The patriotism delusion

By Mike Phipps

”There is a lot of talk about patriotism again these days,” said former Shadow Attorney General Shami Chakrabarti recently.  “I am happy to call myself a patriot, but not if that means using human rights as justification for wars over there, but never refugee protection over here.”

There’s no doubt that Labour’s performance at the last general election was undermined by questions in the minds of some voters about Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged lack of patriotism. How do we respond to this?

We can ignore it. We can berate those voters for being gullible. We can moan about the bias of the mainstream media. We can denounce the Tory embrace of patriotism as cynical manipulation. But if we fail to engage with the issue, we risk ceding important terrain to our enemies.

Two-thirds of voters told YouGov in June last year that they were proud of being British and 50% of Party members thought it was important for the leader to have a sense of patriotism.

Former Labour MP John Denham, who resigned as a minister in Blair’s government over the Iraq war, opined recently, “Most people in Britain, including Britain’s ethnic minorities, see themselves as patriotic and are instinctively suspicious of those who are not.”

He went on, “While you cannot get elected as an unpatriotic party, there are not many votes in patriotism itself. It is a precondition for electoral support, but few voters are actually looking for patriotism on the ballot paper.”

Keir Starmer, advised that Labour has a ‘patriotism problem’, says he is a patriot and loves his country. But what does that actually mean? Socialists, moderate and radical, will always be asked: if you love your country so much, why do you want to transform it?

Perhaps it comes down to what we mean by ‘one’s country’. For some, it’s about its values. Shami Chakrabarti says: “I personally have no problem calling myself a patriot. I am a universalist, an internationalist, a human rights activist, but I also understand that people are rooted in place, language, culture and stories.”

Labour-supporting singer Billy Bragg has also attempted to define progressive patriotism as support for the democratic values a country aspires to – toleration, justice, diversity.

Michael Gove’s reform of the school syllabus when he was Education Secretary saw the introduction of the teaching of ‘British’ values, such as democracy, liberty, toleration and the rule of law. I don’t object to these liberal values being adopted as British, but it is dishonest to pretend that they are uniquely indigenous or even began life in this country. If anything, many of the ideals of the French revolution, such as universal human rights, were regarded as treasonous here for many decades.

Even the adoption of the UK Human Rights Act did not happen until 1998, long after most other European countries had incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into their domestic legal systems. Even today the Act is contested and there is strong pressure from within the Tory Party to repeal it.

Beyond values, there are other definitions of what ‘one’s country’ entails. Democratic socialists have traditionally configured the issue of ‘love of one’s country’ in terms of its people.  Former Labour leader Clement Attlee once made an election broadcast attacking the Tories’ claim to be the national party by pointing out how Labour represents a genuine cross-section of all society and appeals not to the lower but the highest instincts of humanity.

By this definition, Labour is the patriotic party, wanting what’s best for the vast majority of people. George Orwell once described England as “a family with the wrong members in control”. By contrast, Tory policies have often been motivated, not by a genuine desire for the public good, but by personal ambition. One need look no further than Boris Johnson’s path to power and the cronyism that has characterised the handling of a life and death issue like the COVID-19 pandemic this last year.

If patriotism were simply a commitment to the people of this country, the Tories would lose the argument at every turn. Johnson alone has denigrated Muslim women as people who “look like letter boxes”, Liverpool as a city that “wallows in victim status”, and the children of single mothers as “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate”.

The problem is that patriotism has other connotations. The one promoted by the Tories is based on symbols: the flag, the monarchy, the armed forces. One may complain that these constitute an idealised version of the nation, which they do, but then what are nations, if not “imagined communities” (Anderson) or “invented traditions” (Hobsbawm)? Flags and anthems may be a modern feature, designed to cement support for empire and militarism, but the problem remains that for many people, they resonate.

