Thursday, March 17, 2005

Brown's big old week

"We must... win our argument that the ethic of public service, distinct from the operation of the market, is sufficiently powerful and can be modernised and come alive in this new generation to ensure that public services, with public money well spent, will deliver not only more equitably but more cost effectively than privatisation..."
Gordon Brown, Compass Conference, October 2004

As with the most remarkable line from GB's Labour Conference Speech of the same year - "Public service cannot be reduced to contracts, markets and exchange", or similar - such words can occasionally offset my worries about the future of the Labour Party with a guarded, heavily qualified optimism. And then more far cynical thoughts intrude: Isn't Brown simply tickling disaffected Labourites with a view to the ongoing Downing St. turf wars? Shouldn't any son-of-the-manse/James Maxton/ethnic socialist sentimentality be placed in the hardened context of his effective authorship of the dreaded PFI/PPP? And what of the slightly questionable views on "Britishness" that he's recently been putting around - not least in a specially-made film on Monday's Newsnight?

For anyone who didn't see it, Martha Kearney escorted GB through a melange of biography, speechifying and snatches of Steptoe & Sun/The peeing '60s elephant on Blue Peter/Noel Gallagher at Number 10. The piece reached its denouement when GB held forth about post-imperial guilt. "I think the days of Britain having to apologise for our history are over," he said. "I think we should move forward. I think we should celebrate much of our past rather than apologise for it." Having covered his left flank, he was seemingly keen to play to his right, via the kind of comments beloved of people who hang faux-parchment posters of Kipling's If on their wall, and have recently bought the Little Book Of Patriotism (in the context of his reportedly close relationship to Paul Dacre, that strategy makes a great deal of sense).

As proved by a woolly post-film conversation featuring David Blunkett, Norman Lamont and the Lib Dems' Lembit Opik, what was most remarkable about the Chancellor's "Britishness" spiel was its feeling of emptiness. The next day, while reading Kieron O'Hara's After Blair: Conservatism Beyond Thatcher (Icon, £12.99, not half bad), I chanced on a paragraph that rather suggested why:

"It has to be said that Britishness never ran particularly deep, and that British national identity, such as it is, was always deeply contested. Some... have argued that that Britishness was relatively artificial and oppositional (i.e, 'We're not the French').To the extent that the British are driven less by ideas and principles - which certainly constrasts with the French, and Americans for that matter... that may well be true."

I think it probably is - and I'm not sure a thin mixture of cultural ephemera, platitude ("fair play", "tolerance" etc. etc.) and historical revisionism is going to cover up the hole. One point, however, with which Mr Brown may well agree: if we're going to have to come up with some notion of "Britishness", instead of HP Sauce, Lord Kitchener and being nice to one another, might our shared identity be based around totems like these: the NHS, the local state-run school, the rural post office, the non-globalised town (which work as counterpoints to the increasingly hegemonic USA)? And if so, at one point does an unremittingly New Labour country start to pull away from all that?

I wonder what Mr Brown thinks.

P.S This post was meant to at least mention the budget. For reasons of time, there is but one reference: though much was made of GB's promise of free bus travel for OAPs, it later turned out to only apply at off-peak times. And how British is that?