In a speech on ‘liberty’ at the University of Westminster, Gordon Brown outlined his vision for ‘Britishness’. Brown is, of course, a Scot. Listing the achievements of so-called ‘British liberty’ from Magna Carta to the Reform Act of 1832, he announced a debate on what it means to be British. Brown’s vision, however, amounts to nothing more than reactionary politics dressed in liberal-radical language.
Appealing to interests of the nation is one of the few ways that the bourgeoisie can rally mass support for its own interests. It was with the appeal to the good of the "commonwealth" (i.e. the nation) that Cromwell rallied the masses against the absolutist monarchy and it was with similar slogans that the masses rallied to the French bourgeoisie in 1789. Another example is of course the U.S. War of Independence from (British) King George III. These progressive, revolutionary movements mobilised under the banner of nationalism.
However, by the 20th century, the bourgeoisie had played out its progressive role, and appeals to ‘the nation’ in much of the developed world have become synonymous with reactionary politics and imperialist ambitions. It became an appeal for unity between classes against other nations or against the independent working class. It was the tool that was used to rally masses of ordinary people into the slaughterhouse of World War I and used against the revolutionaries in Spain in the 1930s. Nationalism in this context has become reactionary.
What can we then expect of Brown’s version of ‘Britishness’? A consultation process is to begin about rights and obligations of British citizens. Gordon Brown, in typical New Labour fashion has already decided its outcome: increased detention without right of appeal for ‘terror suspects’ (so much for Magna Carta – which forbade imprisonment without a fair trial!), continued attacks on workers and public services, more restrictions on immigration and more racism along the lines of ‘British jobs for British workers’.
More specifically, the Prime Minister ties an expansion of the voluntary sector into all of this. The recent decision by the Stirling Citizen Advice Bureau, to start handing out food vouchers to those that can’t get benefits because of cuts in the civil service, illustrates with painful clarity what this means. It is clear that Brown sees in the future of Britain a return to the 19th century ‘Victorian values’. Back to a time when workers had to beg for the charity of the so called ‘community organizations’ (i.e. the churches and the rich), rather than have automatic access to support from the state. It is a most terrible irony that he invokes ‘liberty’ – the slogan of the French Revolution – for this reactionary project.
For the Welsh and Scottish workers who are being tempted by nationalist promises of Norwegian or Irish utopias, this is hardly a tempting solution to their problems. In fact, by imposing his notion of ‘Britishness,’ Gordon Brown is most likely to further antagonize these workers – in Stirling and elsewhere. The persistent failure of the Labour Party to present any real solutions to the problems of the working class is likely to lead to more votes for the SNP, Plaid Cymru and BNP, and possibly even the breakup of Britain. After all, capitalism tends not only to unite along national lines but also to create splits in the working class, often with disastrous consequences.
Gordon Brown’s idea of ‘Britishness’ is not inclusive, but divisive, not only on national lines but also inciting hatred against immigrants and in particular Muslims. For all their talk about ‘community’, Brown and Blair have persistently identified immigrants with economic problems and crime. They have associated Muslims with extremism in both the veil controversy and in the so called ‘war on terror’. Of course, neither immigrants, nor Scots, nor Welsh, nor English are to blame for the present crisis of capitalism, but only the system itself.
For Marxists, the response to all these attempts to divide and attack the working class is clear. Marx and Engels called for the workers of all countries to unite in the Communist Manifesto. This is just as true today. We stand for the unity of the working class across all sectarian and national boundaries. We oppose New Labour’s nationalism and call for a socialist government of Britain to get rid of capitalism in the interest of all workers.