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by Jamie Cater 27th November, 2014
3 min read

Speaking for Britain

On 2nd September 1939, the day before Britain declared war on Germany, Conservative Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gave a speech to the House of Commons in which he appeared to dither over the question of whether Britain would come to the aid of Poland following the German invasion. When Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Arthur Greenwood, standing in for Clement Attlee, rose to reply for the opposition, frustrated Tory backbencher Leo Amery exhorted Greenwood to ‘speak for England, Arthur!’

Whether or not Greenwood managed to achieve such a feat on that day, it was Attlee’s Labour whom the nation felt represented it the most in the post-war general election, giving the party its first-ever majority in the Commons on the back of its pledge to ‘win the peace’ with promises of full employment. In effectively capturing the post-war sentiment, Labour had indeed spoken for England with a message of solidarity and support for returning soldiers and those who had lived through the darkness of war, and feared the mass unemployment and poverty that had stricken many after 1918.

It can be argued that the parties who go on to win general elections convincingly are those who are able to speak for England, and Britain as a whole; those who can articulate a convincing narrative about the state of the country in which we live and where it should be going. In the 1960s, Harold Wilson spoke with conviction about the need to embrace the ‘white heat’ of new technology; in 1979, Margaret Thatcher succeeded with her pitch of ‘restoring Britain’s health’ after the apparent decline during the Callaghan years; Tony Blair appealed to a modern Britain in 1997 with his socially liberal outlook and ‘cool Britannia’ image after 18 years of Conservative rule and the grey premiership of John Major.

On Tuesday night, the head of Labour’s policy review Jon Cruddas spoke to Progress, the Blairite pressure group. The thrust of his argument was that Labour needed to speak for England once more. Perhaps surprisingly for a man who has championed devolution to England since long before the fallout from the Scottish independence referendum, his focus was not on the government’s proposals for ‘English votes for English laws’, nor even what he might feel upon seeing a white van or an England flag (although he did suggest, with the most nonchalant shrug of the shoulders, that white vans bearing the cross of St George were ‘perfectly normal’ in his constituency of Dagenham). Instead, Cruddas insisted that there were two problems that his party is seeking to address in preparing its pitch for the general election in less than 6 months’ time. First, he argued, the party needs to re-fashion social democracy for an era in which there is less money to spend. Second, he accused all of the parties of doing too little to appeal to the whole country, claiming that the main divide in this country is not between rich and poor, but between north and south. It is only by solving these two intertwined problems, Cruddas suggests, that Labour will be capable of winning a mandate in May next year. It has been a while since Ed Miliband used his ‘One Nation’ catchphrase, but it appears to remain a central concept in the party’s thinking.

Cruddas commented that the 2008 financial crisis was ‘epochal’, and that no major party has yet been capable of articulating a national story that reflects the anxiety and insecurity that many voters feel as a consequence. With both the Conservatives and Labour currently struggling to establish a clear lead in the opinion polls and UKIP riding the crest of an electoral wave, a second consecutive hung parliament appears an ever more likely outcome of next year’s election. An increasingly fragmented political system means it is becoming less clear whether any one party will be able secure a real mandate to form a government in its own right. In the little time remaining before May, all of the parties will be redoubling their efforts to convince the voters across the country that they can be trusted with the keys to government and that they can indeed speak for Britain.

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