Gordon Brown and Nick Clegg have both used the word “British” as the key to a political message in the last six months with, er, contrasting results.

Clegg’s usage, after an initial flurry of interest from the Telegraph the which reference I now can’t find, sank from view as usual. And his suggestion that people respond to the downturn by making the decision to “buy local, buy British” was even greeted with scorn by some inside the party, who saw it as an appeal to the huffy colonel constituency and a dangerous intimation of pro-protectionism.

They may be right about the appeal but I thought it was a little precious to dismiss the announcement on that score alone. Isn’t “buying local” exactly the same, in practice, as “buying British”. Could any of us buy local without buying British? Only if we live on the Dover docks. It’s the same idea packaged for different audiences. “Buy local” doesn’t appeal to huffy colonels or irritate party activists with its jingoistic overtones, but it’s essentially another way of saying “buy British”.

As for advocating protectionism, any liberal ought to know that advising someone to do something need not be any sort of prelude to forcing them to do it. To assume otherwise is to demonstrate how rooted one is in authoritarian dogma. Let’s fight that battle if Clegg brings it to us.

In other words, I liked the damn message. And so did the Telegraph for a day. It comes to mind again because of Brown’s use of the word “British” and what it has contributed to.

Like most things Brown says, “British jobs for British workers” was a hostage to fortune from the start. It was a naked invocation of the kind of protectionism Labour was once famous for, and it sounded like a promise – a promise that, for reasons of EU law if no other, could not be kept. What the hell did he think he was doing? It may well be that, as Pat McFadden, “minister for employment relations” (that’ll be a fun job over the next five years), put it on Radio 5 Live:

What he’s saying there is, I want to see the British workforce equipped for the jobs and skills of the future and that’s precisely what the government is doing.

But, sorry, you just can’t reclaim language which has that kind of cultural history. You can’t cry “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more, or close up the walls with our English dead!” and then send your spokesman onto Radio Five Live to add the clarifer, “Once we have completed due reconnaissance in accordance with special operations procedure and exhausted every possible avenue in negotiations for surrender with the town burghers”.

“British jobs for British workers” sounds like a angrily waved placard from the Winter of Discontent. I’m not going to be as bald as the Guardian and assert that all the Lindsey refinery strikers are “quoting” the phrase “British jobs for British workers” and would never have used it if Brown hadn’t used it first. Utter chump though our unelected, unelectable Prime Minister is, there comes a point when blaming him personally for every bum note in national affairs turns into parody. And in using the phrase, Brown was reacting to zeitgeist influences himself – unless we’re going to assert that he invented this particular influence; if so, he’s not managed it with anything else.

But there must be some connection, if only that of two fish swimming in the same current. And at the moment, as I hardly need tell you, they’re both heading straight for the turbulent weir of nationalism, which will jumble together a lot of movements that up to now have seen themselves as poles apart and spill them into the fermenting pool of racism, where the upturned supermarket trolley of the far right resurgence lurks.

There’s been some confusion on the left as to what to respond to – the solidarity of strikers or the incipient racism that may, consciously or sub-consciously, underlie their intent. I wouldn’t presume to look into the feelings of a large crowd of upset people in too much detail, but I can tell you one thing. The person who made this particular placard is either an innocent babe-in-arms or an extremist recruiting genius. Brown has not single-handedly turned Britain into a country of racists but he has, as pressure groups observed at the time of his remark, given them some sort of legitimacy to work with.

To get us back from this sorry examination of the current economic scene to Clegg’s jolly imprecations about buying vegetables, we need to consider the EU. Eurosceptics are, of course, gleeful about the law which required the Lindsey oil refinery to seek bids from EU contractors as well as British ones, and seem to be suggesting that without it, the jobs would have gone to British workers (“We’re against protectionism, except when we’re in favour of it!”)

It’s strange, given their belligerent pro-British stance, how little faith these people often seem to have in British people and British enterprise. Their assumption seems to be that, given (a) British wages tend to be higher than the average EU wage for reasons that are no individual British person’s fault and (b) EU law requires employers to seek contract bids from elsewhere in the EU, British contracts will more often than not be awarded to overseas workers. There is no way that the higher-paid British can compete with lower paid overseas workers.

