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Great expectations and the moment of truth : New Labour, national identity, religion and war

Serge Auffret
p. 177-194


In times of crisis, rumours of war and war, the issues associated with national identity necessarily take on added urgency, particularly when the religious dimension is also involved. As it assumed its status as a party of government New Labour simultaneously proclaimed major ethical aspirations in the field of international relations, defence policy and the promotion of democracy. The revisiting and revitalising of patriotism would bear the hallmarks of humanitarianism and religious and cultural pluralism. This would provide foundations for a new social contract and a new British way of engaging the world. As the government began to operate in increasingly centralised fashion, the version of British identity initially premised on becoming again a “force for good” on the international scene underwent the acid test of several humanitarian aid military interventions, of the aftermath of 9/11, and of unilateral war in Iraq.
Clare Short and Robin Cook are privileged witnesses whose critical analyses provide insights into how Tony Blair’s time in office came to run the risk of seeing New Labour’s policy assessed mainly by the yardstick of the great expectations aroused as a result of placing ethical and identity questions at the forefront of the political debate.

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1The debate on New Labour and British identity is a highly charged one, fraught with political undertones, pitting “open” against “exclusivist” interpretations of identity, with commentators diversely presenting religion as on the wane or on the rise again; a debate raising the issue of the relationship between Britishness and citizenship.

  • 1  Smith Institute 2007 report

2The overall context seems to have witnessed recently not only a resurgence of a “Little Englander” mentality as expressed in the views of Robert Kilroy-Silk’s UKIP, or the success of Melanie Phillips’s book Londonistan, to take but two examples, but also a desire to revitalise a “progressive approach to Britishness”1.

3The effects of the terrorist attacks of 9/11/2001 and 7/7/2005 on British public opinion have meant that what I will call multiculturality –meaning the reality- as well as multiculturalism –the prescriptive doctrine- together with the place of British Islam figured prominently in the public debate, leading several senior Labour Party figures and think tanks such as the Smith Institute or the Institute for Public Policy Research to re-examine the Party’s policy and plans in this field. In analysing some of the major trends over the period 1997-2003, I will attempt to beware of the risk of falling prey to what may be termed the ‘malefit’ of hindsight, a risk which should not be taken lightly.

4What emerges distinctly as Britain was moving into the 21st century is how closely inter-related are New Labour’s insistence on a so-called ethical dimension of British identity on the world scene and, domestically, the renewed focus on the religious dimension of British identity.

New Labour and the ethical dimension of British identity

  • 2  “Blair in his own words”, 5 and 7 May 1997

5Great expectations were aroused in 1997. As a result of the Matrix-Churchill arms-to-Iraq scandal and the repeated accusations of “sleaze” against the Conservative government, Tony Blair promised New Labour would seek to “restore trust in politics” and that the new government would be “servants of the people”.2 The pledge applied both domestically and in the international arena. Labour’s 1997 General Election Manifesto stated that a Labour government would conduct a foreign policy that would “restore Britain’s pride and influence as a leading force for good in the world”. Labour claimed it wanted Britain to be respected “for the integrity with which it conducts its foreign relations” making “the protection and promotion of human rights a central part of our foreign policy” ; working for the creation of a permanent criminal court to investigate genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity ; and accepting “a moral responsibility to help combat global poverty”.

6On taking office, Robin Cook immediately confirmed in the mission statement he issued that

  • 3  FCO mission statement, May 1997

Our foreign policy must have an ethical dimension and must support the demands of other peoples for the democratic rights on which we insist for ourselves. The Labour Government will put human rights at the heart of our foreign policy.3

7Clare Short for her part insisted the new, progressive foreign policy immediately translated into

  • 4  sic : a misnomer, and a term Robin Cook claimed he never employed.
  • 5  Short, C., 2005, p. 66

signing the EU social chapter; an ethical foreign policy4; a ban on land mines; an aid programme focused on reducing poverty; rejoining UNESCO, and tightening controls on arms exports. We were also immediately committed to incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into UK law ....5

8It is perhaps interesting to note that despite the obvious, implied criticism of the previous government, such declarations were met at the outset with more approval than scepticism or cynicism. The Whitehall joke quoted by Geoffrey Wheatcroft in a vitriolic pamphlet soon went however “Please leave a message after the high moral tone”.

