New Labour must find its way back to liberal England
Where once there was mutual respect, there is now only antagonismMartin Kettle
Tuesday March 22, 2005
By any definition, the memorial service for the writer Anthony Sampson, which took place on a sunny morning last week, was a very English event. It was held in the heart of England's capital city, in one of England's most famous churches, within sight of England's most famous monument, commemorating England's greatest hero. What could be more English?
And what could be more English than the simple Anglican service in which his life and writing were recalled. We began with a very English hymn, He Who Would Valiant Be, with words by one of the essential voices of English nonconformism. Then we listened to Janet Suzman read a passage from Cymbeline, the work of the most astonishing of all Englishmen. Later we stood again and sang the most English of songs - the real national anthem - summoning up our arrows of desire and our chariot of fire, pledging again an unceasing mental fight till we have built Jerusalem in England's green and pleasant land.
Sampson, said one of those who paid tribute to him, was "the most English of Englishmen". And, in a superficial sense, that was true. Public school, Oxford, wartime service in the navy, love of gardens. Sampson's upbringing ticked all the boxes of a certain sort of Englishness. But Sampson also ticked a lot of less exclusive boxes. As everything he ever penned made clear, he also had Bunyan's love of the truth, Shakespeare's love of the world, Blake's love of the imagination - and maybe even Nelson's love of a good fight.
That Englishness was also fundamentally inclusive. It was a national identity that drew its fullest meaning from wider connections. The tribute in St Martin-in-the-Fields that highlighted his Englishness came from an Irishman, Tony O'Reilly. Another was given by a Scot, Neal Ascherson. A third was delivered by a South African, John Matshikiza. There was a reminder also, in a reading by his son Paul, of Sampson's Romany connections. And in the order of service Nelson Mandela, no less, recorded that Sampson was "in many ways so English and in many ways so African".
Other cultures, therefore, were integral not incidental to the Englishness of a man who edited the black magazine Drum in Johannesburg in the 1950s and was editorial adviser to the Brandt commission on north-south relations in 1980. So it was not just Jerusalem that moved us when we gathered to remember him last week. It was also the choir singing Nkosi Sikelel' iAfrika. And Mozart's Laudate Dominum too. And the Prisoners' Chorus from Beethoven's Fidelio. England, Africa, Europe. All were part of the identity.
I am not seeking to claim, in our commemoration of Sampson, that we were celebrating a definitive Englishness. This was unmistakably a gathering of English men and women of a particular kind. They seemed to me to be the stubbornly principled, occasionally self-righteous bearers of the English imagination of which Peter Ackroyd writes so movingly - people haunted by the landscape and above all by the language, people permanently aware of the past, but people adaptive and comfortable in diversity, practical and pragmatic carriers of a mixed culture. Call them the recusant establishment of literate and liberal England.
Most striking about the occasion were two things. First, that these liberal recusants are growing old. And, second, that there was not a single Labour minister or MP there. On the steps of the church afterwards, I looked for the politicians and saw only a few of any stripe. Shirley Williams and David Owen were there; Margaret Jay and Helena Kennedy too. But none of the thinking ministers you might expect to want to mark the passing of the anatomist of Britain. No Peter Hain, no Tessa Jowell, no David Blunkett - and no Gordon Brown or Tony Blair.
It seems to me that this small piece of probably unintended negligence or disrespect - call it what you will - speaks of a deeper, more important and more lasting divide. It speaks of the gulf that exists between liberal Englishness and the Labour government. It embodied what feels like the increasing separation between the old progressive historically conscious middle-class liberalism that Sampson embodied, and the cautious managerial reformism, suspicious of history, that is New Labour.
If this had been the memorial service for some grandee of rightwing journalism, it is odds on that many of the above would have been there. They were out in force to mark the passing in 1998 of the Daily Mail's Sir David English, whom Blair described as a truly outstanding journalist; and for Lord Rothermere a year later, when Blair read a lesson from the pulpit. Half the cabinet was on parade for both.
However, it is mischievous to beat up on Blair. And lazy too, because on this it's all of them. It was Blunkett who turned up at the 2003 anniversary bash for Paul Dacre's 10 years as editor of the Mail to propose a toast to a man who "reflects the best of journalism". And Brown who appeared by video-link at the same event, praising Dacre for his "great personal warmth and kindness as well as great journalistic skill".
It is self-evident that this generation of Labour leaders feels no equivalent imperative when faced with the passing of a great liberal journalist like Sampson. This is, in some respects, a change. In his early days as Labour leader, Blair was genuinely comfortable with liberalism, notably in his 1995 Fabian lecture on the 50th anniversary of the Attlee government. But the comfort long ago became impatience. Now, as the terrorism bill debates showed, there is even genuine antagonism. And the antagonism is reciprocated. I don't think there were many in that memorial service who still have much time for either Blair or his government.
This divorce is a huge and historic loss for both sides. On its own, liberal England is powerless, as the Thatcher years showed. Yet a lot that was strong and promising about New Labour derived from its embrace of liberal England. Ever since New Labour broke from liberal English public opinion - principally over Iraq - it has grown weaker. Not until it finds its way back to liberal England will Labour revive and prosper again. Whether Blair has the appetite or the credibility to do this is an open question.
We will all be the losers if the politician best equipped to bring the liberal and labour traditions back together proves to have presided instead over their rupture. It is some consolation that politicians like Blunkett and Brown are prepared to talk and think about Britishness, but they are still a long way from understanding liberal England. They will have to listen as well as lecture before they do. But listen and understand they must, if Labour is to reforge the sword that has been broken.