Bollocks. Because only an idiot makes a calculation based on wages alone. We know, in the instance of Lindsey, that at least part of the reasonfor the temporary importation of Italian workers is that they were already working for the contractor in question – why should the latter be expected to take on a whole new workforce for one project? Only if all other things are equal is money ever the primary consideration, as anyone who has ever been involved in contract bids, public or private, knows.

These people, the hirers, have got a couple of briefcases full of hundred pound notes. On a day-to-day basis, they deal with tiny business risks and they share that riskload among their juniors and superiors. But suddenly here’s a big, fat risk, a risk that might consist of a sizeable chunk of next year’s budget in a time of economic downturn. And it’s right there in their in-tray, to do what the hell they see fit with. They’re answerable to the bosses and the owners if it all goes wrong. They’re answerable to their spouses and families if they happen to be the bosses and owners and it all goes wrong.

We all know this, because we’ve just spent the last three months examining the contrary scenario in minute detail – the bankers should have been in this position vis-a-vis risk and accountability, and weren’t. Does anyone seriously suppose that any semi-competent Director of This, That and the Other of a medium-sized company in some biggish town somewhere, faced with the above scenario, will hire one set of people as opposed to another for the sole reason that they’re a bit cheaper?

The kind of idiots who do that will find themselves bitten in the arse, and deserve no-one’s protection (although to be fair, I don’t think anyone deserves UKIP). Those destined for survival in the lean years will take a range of other factors into account, and one of these will be (at last) exactly the factor Nick Clegg was talking about when he told people to “buy local, buy British”.

Hiring in local talent might be sensible for a number of reasons, depending on the nature of the business. It might mean keeping local wages high and boosting the local retail trade on which the company, perhaps, relies for its own income. It might make sense because the hirers know they’re going to need something closely related done in the next fiscal year, and then the one after that.

It may be the start of a successful long-term working relationship, with the prospect of discounts, perhaps, for regular work, and the good communication that comes with prolonged contact and physical proximity. The contractors will be going to the same networking events, and might be able to put the hirers in touch with other people who can fulfil their contracting-out needs, or even with new clients. A lot of people go into business because they like interacting with people and are good at pursuing relationships and deriving business advantage from them – a local, personal relationship counts for a lot with them.

There are perfectly respectable reasons for buying British (local) vegetables and hiring British (local) workers – and they all have to do with sustainability, something business increasingly realises is not just another NuLab buzzword (one of their better ones).

Of course, you run risks as well. Buying locally grown food might bolster you to some extent against international commodity price fluctuations, but it puts your whole community in a bit of a spot if (to come over a bit medieval for a moment) a series of floods and drought depletes the year’s produce. Hiring in British workers as opposed to Italians might protect you from the knock-on effects of political and economic change in Italy of which you have little knowledge and less control – but it can also mean you all sink at once.

Critically though, a sustainable, locally focused way of doing business gives you more information and more immediately accessible resources with which to manage risk. How good you are at processing that information is up to you, and that was always true of the whole gamut of running a business anyway. Those who are better at processing information will survive, and heightening that requirement by giving people more information is likely to a lead to a more robust, responsive economy. See, these over-used words actually do mean something.

So I, like Clegg, would like people to buy British, or local, or whichever way we choose to put it. And I’m pleased to find that, contrary to my gloomy prognosis, the message has resurfaced in the last couple of weeks.

But it’s still entirely down to individual choice. Only individuals know what their circumstances are and what will meet their needs best. A concept which, despite having featured, in its day, as another NuLab buzzword, is alien to the clunky soul of Gordon Brown. Which is presumably why he feels himself able to make pronouncements like “British jobs for British workers”.

The fact that people have taken him at his word, cultural history and all, would be no surprise to anyone who is willing to look the recession in the face. As Chris Dillow points out, economic hardship makes people selfish and demanding – in essence childish. “But you PWOMISED!” is basically what the strikers are saying. It’s a natural response to increased risk and uncertainty. And, as we see at PMQs week after week, Brown is publicly unable to look recession in the face, because to do that will be to admit that his entire career up to this point has been a disastrous failure.

This is tragic, isn’t it. In every conceiveable sense. An unfolding tragedy we can’t do anything about.