On St George’s Day Mark Perryman questions what Keir Starmer wrapping Labour in a flag can achieve
If 23rd April doesn’t ring any bells it might be as wise to look away now.
Just recently Keir Starmer has been busy wrapping himself in the Union Jack with the suggestion that by doing so Labour can win back the ‘Red Wall’ seats.
There are there three very obvious problems with this.
First, ‘progressive patriotism’ isn’t a new turn for Labour, anything but. In ’97 Tony Blair had a go with his ‘Young Country’. Then Gordon Brown stood in front of an enormous Union Jack and declared ‘British Jobs for British Workers.’ Ed Miliband coined the phrase ‘One Nation Labour’ for his version. And Jeremy Corbyn swapped his usual white peace poppy for the more traditional red one.
Since ’97, at every General Election Labour has achieved a net loss of seats, the one exception being 2017 though whether that was down to Jeremy’s change of poppy is a moot point. There is no evidence this progressive patriotism turn works in the way being suggested.
Second, Keir has chosen to fly the Union Jack at the precise moment the Union is breaking up. It beggars belief that this will remotely help Labour in the Scottish Parliamentary elections. The Party went from 41 MPs from Scotland to one in 2015, precisely because of its disastrous role as the Tories’ little helper defending the Union against independence in the 2014 referendum. It has never recovered since, again apart from 2017, when under Corbyn, Scottish seats went back up a bit to six, but in 2019 back to one again.
In Wales, support for independence is at an all-time high, and unlike the Scottish Party, significant parts of Welsh Labour support the cause of independence too. In Northern Ireland, for historical reasons Labour doesn’t organise. Instead it has a sister party, the SDLP, constitutional nationalists committed to a peaceful unification of Ireland.
Flags? Wrong one, wrong time, St George, the Scottish Saltire, the Welsh Dragon – even if Labour can’t be persuaded to break with its unionism masquerading as patriotism, flying those three flags together would at least be the right choice, at the right moment.
Third, there seems to be a belief that so long as Keir gets on with his flag-wrapping, all-important Red Wall voters will simply switch because they see this as a fundamental change in Labour’s direction that they can believe in. Does anybody seriously think this is how politics works? Has the entire Labour membership, CLPs, branches, affiliated unions, the PLP even, become signed-up Progressive Patriots just on Keir’s say so? For many this requires a huge ideological, cultural, shift, without which, as the long term decline in Labour’s Red Wall vote reveals, voters won’t be fooled into thinking very much, if anything, has changed, and with good reason.
Would such a shift be welcome in by case? There is a long left tradition of seeking to understand the particular English variant of patriotism and in turn how the Union has helped shape a particular version of British nationalism. And that understanding has contributed hugely to the best thought-out versions of a Progressive Patriotism. Look at E.P Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, the debates between Perry Anderson and Tom Nairn, Gwyn Williams, Eric Hosbawm, Billy Bragg’s book The Progressive Patriot, Afua Hisrch’s Brit(ish). If I may be so bold, I’ve two books of my own on the subject, Imagined Nation : England after Britain and Breaking up Britain : Four Nations after a Union. If we want to go back further for some clues on the subject, how about Gramsci’s work on the national-popular?
These are the kind of ideas Labour will need to draw on not only to convince it is taking the idea of a progressive patriotism seriously but also to assuage the fears of more socially liberal voters that this isn’t a turn against their anti-racism, their internationalism, or their critique of a nation’s colonial past: rather it will complement such values.
Does any of this matter? Never mind 23rd April, fast forward to 11th June, does that not ring any bells? If not, it might be as wise to skip this section too.
It’s the Euros, mostly on home soil, with England, Scotland and Wales all qualified, and England playing Scotland at Wembley. Apart from Wales, it’s just like Euro ’96 all over again, a summer like none other that popularised St George. Before, the English had always thought of, flown or worn, the Union Jack, thinking that was ours instead. St George was everywhere, and it’s been the same every other tournament summer since, helped along the way by the Rugby World Cup win in ’03, the Ashes in ’05 and ’09, all in England’s name (strictly speaking cricket is plus Wales).
England marched to the World Cup 2018 semi-finals three summers ago, giving the whole flag-waving endeavour another supercharged lift. Never has Eric Hobsbawm’s superb observation been more appropriate: “The imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.”
What would it take for such a national-popular mood of Englishness to take a political form? And can the assumption that this would inevitably boost the populist right be seriously contested?
Well, if it can’t, Labour really is in trouble. The Scottish Parliamentary elections in May will almost certainly see a pro-independence majority re-elected. Whatever Johnson’s bluster in the not too distant future, an independence referendum will take place. The ‘United Kingdom’ is living on borrowed time. It is Scotland’s breakaway that will force England to consider, for once, its own future, especially if, as seems increasingly likely, support for both Welsh independence and Irish unification will grow too.
What kind of acts might symbolise the beginning of such a process? A start would be an anthem we can call our own. When the England team line up ahead of kick-off at the Euros, they will be the only team out of 24 nations that cannot boast an anthem. God Save the Queen isn’t England’s, it is the anthem of the United Kingdom (sic), although dumped by both the Scotland and Wales. Out of such a confusion of identity an Anglo-British unionism is formed.
A change of tune is needed. Blake’s Jerusalem, a secular hymn for a better England with none of the “long to reign over us”, reducing citizenship to subjecthood, would forcefully challenge the over-identification of Englishness with archaic institutions, the monarchy and unelected House of Lords for starters. Trapped in a martial and imperial history, translated into a twenty-first century delusion of England versus the rest of the world, yes of course that’s a possibility, but as the break-up is coming – in lots of ways its already here – it is the task of progressives, patriotic or otherwise, to seek to shape alternative outcomes.
I live in Lewes, where Tom Paine wrote Rights of Man which helped shape the American Revolution. His most famous words “The World is my country. To do good is my religion” are beautifully poetic, independent yet interdependent too, caring for our own, caring about others too. National and international, the two are only mutually exclusive if we choose to make them so.
But to achieve this, we need the politics and that’s not what Keir’s wrapping himself in the flag is offering. Instead, lacking any substance, it manages both to fail to impress those whom it is presumably aimed at, the nation’s flag wavers, while alienating those who view such gestures with suspicion of where it will end up. I’m entirely at ease with a politics located in a progressive redefinition of the national-popular but if one day, soon preferably, we are to see “Jerusalem builded here”, it is going to take a good deal more serious effort than this.
The Jerusalem design is available as a T-shirt at a special 10% off for Labour Hub readers quote coupon code 23.04.21 expires midnight St George’s Day from Philosophy Football
Image: Hugh Tisdale /Philosophy Football