Once upon a time, the banal slogans bore at least the pretence of originality.
Once they were supposed to announce a political identity, to stake out an intellectual territory. Even at their most asinine, they were supposed to mean something and say something: this is what we are and who we are.
Ed Miliband's latest two-word Labour "vision" tries to do many things. That's why he and his party think it so very clever. That's also one reason, among several, why 'One Nation' is a slogan the leader will wish he had never uttered.
You can easily see what Miliband and his advisers are about. This is, depressingly, an exercise in branding in the modern political style. It follows the first rule of the 21st-century party game, to be all things to all floating voters. One Nation? It could mean almost anything.
There's a little whiff, presumably, of that elusive Olympic spirit. There's an intended rebuttal – as if an assertion is a rebuttal – to the fomenters of constitutional upheaval. There's the feelgood appeal to social unity, to what these days are called – nothing too specific, mind – "Labour values".
And is there also a direct steal from the most famous remarks of the man who founded the modern Conservative Party? There is? What a happy accident.
To be fair to Miliband, he was perfectly frank in his Manchester conference speech about the origins of One Nation in the writings and speeches of Benjamin Disraeli. Labour's leader forgot to say, however, that the idea was a wheeze to con the working class of the 1840s into believing that, as someone later said, we are all in this together, that violent unrest was unpatriotic rather than rational. But never mind.
Miliband was attempting to assert that only Labour stands for social and national unity. The hint was as broad as the appeal he hopes to forge. The claim is this: David Cameron, divisive old Etonian toff, cannot understand such a unity, far less deliver it. In fact, the shade of Dizzy was haunting Manchester to tell the world that Cameron isn't even a real Tory. So what is Ed Miliband, currently?
Within the Westminster bubble, all of this worked a treat. Along with Miliband's ability to speak unaided for an hour and say nothing at all about policy, One Nation was hailed as "bold". No-one bothered to mention a historical event of some significance: the Labour movement had just been rebranded as sort-of-almost Tory. Convergence, as it used to be called, was all but complete.
What is the essential declared difference, after all, between One Nation and Cameron's Big Society? How would an earnest first-time voter keen to support decency and social cohesion distinguish between these two slogans?
Miliband's One Nation is still another of many Labour attempts to express an idea of unity in diversity. In a multi-cultural, multi-national state struggling with asymmetrical devolution, this is worse than tricky. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and others besides tried and failed to find a simple, convincing description for a landscape of bewildering complexity. Yet Miliband, bold indeed, has cut to the chase. Not One People, not One Country: One Nation.
In the old constitutionalists' description, the United Kingdom is, in fact, two nations, a province and a principality. Unofficially, many of the Welsh dislike being defined as a prince's backyard; many in Northern Ireland are pondering their future on the other island; and self-defined nationalists can be found from Cornwall to the Northern Isles. Then there are the Scots, explicit and consistent dissidents.
To some Labour ears One Nation will sound like an honest, straightforward statement of the Unionist principle. But you don't have to press the point too far to see the problem Miliband has made for himself. The old "Scots or British" question remains potent. Four out of five choose the former first and foremost. Yet Labour offers the N word?
You can keep Scotland out of it and still hear this little bomb tick. Why did Cameron's Big Society lose all credibility on the instant he uttered the phrase? Nothing complicated: no one believed a word of it. The slogan neither described Britain as it is, nor the Britain sought by the Westminster parties. Good hokum has to be plausible.
Where would you start? Income inequality? Race? The resurgence of unabashed class attitudes – as all plebs will understand – within the elite? The very existence of the elite? By no description does Britain fit the idea of One Nation. The "Olympic effect" amounts to a political delusion. Even within sport, it is liable to be transitory.
Miliband could sustain the One Nation gimmick if Labour gave even a hint of a desire to attack the divisions in society. Instead, he offered Manchester a few of the now-ritual threats against bankers and a promise to make the minimum wage – it's only the law, after all – a reality for the exploited. But the "comprehensive boy" who wound up at Harvard had nothing to say, to pick an obvious example, about tuition fees in England. So why should the parents of other comprehensive kids believe in his One Nation?
Such is the real nature of the bomb. It is liable to explode in a few smug Labour faces on almost any occasion. Name the issue and someone with a grievance will lob the device in Miliband's direction shouting "One Nation, eh?".
What's worse for the party strategists is that it will not matter whether the aggrieved have a case or not. The complaint will come from left or right. Just imagine what some dyed in the wool racist could do with a perversion of One Nation. The people who craft such slogans create such horrors. They truly regard blandness as a panacea for all political ills. They believe that stealing a cherished Tory heirloom is the height of cleverness. The greatest irony is this: the people who came up with One Nation don't understand the society in which they live.
In Manchester, Miliband was taking all the credit. All of it, he suggested, was his own unaided work. That's unlikely to be true, but let's take him at his word. For now, then, he is a leader with precious few policies, a Tory slogan, and a demonstrably shaky understanding of the country he hopes to lead. He is also the author of a lot of problems in the making for his party.
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