  • 6  Curtis, M., 2003

9Defining Britishness in ethical terms could be objected to both on theoretical grounds – can you define the particular in universal terms; is it the British way to make openly universalist claims- and on practical, tactical or ideological ones – the feasibility, the inbuilt lack of humility and realism being perceived as bound to backfire, the radical critique6 of Britain’s role in the world. Most commentators now dismiss New Labour’s ethical claims, focusing not on principle but exclusively on unethical episodes : the Ecclestone, Mittal, Hinduja, and cash for peerages affairs, while Labour supporters deny this, insisting the government delivered social justice, with nearly full employment, the reduction of poverty, and uninterrupted economic growth.

10The fact was that the new criteria for arms sales were not applied retroactively, and the sale of Hawk aircraft to the Indonesian regime was allowed to proceed by the Prime Minister. The “idealists” such as Clare Short or, on the back benches, Tony Benn, lost to the supporters of realpolitik ; but in the process the “ethical dimension” had suffered its first major, and early, defeat. A parallel may be drawn here with the aspirations of a number of members of the first Mitterrand government similarly crushed in the name of preserving France’s independence by safeguarding France’s arms industry and the jobs associated with the defence procurement sector.

  • 7  Coates, D., Krieger, J., 2004, p. 21

11What Coates and Krieger call “warlike humanitarianism”7, what some others call “liberal democratic imperialism” became a staple of New Labour’s foreign policy as exemplified by interventions in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, but also Iraq (Desert Fox 1998), Afghanistan and ultimately Iraq again in 2003.

  • 8  Cook, R., 2003, p. 198

12At this stage it may be relevant both to remember the circumstances –the tragedies in ex-Yugoslavia and Rwanda had meant that limits on national sovereignty had come to be seen as desirable– and to provide a reminder on Labour and internationalism. It could be argued that internationalism comes in two very different guises, one that is pragmatist, atlanticist, pro-UN, pro-nuclear deterrent, and the other, embodied in CND, the so called “hard left”, and the anti-imperialist movement whatever its persuasion, which is severely critical of NATO and the special relationship, opposes the British nuclear deterrent and favours the UN route as the best existing way of foiling superpower or major power designs at the expense of smaller nations. Many in the Labour Party have been highly critical of US unilateralism as witnessed by the refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol (2001) or the creation of the International Criminal Court (2002) as well as American “go-it-alone” policies in the Middle East.8

13It is essential to remember that for the New Labour leadership misguided idealism had led to the adoption of the party’s stance on unilateral nuclear disarmament, accounting with Clause 4 and tax policy for defeat at the polls, not least in 1992 when many Labour leaders felt the party snatched defeat from the jaws of victory for those precise reasons. Clare Short and many political commentators date the obsession with what the Murdoch press would say from the “It was the Sun wot won it” episode.

  • 9  “Blair in his own words”, 12 May 1994”
  • 10  Short, C., 2005, p. 42

14As early as 1994 the Blair team insisted they would “transform Labour from a party of protest to a party of government”9, and described this as an important dimension of the New Labour project as opposed to “old Labour” ways. The idea that only New Labour could win in 1997 is vehemently rejected by Clare Short in tribute to John Smith’s memory and out of deep Old Labour loyalty.10

15How does all this connect with British identity? Who you are and who you want to be on the international scene also serves to define who you are and who you want your country to be domestically, and conversely. The two cannot be separated.

