An uncertain idea of Britain

  • Themes: Britain, Elections

Neither major party campaigned in the general election with a clear sense of British economic and political identity. It is now up to the new Labour government to build one.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer speaks to supporters at a watch party for the results of the 2024 General Election in central London, as the party appears on course for a landslide win in the 2024 General Election.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer speaks to supporters at a watch party for the results of the 2024 General Election in central London, as the party appears on course for a landslide win in the 2024 General Election. Credit: PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

In just over two months, Britain’s last coal-fired power station will close. Ratcliffe-on-Soar was opened in 1968 when Britain produced nearly 180 million tonnes of coal a year. The eight cooling towers on the Nottinghamshire plain will shut off at the end of September, concrete monuments to a Britain that once was.

The final pieces of Britain’s original industrial heritage are disappearing. The threatened closure of Port Talbot steelworks in Wales on 7 July, averted by a last-minute agreement to stop a strike, barely registered in Britain’s general election campaign. Today’s industrial actions stem not from coal mines or steelworks but from public services, with relatively well-paid yet overstretched workers – train drivers and junior doctors among them – citing diminishing capacity to meet escalating costs and demands.

Ratcliffe-on-Soar covers the same acreage as the City of London, the UK’s financial heart that generates over £97 billion in annual economic output. The rebalancing of the British economy since the Second World War has compressed into the Square Mile of London’s financial district. ‘Portugal but with Singapore in the bottom corner’ is a common adage for Britain’s disparity, and political debates about infrastructure, housing, employment and opportunity are refracted through the lens of the UK’s stratified economic make-up.

Rushcliffe – the constituency in which Ratcliffe-on-Soar sits – was a safe Conservative seat, held until 2019 for nearly 50 years by the former senior minister Ken Clarke. Yet like dozens of other once-safe constituencies, it has fallen to the red wave across the country. The City of London is now also represented by a Labour MP for the first time. Labour’s victory is the fourth largest landslide in British history, delivering a substantial parliamentary majority yet on a relatively small proportion of the vote. Beneath the red map lies a precarious nation.

Keir Starmer’s ascension makes him only the fourth Labour leader to have secured a majority in a general election, a statistic that underscores the right’s historical dominance in shaping Britain’s political character. No one alive today has lived more of their life under a Labour government than a Conservative one. This context imbues Starmer’s premiership with a particular tension: he now leads a country whose conservative instincts have long transcended party lines, challenging him to navigate between change and continuity in a nation uncertain of its identity.

Starmer’s campaign artfully positioned him as the antithesis of recent Conservative leadership, emphasising sensibility and maturity as counterpoints to perceived Tory recklessness. Though ostensibly facing Rishi Sunak, Starmer’s strategy was shaped more by the spectre of Boris Johnson. Starmer cast his political identity and his campaign against the frivolities of Johnson and the economic malfeasance of Liz Truss. Where countless opponents of Johnson failed, Starmer has defined himself as the anti-Boris. He would not party through lockdowns, assured his implicit promise to the country; he would not break the economic rules. He would not fiddle while Rome burned.

The general election campaign since May was a clash of conservative dispositions by the main party leaders. Labour’s strategy of extreme caution, born from fear of another electoral backlash, eschewed any hint of radicalism. Rishi Sunak’s early D-Day departure brought out the Furies in the form of nonagenarian veterans to castigate him for his astonishing gaffe. Reform UK championed a bulldog Trumpism, while the Liberal Democrats ran (and danced, swam, jumped, cycled, hula-hooped and paddle-boarded) on a platform well to the left of Labour on public spending.

For all its intensity, the campaign skirted the broader issues of national role and character in this third decade of the 21st century – the ‘certain idea of a nation,’ in Charles de Gaulle’s maxim. Labour’s ascension to power brings into sharp focus the fundamental challenges facing Britain’s political character. What can Britain do? The pressing questions are not flippant or plays to histrionic declinism. They are an enquiry into the entrenched scleroticism of Britain’s capabilities.

Can Britain build? For nearly three decades, the government has consistently fallen short of its annual target of 300,000 new homes. England has 434 homes per 1,000 people to France’s 590. Britain has not constructed a reservoir since 1991 or finished a new nuclear power station since 1995. HS2 was scrapped but even modest projects, such as widening the A66 road in northern England, take over a decade to complete.

Can Britain grow? British productivity is lower than in France, Germany and the United States by around 25 per cent; it crashed after the 2008 financial crisis and has languished ever since. Economic growth is picking up modestly but, according to the Office for Budget Responsibility, GDP per head and real household incomes are both one per cent lower than at the 2019 general election.