Labour politicians have struggled with the idea of a “progressive patriotism” that can challenge this. Rebecca Long-Bailey drew flak from the left for talking about this, but the original idea came from Jeremy Corbyn himself, when he tweeted in 2019, “Patriotism is about supporting each other, not attacking somebody else. It’s about loving your country enough to make it a place where nobody is homeless or hungry, held back or left behind.”

Challenging the false idealised Conservative view of the nation means tackling head-on the legacy of empire. Compass recently produced a pamphlet, Belonging, place and the nation, on this theme. Clive Lewis MP referred to the Hollywood-created idealised version of US history, in which the cowboys and the cavalry were in the front line of carrying out genocide, yet were mythologised as the ‘good guys’.  He had this to say:

“What does progressive patriotism mean? First thing I ask is, ‘what reality are we talking about?’ If it is the John Wayne, Winston Churchill, unblemished hero, variation, I’m not patriotic… So, if anyone on the front bench, who uses the term ‘progressive patriotism’ tells me, ‘Yes, this is about an honest conversation about our country, warts and all,’ that’s a progressive patriotism I can buy into. But no one’s had that discussion, and I’m afraid to say, because they haven’t had it, because they haven’t unpacked it, I just think it’s a very lazy way of saying, ‘We want to take a really poor and very unfortunate term and try to adopt it with our professed values.’…

“The problem, for me, with the term ‘patriotism’ is that it’s synonymous with some of the worst excesses of British history. Defining it as a deference to a ruling elite is really useful, because that ties in with how ruling elites used ‘mass popular culture’ to sell the monarchy, military, Empire and patriotism.”

Recent protests underline that many people are already thinking critically – and acting upon their conclusions – about Britain’s imperial legacy. Politicians will fail to do so at their peril.

“Germany overcame its history. Why can’t Poland?” asked one commentator recently, condemning the Polish government’s refusal to accept the appointment of a German ambassador whose father had been a Wehrmacht officer close to Hitler. But the same question could be applied to Britain, with even more reason, given the brutality of empire.

It will also be necessary to dissect the Tory’s commitment to the military. On just about every other front it’s straightforward to make the case that the current government puts profits for the few ahead of people’s health, education and environment. But it’s equally vital to make these arguments on defence issues too. Defence experts admit that UK defence needs are being undermined by wasteful weapons programmes that make a lot of money for a few corporations, with no great gain for national security.

It’s outside of the left’s traditional comfort zone to talk about these issues, but failure to do so not only yields critical policy terrain to the right. It also undermines the left-s domestic agenda. Writing in the above-mentioned Compass pamphlet, Esther Brown and Marius Ostrowski argue:

“The progressive left is traditionally suspicious of foreign policy because of its perceived association with assertive nationalism. Yet by avoiding the task of developing a proactive foreign-policy vision, it loses its ability to challenge the status quo, abrogating a major arena in which, as the Opposition, it must hold the Government to account… Further, accepting the status quo of international politics can sometimes contradict its aim to undertake progressive reforms in domestic policy.

“Once in government, this dearth of a positive foreign-policy approach has led to the left often simply taking on and perpetuating the core assumptions of neoliberal (or even neoconservative) foreign policy. Left-led governments have repeatedly been drawn into projects of naked realpolitik, ranging from ‘humanitarian’ interventionism to petropolitics and resource competition.”

As in the past, these are crunch issues on which Labour will be accused of being unpatriotic. Cancelling the replacement for Trident is one. Even under the Corbyn leadership, this issue was dodged, due to the recalcitrance of sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Shadow Cabinet and even of the Corbyn-friendly trade union leaderships. But besides the issue of affordability and the powerful moral argument against nuclear weapons, it is possible to make a strong defence case as to why upgraded nuclear weapons offer neither the pathway to a more secure Britain nor the correct response to the security challenges the country faces.

Opposing war is another. From Keir Hardie’s opposition to World War One, to Gaitskell’s condemnation of the Suez adventure in 1956, to the more recent attacks on Jeremy Corbyn for standing by commitments under international law in relation to Russia, or opposing more bombing as a solution to the problems in Iraq and Syria – the allegation of lack of patriotism is invariably made. These shibboleths cannot be ignored; they must be confronted and exposed for what they are.