16Robin Cook insisted on the international dimension in his mission statement for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in May 1997

We live in a modern world in which nation states are interdependent. In that modern world foreign policy is not divorced from foreign policy but a central part of any political programme. In order to achieve our goals for the people of Britain we need a foreign strategy that supports the same goals.

  • 11  Cook, R., 2003, p. 297

17The same desire for consistency was later expressed in his Commons resignation speech on the eve of the war with Iraq on March 17, 2003. When Robin Cook quoted Tony Blair saying in his Chicago speech “If we want a world ruled by law and international cooperation then we have to support the UN as its central pillar.”11 it was to suggest that the Prime Minister had not been consistent with his own principles.

18So the ambitions had been clearly stated, but the mission statement also contended that the new policy was also in Britain’s best interests :

  • 12  Cook, R., May 12, 1997 speech

Britain has a national interest in the promotion of our values and confidence in our identity. That is why the fourth goal of our foreign policy is to secure the respect of other nations for Britain’s contribution to keeping the peace of the world and promoting democracy around the world. The Labour government does not accept that political values can be left behind when we check in our passports to travel on diplomatic business.12

  • 13  Short, C., 2005, p. 222
  • 14  Channel 4 political book of the year
  • 15  Riddell, P., p. 193

19This sense of commitment, of responsibility, this pride in a new role was also expressed in Clare Short’s assessment of the work of DfID.13 Allowing for differing personalities and styles, the divergent ways in which two senior members of the government stated their reasons for resigning in 2003 make the points on which they agree particularly significant- the role of Party whips and patronage, the insufficient concern for Parliament and the excessive concern for the media, the negative effects of spin and French-bashing. Robin Cook’s criticism of the government’s policy was built on rational argument, a proclaimed desire to be consistent and dispassionate, a strong reassertion of Labour loyalty including to the Prime Minister himself, and a calculated display of statesmanship. Clare Short’s opposition to the war, final resignation and 2004 book14 with its devastating and sometimes bitter critique of New Labour resulted in alienating many if not most in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Peter Riddell expressed this negative appreciation when he referred to Clare Short as “admittedly a critic with attitude and several axes to grind”.15

  • 16  Cook, R., New Statesman interview, 3 May 1999
  • 17  Global Ethic Foundation,
  • 18  notably Peter Riddell , Peter Hennessy and Anthony Seldon.

20It has been argued that the rhetoric of good versus evil, with potentially Manichean undertones, was specific to Tony Blair, quickly dubbed by Private Eye the “vicar of Saint Albion’s”. But it could equally be argued that the situation itself warranted the use of such language, and that Robin Cook for example remarked on the situation in Kosovo and the need to intervene : “I am absolutely robust that we are right to be fighting this evil.”16 Is it to say that this kind of language should be banned ? No, but what matters is that the values were consistent with Blair’s self-proclaimed Christian Socialist ideas, concept of community as expressed in John McMurray’s writings, and search for a global ethic embodied in Hans Küng’s book and foundation.17 The insistence on ethics, the promotion of democratic values, the energetic use of military force to enforce them may have been questioned in various circles, but the overall picture seemed positive, and the recognition of Tony Blair’s work culminated perhaps with the award of the Charlemagne prize in 1999 –with however two important caveats made by many political commentators on the decline of Cabinet government and the role of “spin doctors”.18

  • 19  quoted by Wheatcroft, G., 16 August 2007

21Tony Blair, as is naturally the case for any newly elected leader without previous experience as Foreign Secretary, had little international experience, but increasingly devoted time and energy to his preserve, foreign policy concerns. Initially he had said (1997) referring to major wars and reflecting some of the optimism that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall : “Ours is the first generation able to contemplate that we may live without going to war or sending our children to war.” 19

  • 20  Blair, T., 24 April 1999 speech

22In his Chicago speech of 199920, bolstered by the prominent role he had played over Sierra Leone and Kosovo, he formulated his “doctrine of international community” in which figures prominently the duty to intervene, echoing Mario Bettati and Bernard Kouchner’s droit d’ingérence humanitaire but anticipating the UN’s “responsibility to protect” December 2001 report.