Can Britain defend itself? One former senior defence official recently told the Financial Times that Britain is unprepared for a ‘conflict of any scale’ and ‘cannot defend the British homelands properly.’ It does not even have enough ammunition for a war.

Can Britain implement radical reforms? While Liz Truss’s ill-fated economic policies in 2022 serve as a cautionary tale, they also highlight the formidable influence of external market forces in constraining state action. This tension between the desire for change and the realities of global economic pressures will be a defining challenge for the new government.

The pandemic exhibited the power of the state as an economic force and its capacity for social control, but that stands as the exception that proves the rule about Britain’s limited potential in other areas. From 2010, David Cameron and George Osborne reduced spending on public services and investment in response to the 2008 financial crisis. Austerity was an ambitious programme of reform but one that restricted the actions of future governments. There is no equal and opposite reaction to austerity. It can be easy to cut; it is much harder to rebuild. Boris Johnson’s ‘Levelling Up’ agenda tried to recalibrate British society and rejuvenate northern England but it has suffered a slow, agonising demise since the 2019 election.

Labour’s inheritance is a state diminished by over a decade of austerity and political turbulence. The party’s approach to governance reflects this reality. In February 2024, Labour dropped its pledge to spend £28 billion a year on green investment. It has ruled out tax rises in the areas that draw in three quarters of revenue – National Insurance, corporation tax, VAT and income tax. ‘Labour’s proposed additional spending is about one tenth and one fifteenth respectively of proposals in their 2017 and 2019 manifestos’, wrote the former deputy governor of the Bank of England, Andy Haldane. ‘The proposed public spending increment is less than a weekend’s GDP under Labour plans, and little more than a long weekend’s GDP under Conservative plans.’

Labour’s caution is not born of ignorance but of a hard-won political realism. The moderate wing of the Labour Party assumed a defensive posture after the 2015 defeat and Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victory. The question will be whether it has the confidence to move beyond it.

Keir Starmer built his leadership credibility by distancing himself from Corbyn. For all the simplicity of associating this new government with that of Tony Blair and New Labour after 1997, however, the direction and context are substantially different. In 1997, for example, Britain’s economy was twice the size of China’s. It is now five times smaller. The trends of globalisation after the Cold War were beneficial to Britain but now the retrenchment of the international system, with wars and economic shocks, only increase the difficulties facing the country.

Keir Starmer and Rachel Reeves’ international scope and ambitions to build new institutions signal their distance from Tony Blair’s political project. New Labour was a malleable force, flexible with the innovations of Thatcherism and a globalised world, and its successes came from its crafty tinkering with British society. Keir Starmer’s Labour government is drawing upon a deeper history of socialist responses to global dilemmas. For the initial postwar period, Labour was a party devoted to national construction and building full employment was the cornerstone. In the 1970s, James Callaghan had ambitious plans for coordinated growth across the Western world, international stabilisation of inflation and domestic energy development in the North Sea.

Labour’s manifesto carried the etchings of a plan for nationbuilding. The losses of the SNP in Scotland also mean that, for the first time since 2015, the makeup of the Westminster government has a broadly national mandate. Labour is the largest party in England, Scotland and Wales, the first party to achieve that in 23 years. The Scottish nationalists’ quest for parochial sovereignty has been superseded by a wider rejection of the Conservative government for Labour.

The Labour right’s exile during Corbyn’s tenure unexpectedly yielded common ground on substantial economic and environmental reforms, a convergence bolstered by Joe Biden’s parallel programme in the United States. A modern supply-side agenda is the centrepiece of the Labour Party’s manifesto. At its core lies an ambitious industrial strategy, buttressed by a constellation of new institutions and quasi-autonomous bodies. These include Great British Energy, Skills England, the National Infrastructure and Service Transformation Authority, and a National Wealth Fund.

Labour was ejected from office in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher, in part because it could not restrain inflation. The economic aftermath of the pandemic and Liz Truss’s mini-budget have passed the mantle of monetary discipline to the Labour Party. The markets look upon Labour positively and its government has more economic room than the Conservatives. While Labour remains vigilant about maintaining its economic credibility and wary of potential global disruptions, such as a second Trump administration, it envisions green adaptation as the crucible of Britain’s future.

Starmer’s Labour has won the right to make that future, but the era shaped by 14 years of Conservative government does not end with a mere rebalancing of the House of Commons. The successes of Reform UK and the rightward march in Europe and the US highlight the continuation of trends that have brought down progressive governments across the world. Labour have championed change for Britain, but that will require much more than just electoral victory.


Angus Reilly