More fundamentally, Labour needs to ask what the military is for. The Corbyn leadership was surprised to find quite a few senior defence figures favouring the idea of the military doing disaster relief over starting wars. Speaking at a fringe meeting at the 2019 Labour Conference, one former top civil servant at the Ministry of Defence argued that the skewed priorities of the arms industry were the single biggest threat to Britain’s national defence.

Paul Rogers, Professor in the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University, broadly agrees. Writing recently in an article headlined “War isn’t the biggest threat to the UK’s security – but is getting the money”, he said, “The UK is going to spend billions more on its military while cutting foreign aid and failing to tackle either pandemic or climate crisis seriously. Does that make you feel safer?”

If you would rather avoid getting involved in a culture war with the Tories over patriotic values and symbols, spare a thought for those already in the middle of it. Ex-military personnel feel exploited both by the Tories’ jingoism and Labour’s eagerness to be associated with patriotic trappings. Ex-soldier Joe Glenton wrote about this recently.

“The new leadership is not concerned about veterans; it is trying to use veterans and the military to bolster its authentocrat credentials,” he declared. He quoted one ex-soldier who said, “We’ve gone through a year where there would be people already leaving [the military], going out the door into complete uncertainty, and the Labour party hasn’t said a word about it. But has found time to have photoshoots with old veterans.”

Another added, “[Labour would do] better pointing out that the lowest paid and most dangerous jobs in the army get done by people from certain areas that had substandard education and a lack of options, who fought wars so others could get rich.”

Labour needs to be wary of accepting the Tory framing of patriotism in terms of glorifying the military. Just recently Home Secretary Priti Patel tried to depict criticism of sub-standard accommodation for refugees in ex-army barracks as unpatriotic. “This site has previously accommodated our brave soldiers and army personnel – it is an insult to say that it is not good enough for these individuals,” she tweeted.

In fact, it was the government who insulted “our brave soldiers” by housing them in Napier barracks in the first place. Seven years ago, a team of planning and environmental experts ruled that the barracks did not “meet acceptable standards of accommodation”, it has now emerged.

Yet the smears go on, and Labour’s attempt to evade them can appear unprincipled. Fearful of looking unpatriotic, Keir Starmer played soft on the Overseas Operations Bill which severely restricted the ability to prosecute serious criminal wrongdoing by UK military personnel operating overseas. The idea that there should be a conflict between patriotism and the international and domestic rule of law – a supposed British value – is palpable nonsense. This fact is understood by many former service personnel, if not by the Labour front bench.

Clearly, Labour needs to redefine patriotism if it is to avoid this kind of morass. It can neither dismiss the issue as a diversion nor accept the Tory white, empire-derived version. A generation ago, New Labour clumsily attempted to rebrand Britain using cultural reference points – Britart, Britpop, ‘Cool Britannia’.

Today the crisis of identity, fuelled and highlighted by economic globalisation, Brexit, regional pressures for greater autonomy and the Tory war on multiculturalism, means that something more substantial may be necessary.

One lesson from recent election defeats is that Labour has to hegemonise every area of policy if it is to win. It is not enough to be seen as ‘good on welfare’ or the ‘best party on the NHS’.  To accept this is to surrender key areas of policy to the Tories and reduce Labour ultimately to a pressure group.

But equally, as the 2019 debacle underlined, good policies alone are insufficient. “For the Many, not the Few worked the first time round,” noted Mark Perryman, “because it was so different to what had come before.  But two years later…Labour needed a new story to tell, and there simply wasn’t one.”

Putting together a clear narrative, a political vision, of what Britain is and where it is going necessarily means confronting the Tory patriotism delusion. It’s not an optional add-on, but central – not just to winning, but to staying on course in office.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: The Union Flag. Source: The Union Flag ‘Union Jack’ UK Flag 326. Author: Rian (Ree) Saunders, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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