  • 21  Mistrust of America …” Pew Report, 16 March 2004

23British identity as expressed by the government’s foreign policy sincerely aimed at being a “force for good” along internationalist and interventionist lines. The run-up to the war in Iraq, then war itself and its aftermath were to alter profoundly not just the image of Tony Blair as a leader but public perceptions of the role of Britain alongside the US on the world scene. Not support for the UN, on the contrary.21 When, as late as 2006, Tony Blair exclaimed “I will never apologise for Britain being a strong ally of the US” some felt it was a case of “their country right or wrong”. And an element of pride in true British identity was also, indirectly, present in the depiction of Blair as Bush’s poodle. Britain deserved better.

24Tony Blair had fully taken stock of the fact that, although the Suez affair had certainly taught Britain and France a lesson on the limits of their power, neither had Britain become an ordinary country. With a seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, worldwide access and presence, however reduced, with economic and financial power, links with former colonies, capable military forces and the nuclear deterrent, Britain still had a unique role to play.

  • 22  The Education Minister, Michael Wills, was appointed in November 2000 to co-ordinate efforts to co (...)

25It could thus be argued that Britain’s identity on the world scene, while not openly displaying universalist pretensions like America’s or France’s, the most typical examples, was rebranded under Tony Blair in ethical terms in those years ; and the sense of pride in Britain’s national identity and role22 was a theme taken up by Gordon Brown.

26It is not for us here to go into the details alleged or proved of the vexed ethical issue of the exact date when Mr Blair actually committed his country to war alongside the United States. Suffice it to say that his leadership emerged from the Iraq war severely wounded, because the premises on which he had built British intervention no longer seemed to be there. While deep down the argument may have been been a moral-ethical one again – the removal of Saddam Hussein the tyrant- it was the development and potential deployment of weapons of mass destruction that was used as the rationale for intervention, and not the “responsibility to protect” the Iraqi population, an argument that could have backfired and effectively did ; equivocation on regime change and disarmament was seen in many circles as hiding a less idealistic agenda, combining the promises informally made to George W. Bush and the necessity to guarantee access to oil resources.

  • 23  French bashing is reported in Stothard, P., p. 27 (“lots of rudeness about the French”), 74 (“Anyt (...)
  • 24  Short, C., p. 229
  • 25  Short, C., p. 304
  • 26  quoted by Lane, A., in Seldon, A. and Hickson, K., p. 168

27What is also disturbing –not just because France happened to play a leading role in opposing British and American initiatives- is the way the tabloids were allowed to distort reality without any requests from the government to correct misapprehensions when they served the government’s policy. The way the 45 minutes claim was portrayed or the return to blatant French-bashing testified to a resurgence of the more facile approach, with “spin”, and possibly disinformation being used23. This is not to say that in ethical terms the situation was straightforward ; in fact a lot hinged on understatements on each side on the issues of Resolution 1441 and automaticity, on the need for a second resolution, on a potential French veto... Clare Short remarks : “The vilification of France and misrepresentation of its position was the fig-leaf for the failure of the second resolution.”24 Like Robin Cook, she saw this as a grave failure : « We have also been, since our beginnings, strong internationalists and supporters of the UN and international law. These are values that speak to the human spirit and can hold the world together.”25 A realist approach of the type advocated by James Callaghan : “we may vote at the ballot box for changes in policy and personalities, but on acquiring office governments inherit an international situation on which the footprints of the past are heavily marked”26 while not denying idealist aspirations to “change the facts” may have proved a safer way to address the complexities of the situation in the Middle East and the divergent interests of the major protagonists.

