Let’s cease speaking about ‘nice’ Britain – and rebrand ourselves as a distinct form of nation | Martin Kettle

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Let’s cease speaking about ‘nice’ Britain – and rebrand ourselves as a distinct form of nation | Martin Kettle

Addressing the Labour convention in October, Keir Starmer promised to steer a decade of nationwide renewal. After Covid, Brexit and the price of residing squeeze, few will dispute the necessity, though folks could moderately debate what renewal implies or the place the priorities ought to lie. This week, although, has supplied a warning that renewal, fascinating although it might be in precept, can even have many enemies.

“The important first step is acknowledging you might have an issue,” writes the previous International Workplace chief Simon McDonald in his latest guide on the way forward for British international coverage. My Observer colleague Will Hutton writes: “It’s time to cease speaking and pondering of Britain as a wealthy and broadly truthful nation,” in his personal name for a wider nationwide remaking. “We can’t assist the world reply to the record of world issues if we ourselves are on it,” echoes the ex-cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill in a pamphlet concerning the International Workplace revealed this week.

The vast majority of folks appear to get this, too. Two-thirds of the nation suppose Britain is heading within the mistaken course, says Ipsos. Fewer than one in six disagree. That’s an enormous gulf, near document ranges. The fact, clear to the bulk, is that we are able to achieve this a lot better. Renewal is pressing. However the minority preferring and even revere the established order are nonetheless round. They don’t settle for there’s a downside, or that something very main is mistaken. Or fairly, they suppose the actual downside is those that need issues to vary.

A few of the early responses to the Sedwill report – co-authored with the previous senior officers Moazzam Malik and Tom Fletcher, amongst others – present this reflex at work. It definitely has its faults. God save us from their suggestion of a International Workplace rebranded as International Affairs UK, as an example. However the underlying actuality of the pamphlet is that it’s not a name for reform of the International Workplace alone. It’s a name for the renewal of British governance and, crucially, for a extra balanced recognition of what Britain is in addition to what it was.

To a few of the Sedwill pamphlet’s rightwing critics, that is merely an influence seize by the entitled liberal institution that they blame for Britain’s misfortunes. Charles Moore, within the Every day Telegraph, foresees a division that might be extra involved with apologising for Britain’s previous than with “working for British pursuits”. Melanie Phillips, within the Instances, bemoans the report’s “necessary self-flagellation”, its “nationwide self-loathing” and its “talking-down of Britain’s historic identification” and sneers at its prioritisation of the local weather disaster.

Few issues concerning the pamphlet, although, have provoked the critics greater than its questioning of the thought of British greatness. In a subsection that begins, “We have to construct on our strengths and depend on actions fairly than rhetoric,” the pamphlet says that the UK has typically tried to mission a picture of “greatness” to the world however that this immediately appears anachronistic. “We should always not all the time see ourselves because the chief in efforts to sort out international challenges,” it states. As a substitute, we must be “extra of a crew participant, exhibiting humility and respect”.

It’s plain why this strikes a rightwing nerve. In July 2019, Boris Johnson ran for the Conservative management with a pledge to “set out a imaginative and prescient for Britain as the best place on Earth. The best place to be, the best place to dwell, to boost a household.” All through his prime ministership, and particularly through the Covid pandemic, he would hymn British efforts on check and hint or on vaccines as “world-beating”.

Since Johnson’s fall from energy, there has – unsurprisingly – been far much less of this sort of speak. The dial has shifted again in the direction of cooperation and alliances. However the mandarins can’t blame the greatness rhetoric on Johnson alone. It was, in any case, the International Workplace itself, then beneath William Hague, that in 2011 launched the “Nice” Britain marketing campaign, which branded this nation’s international pre-Brexit presence with an emphasis on its “nice” companies, “nice” creativity, “nice” entrepreneurialism and a number of different “nice” qualities. This was later relaunched in 2021 in time for Johnson’s chairing of the G7 and Cop26 conferences because the “Nice” Britain and Northern Eire marketing campaign.

Furthermore, the love affair with British greatness nonetheless lives on, and never solely within the Conservative social gathering. In 2021 the then transport secretary, Grant Shapps, promised a brand new public physique to be referred to as Nice British Railways to switch Community Rail. A 12 months later, Starmer launched the plan for Nice British Vitality, a publicly owned firm to coordinate and lead a nationwide clear power drive.

If Labour types the subsequent authorities, Starmer will definitely face a profound process of nationwide renewal. However nationwide renewal and interesting to British greatness are in no way the identical factor. The job of remaking will exceed the duty going through any authorities since that of 1945. It’s going to wrestle to succeed. However it is going to have a much better probability whether it is solid as what it’s – a nationwide effort; and never what it’s not – an embodiment of greatness.

Central to nationwide renewal can be articulating a extra nuanced and inclusive sense of ourselves and of our nation rather than a preposterous and unique one. The general public appears prepared for the great sense of such a change. On this rebuilding, nationwide boastfulness can be as misplaced as nationwide self-loathing. Wallowing in assumed glory can be as inappropriate as wallowing in guilt. Often I flirt with the fantasy of a brand new statute to rename the nation as merely Britain. That’s not going to occur, however it’s nonetheless true that Britain must get past the rhetoric and pondering of itself as “nice” Britain. If it may well, this actually could be a higher place for us all.


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