared purpose is needed both to underpin the bold policy interventions that will be needed in areas such as health and social care, and to create a sense of collective purpose to which all social institutions – including corporate interests which fail to contribute sufficiently to this – can be held to account. If there is a failure to do this, and the new ‘centre-ground’ focuses simply on technocratic policy offers, the desire for stories of collective identity risks being met by extremists who are willing to create simplistic, untrue and divisive narratives to secure their own political ends.