  • 27  Hennessy, P., quoting an interview by Anne Applebaum, p. 525
  • 28  Cook, R., p. 141
  • 29  Brown, G. speech of 24 September 2007
  • 30  Jones, G., Sylvester, R., and Thomson, A., 13 June 2007

28It is worth noting that the debate was an ethical one relying throughout on the Just War criteria. But since 2003 not only has the lack of preparations for winning the peace been acknowledged, but almost all of the warnings which had been issued publicly, including in very high calibre Commons and Lords debates, have unfortunately been shown to have been relevant. Britain takes pride in its democratic traditions embodied in Parliament and the civil service ; it could be argued that despite the alleged requirements of efficient, modern government made by Tony Blair, time-tested procedures do provide a minimal framework, and ethical safeguards against abuse.27 Cook remarks the “undersell and over-perform” slogan was unwisely set aside28. Gordon Brown's first speech to the Labour conference as party leader was an indirect acknowledgment when he talked about “listening to and involving the British people themselves”29 ; he had already distanced himself from “sofa government” and the misuse of intelligence in June.30

  • 31  Mulgan, G., Ali, R., in Johnson, N., (ed.), 2007
  • 32  Stothard, P., p. 189

29Not only was Britain’s identity on the world scene as a “force for good” severely questioned over the invasion and occupation of Iraq, but a powerful anti-colonialist critique emerged, challenging the government’s motives and policies. There is no denying that between 2003 and 2007 the prolonged “Bliar” campaign and moral-ethical criticism of war, occupation, and civilian losses in Iraq took their toll, and that trust in the government seemed gravely undermined again. It is significant in this context that Mulgan and Ali should argue in the Smith Institute Report that in future « …. If there are to be values that underpin any revived sense of Britishness, these should be universal values, and values that we often fail to live up to – not ones that we claim as uniquely ours. »31 In Peter Stothard’s account32, faced with the ultimate challenge to the legitimacy of his decision to send British military personnel to war, the deaths of innocents in a series of incidents in early April 2003, Tony Blair spoke of moral responsibility in directly religious terms, “being ready to meet [his] Maker” and answer “for those who have died or have been horribly maimed as a result of [his] decisions”.

New Labour and the religious dimension of British identity

  • 33  Short, C., p. 22

30It would be dangerously misleading to generalise about New Labour, British identity and religion here, and the analysis will have to bear on the ways in which Tony Blair, Robin Cook and Clare Short diversely expressed influential views and shaped or attempted to shape policy at the time, with each protagonist running the risk of confusing personal preference with government policy and the national interest. Short who was occasionally depicted as “the conscience of the Party” describes her “devotion, comparable to a religious commitment”33 to socialism and the Labour Party ; Cook, who admitted to having “lost his faith”, insisted throughout on intellectual consistency as his contribution to the ethical debate ; and Blair was often described as perhaps the most openly religious and church-going Prime Minister in British history since Gladstone.

31In 1993, Keith Robbins was remarking:

  • 34  Robbins, K., p. 264

“The question of the 20th century might not be whether a Protestant tradition remains in the ascendancy but whether the nature of British identity might be transformed by a marginalisation of all Christian traditions”34

32One may add that the place of Islam in Britain and the issue of whether a “British Islam” would emerge made the question of religious identity under New Labour even more complex. Blair’s interest in the contribution religion could make to society did not begin as a defensive project addressing the religious sub-text of war on Afghanistan or Iraq, or the impact foreign policy difficulties were liable to have on the domestic situation, though maintaining religious concord in Britain did seem a necessity. While many equated modernity with secularisation, Tony Blair apparently ascribed great importance to the role, contribution and value of religion in society as Britain was moving into the 21st century. Religion was seen as creating social capital and fostering a sense of belonging. Patriotism and religion, which had been associated with the Conservative Party more than with the Labour Party -despite the importance of Methodism- were again at the centre of British political discourse on identity. Alastair Campbell’s famous remark “We don’t do God.” was only a public relations one-off which did not reflect reality. New Labour under Blair did give pride of place to religious concerns, and the Prime Minister was quite deliberate in highlighting the contribution religion could make to society.

