One Nation Under Ed

April 23, 2013

In the previous posts in this mini-series, we’ve looked at how Alasdair MacIntyre’s approach to ethical questions can provide an interesting way of examining contemporary politics. Today I want to look at the political theory most influenced by MacIntyre: that of Ed Miliband’s One Nation.

MacIntyre advocates political communities bound together by a shared conception of the good and an understanding of the role of each individual within the effort to achieve that good. That understanding is learned through tradition and through story, and with it comes an understanding of what is owed to you for the successful fulfillment of that role. The latter is MacIntyre’s concept of ‘desert’, distinguished from other concepts as what is owed to you for playing a role in the community rather than what is owed to you for the value of your labour under current market conditions. Political narratives, in this sense, tell the story of the nation as the party would like to present it, and in doing so allocate roles for all its members – and what those members deserve as a consequence of playing them.

‘One Nation’ is the direct result of Miliband’s interest in Blue Labour. This is the brainchild of Maurice Glasman, who was inspired by MacIntyre’s work. Blue Labour strongly emphasises the importance of community to Labour’s traditional working-class voters, and portrays Labour as the party of the Common Good and the heir to British democratic traditions. In working-class communities, so the story goes, an understanding of one’s role and one’s place is provided – you are apprenticed into a position, work in it for the rest of your life, and receive a fair (or ‘living’) wage for what you do. It is not your role to be exposed to market forces, simply to work – and to be rewarded for that work.

It is worth noting at this point that the traditional role of women in these communities was child-rearing and domestic service, and that MacIntyre has little to say about the role of women. Indeed, Glasman has been accused of regarding women with something like a bemused contempt, although he has made efforts to avoid that accusation. It remains unclear, however, how any political theory that places such an important emphasis on defined roles within communities could avoid chauvinistic communities arising, as has historically been the case.

The connection between Blue Labour and MacIntyre should be obvious. What interests me today is the way in which Miliband has attempted to cash this political theory out into a political story, a story entitled One Nation. The language used in his speech on the subject is very MacIntyreian:

“Today I want to talk to you about the idea of One Nation. The idea of a country which we rebuild together, where everyone plays their part.”

The One Nation project is a vision of a Britain as a national community with roles for all to play and to receive what they deserve. This stands in contrast to the present:

“While a very few people at the top are doing well, so many people feel their prospects diminishing, their insecurity rising.[…] They believe the system is rigged against them.
They believe that the country isn’t working for them.”

Effectively, it is a call for the realignment of every role in the nation into a place wherein everyone receives what they deserve for participating in the life of the nation – if they do indeed participate. This is clearly radical, because it provides a very different understanding of the role of the ultra-rich than the Conservatives, for whom the role of the rich is to be world-striding leprechauns, liable to take away their pot of gold when startled by sudden tax rises. One Nation requires that the ultra-rich take roles in the nation, rather than supervening on it.

This is of course a radically leftist claim. So what does Miliband propose to do? Put in place capital controls to prevent the rich moving their money around? Prevent foreign ownership of key companies?

No.

“We need a new deal for our small businesses who have been let down by the banks. We have to tackle short-termism in the City to enable companies to play their part to contribute to long-term wealth creation. We have to work with business radically to reform our apprenticeships and vocational education, so we use the talents of all young people, including the 50 per cent who don’t go to University.”

It’s pretty much identical to anything any politician from any party could sign up to. The only interesting thing is the language; talk of companies ‘playing their part’ and so on. The facade may be different, but the policy substance remains so much New Labour. While I commend Ed Miliband for having a coherent ideology (unlike others), the lack of radicalism in his proposals makes me believe that his policies may not fully cohere with his beliefs. A leader of a party who can’t propose policies he believes in a result of his own weakness is useful to no-one, and leads to the Labour Party’s current narrative:

  1. Britain is divided, poor and exploited by the super-rich
  2. The Coalition is making us poorer and increasing division
  3. Labour would love to forge us into a bold new coherent nation in which everyone can play their part, but doesn’t have the balls.

Of course, I’m grateful that liberalism’s opponents are so poor, but there’s nothing more frustrating than seeing someone have interesting ideas and then fail to try to implement them as a result of their own pusillanimity. About the only area in which they making some headway is immigration, which One Nation via MacIntyre perceives as destructive to personal identity. If you have a particular role in a community born of its traditions, and a sudden influx of outsiders with different traditions disrupts that community, what is your role now? Glasman’s call for all immigration to be halted is entirely coherent with his ideology, but his subsequent apology for saying something so upsetting is in line with Miliband’s lack of ability to pursue his own beliefs in the face of adversity.

None of this should be surprising to students of history. For fear of invoking Godwin, societies which attempt to allocate roles for people within them have something of a nasty reputation, and in the intellectual cowardice of Blue Labour’s proponents one can see fascists afraid of fascism.

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