33While some saw this as sheer electoral tactics, others as utilitarianism, with religious practice good for social order, and for achieving peaceful coexistence between Islam, Christianity and secular society, senior religious leaders were impressed by the Prime Minister’s commitment and conviction. The Archbishop of Canterbury thought it positive that the religious dimension should be acknowledged as an element of statecraft. Beyond Tony Blair’s personal religious involvement, the insistence on inter-faith initiatives to secure cohesion particularly in time of crisis or war, the call on religious leaders to support the government’s action on Kosovo and Afghanistan and to present a united front including the Muslims, the adoption of the Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006 were dominant features of the attempt to redefine British identity as inclusive. In everyday life, this trickles down to such symbolic measures as the encouragement given to teenage members of the minorities to join Army Cadet Forces −but the Armed forces’ officer corps is still far behind the new, official goal of reflecting ethnic diversity- or the 2005 appointment of the first Muslim military chaplain.

34War being perhaps the ultimate test of social cohesion and governmental responsibility, it is interesting to note that over Iraq, and contrary to all military interventions up to Afghanistan included, the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church were very critical of government policy, and cohesion with Islam was achieved not with religious leaders supporting the government as before, but through their joint refusal to support war.

  • 35  Carey, G., p. 196
  • 36  Carey, G., p. 211

35Admittedly, the campaigning role of some of the churches contrasted with the advisory role chosen by the Church of England and the Roman Catholic Church as they sought to influence the government. Lord Carey writes that he appreciated “the unrivalled access he had to those with political power and authority in the nation”35 and explains how he used this privileged position to put the case against war in Iraq to the Prime Minister, who sent him a four-page handwritten reply.36

  • 37  Bunting, M., in Johnson, N., (ed), 2007

36Madeleine Bunting argues that while “Britain has never had a powerful secular civic nationalism”, the way to revive Britishness is to combine “elements of a secular nationalism…. comparable to the versions enjoyed by America or France” while “continuing to accommodate multiculturalism’s plurality of communal identities”. She believes this has been “the strategy of the British government in recent years.”37

37If we try to review her claims, it is worth turning to Robin Cook’s focus on multiculturalism as an opportunity for Britain, seen from a secular perspective, with the occasional touch of humour on Britishness in Europe :

  • 38  Cook, R., p. 354

As the international dimension increasingly dominates politics, the old dividing lines between left and right will evolve over the 21st century into a parallel divide between cosmopolitans and chauvinists38

  • 39  Cook, R., p. 358

A strong multicultural society at home is also a major asset to Britain as it seeks commercial and cultural networks in a multipolar world. Cosmopolitanism on the domestic scene is the best foundation for a cosmopolitan approach to the wider world.39

  • 40  Cook, R., p. 356

We are perpetually on our guard against being tricked by one of our partners and live in constant fear of all fourteen of them ganging up to ambush us and to insist that we do something terribly non-British like eat straight bananas or drink our gin from round bottles.40

  • 41  Factsheet Five, Census Test 2007

38It is worth remarking that against the backdrop of intense secularization, the results of the 2001 census in England and Wales seemed relatively good news for the Churches with 71.6 percent affirming a Christian identity. It was the first time that questions on religious affiliation had been included. Such questions cannot be asked under French law. Interestingly, in preparation for the 2011 census, the May 2007 census test included new questions on “national identity - to allow respondents to record their English, Welsh, Scottish, Northern Irish, Irish or other identity” as well as on “language – do you speak English, Welsh, British sign language and other languages ? In Wales people will be asked how often they use the Welsh language.”41 How far will the “or other” dimension be taken remains to be seen- the answers are on a voluntary basis ; but if the new questions tested in 2007 are indeed included in the final 2011 official questionnaire, this would mean that the pool of data would no longer be based mainly on opinion polls but on Census material.

  • 42  Brierley, P., 2000

39The figures in England and Wales -as opposed to Scotland where the questions were formulated differently and more carefully- were criticised : hadn’t the questions themselves introduced a bias ? The issue of “cultural Christianity” was central. Could some of the answers have been a reaction to the perceived threat posed by foreign cultures and religions ? Or could the answer to the Census question be a continuation of the reflex “CofE” answers of yesterday ? Peter Brierley for his part was painting a very different picture of religious belonging, one of worrying decline.42

40Whatever the situation, cultural Christianity or not, the Church of England enjoyed significant visibility as the established Church on national occasions like the deaths of Lady Diana and the Queen Mother. And the Prime Minister figured prominently in every religious service of national importance. Neither was it by chance that he launched the General Election campaign on May 8, 2001 from a Church of England school’s chapel against the background of a stained glass window. The government chose to be a partner to the Jubilee 2000 campaign, and to promote inter-faith initiatives and high-level inter-religious dialogue.

41The sometimes problematic relationship between patriotism and universalism or supra-nationalism resulted in significant tensions. In terms of identity, the Archbishop of Canterbury criticised plans to rebrand the sovereign ‘Defender of Faith’ as opposed to ‘Defender of the Faith’, but this did not detract from the belief in inclusiveness, and a multi-racial, multi-faith society. Cardinal O’Brien’s 2006 remarks on Christianity in Scotland rested on the idea that, metaphorically, hospitality was only possible when you had a home. In all those cases, the issue remained what place Christianity should have : a privileged one, based on establishment or the legacy of the past, or an indifferent, or even marginal one, as demanded by militant secularists ?

  • 43  Auffret, S., “War Sermons”, November 2005
  • 44  Sacks, J., 2002

42At the time of the run-up to the war in Iraq, the theme of the clash of civilisations was seen in the US as an identitarian tool in the hands of government agencies and lobbies keen on finding new enemies to cement political cohesion in their favour and justify military budgets. In Britain it was opposed by most religious leaders.43 The Chief Rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, was perhaps the most eloquent exponent of the doctrine of empathy as opposed to the doctrine of confrontation.44

43Critics of the “Third Way” and of “triangulation” believe that using patriotism and religion was only a way of pre-empting the political debate and beating the conservatives at their own game. The allegation that the Prime Minister only saw religion as a political force multiplier is not fair, as it dismisses completely his personal convictions.


44This conference diversely discussed identity in terms of lifestyles (a descriptive approach to what people do, how they behave, how they live), credal terms (defining who people are based on what values they say they believe in) and essential terms (who you want to be, who you are). In conclusion, several questions emerge, carrying several potential observations with them.

  • 45  Ipsos MORI 2007 survey, pp. 16 and 53

45Is Britishness a definition useful only at a national or governmental level, something that increasingly does not concern the young ?45 Is it today purely for external use ? Or is Britishness the new name for rebranded citizenship ?

46Is the cosmopolitanism advocated by Robin Cook a thing of the socio-political elite, or already an everyday reality, however conflict-prone, in the larger cities ? Could New Labour’s insistence on Britishness and citizenship under Prime Ministers Blair and Brown be a not so indirect comment on the current state (and failure ?) of multiculturalism ?

  • 46  Blair, T., Britain speech of 28 March 2000
  • 47  Ipsos MORI 2007 survey, id.

47Isn’t a Labour government, even a New Labour government, always handicapped when dealing with issues of patriotism and national identity, and isn’t it therefore tempted to “overdo” it slightly for electoral reasons ? Is patriotism “out”, or confined to emotional occasions when people commune in a sports event or the death of a celebrity ? Is the focus in political discourse on identity, or Britishness, a lure distracting people from more pressing issues, as was the case with flag-burning in the US ? Or, to put it differently, a case of resorting to identity politics for partisan gain ? Or does the debate reflect uncertain, insecure times in which society is seeking to reinvent its identity46 ? And finally, was, and is, Britishness under New Labour a kind of ‘myth of unity’ for domestic use, with ethnic, local, and ‘national’ identities (Englishness, Welshness, Scottishness, Northern Irishness) the ones that really matter ?47

48In many respects, British society has changed more in the past 50 years than possibly at any time in its history. Times of change are often times of uncertainty and self-questioning. It is too early to say whether the public will adhere to New Labour’s “new Britishness”, and whether recent changes will be long-lasting, the way Prime Ministers Attlee and Thatcher were able to change the terms of reference of the political debatebut despite the rapid pace of change in lifestyles, identity can only be assessed on a long term basis. A democratic government may accompany change, but it cannot implement or impose it. The tempo of change in the field of culture or the history of ideas is certainly not that of the modern media, despite their unquestionable influence.

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1  Smith Institute 2007 report

2  “Blair in his own words”, 5 and 7 May 1997

3  FCO mission statement, May 1997

4  sic : a misnomer, and a term Robin Cook claimed he never employed.

5  Short, C., 2005, p. 66

6  Curtis, M., 2003

7  Coates, D., Krieger, J., 2004, p. 21

8  Cook, R., 2003, p. 198

9  “Blair in his own words”, 12 May 1994”

10  Short, C., 2005, p. 42

11  Cook, R., 2003, p. 297

12  Cook, R., May 12, 1997 speech

13  Short, C., 2005, p. 222

14  Channel 4 political book of the year

15  Riddell, P., p. 193

16  Cook, R., New Statesman interview, 3 May 1999

17  Global Ethic Foundation,

18  notably Peter Riddell , Peter Hennessy and Anthony Seldon.

19  quoted by Wheatcroft, G., 16 August 2007

20  Blair, T., 24 April 1999 speech

21  Mistrust of America …” Pew Report, 16 March 2004

22  The Education Minister, Michael Wills, was appointed in November 2000 to co-ordinate efforts to connect Labour and patriotism accessed 6 October 2007

23  French bashing is reported in Stothard, P., p. 27 (“lots of rudeness about the French”), 74 (“Anything that makes the French the villains will be useful today”) ; Short, C., p. 158 (“[Blair] used his wriggle room to blame the French in a way that was deeply misleading”) ; Cook, R., “a wave of xenophobia towards France of an intensity that must have made Margaret Thatcher envious”, p. 132

24  Short, C., p. 229

25  Short, C., p. 304

26  quoted by Lane, A., in Seldon, A. and Hickson, K., p. 168

27  Hennessy, P., quoting an interview by Anne Applebaum, p. 525

28  Cook, R., p. 141

29  Brown, G. speech of 24 September 2007

30  Jones, G., Sylvester, R., and Thomson, A., 13 June 2007

31  Mulgan, G., Ali, R., in Johnson, N., (ed.), 2007

32  Stothard, P., p. 189

33  Short, C., p. 22

34  Robbins, K., p. 264

35  Carey, G., p. 196

36  Carey, G., p. 211

37  Bunting, M., in Johnson, N., (ed), 2007

38  Cook, R., p. 354

39  Cook, R., p. 358

40  Cook, R., p. 356

41  Factsheet Five, Census Test 2007

42  Brierley, P., 2000

43  Auffret, S., “War Sermons”, November 2005

44  Sacks, J., 2002

45  Ipsos MORI 2007 survey, pp. 16 and 53

46  Blair, T., Britain speech of 28 March 2000

47  Ipsos MORI 2007 survey, id.

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Serge Auffret, « Great expectations and the moment of truth : New Labour, national identity, religion and war », Observatoire de la société britannique, 5 | 2008, 177-194.

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Serge Auffret, « Great expectations and the moment of truth : New Labour, national identity, religion and war », Observatoire de la société britannique [En ligne], 5 | 2008, mis en ligne le 01 février 2011, consulté le 02 juillet 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Serge Auffret

Enseignant aux Ecoles militaires de Saint-Cyr-Coëtquidan

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Observatoire de la société britannique

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