In leftist literature the patriot is typically depicted in one of two distinct forms: he (and it is usually a he) is a working class thug – a football fan with a crew cut and an England flag draped knowingly from his window. Either that or he is a scarlet-cheeked home counties bore – a ‘gammon’ bloviating about ‘political correctness gone mad’ to anyone within earshot.
Most of the time at least, the quiet patriotism of the majority is ignored.
Much of this stems from a very specific sort of anti-imperialism, which venerates what Bertrand Russell once called the “superior virtue of the oppressed”. It is acceptable to celebrate the efforts of the Soviet Union in defeating Nazism. However, to do the same about Britain is considered an act of unpardonable jingoism. Indeed, to say anything patriotic at all is to engage in ‘dog whistle’ politics. The dogs in this case being the gullible and stupid masses.
Just as a rich man does not need to tell you that he is rich, the average Conservative MP does not need to burnish his or her patriotic credentials
This kind of attitude presents an obvious problem when you hope to govern a country. You cannot hope to win people over who you do not understand let alone despise.
It is also a problem that is almost unique to the Labour Party. Just as a rich man does not need to tell you that he is rich, the average Conservative MP does not need to burnish his or her patriotic credentials. It might be patriotism of the cheaper sort: flag waving and – in recent times – anti-European rhetoric. But it is real all the same. And it is something that emanates from the average Tory MP like heat from a radiator.
It is the Labour politician or activist who is treated as suspect in this regard. He or she must wear his patriotism on his sleeve. Get it wrong, however, and it feels contrived. Think back to Gordon Brown and his ‘British jobs for British workers’: a sentiment that is still mocked 11 years later.
By contrast, figures on the left who have done patriotism well, such as Tony Blair, have managed to convey it in an instinctive, understated way. Blair understood the people – for a while at least – which by extension made him patriotic. His rhetoric about a “Peoples’ Princess” following the death of Princess Diana in 1997 was mawkish and cringeworthy to be sure; but it was firmly in alignment with where the British people stood at the time, which is what really matters. ‘Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’ was another Blairite slogan that was perfectly in tune with the British appetite for a justice system that was ‘firm but fair’.
George Orwell’s output during the Second World War was perhaps the left’s surest attempt at furnishing a patriotism that was compatible with the socialist virtues. The appeal of Orwellian sentimentality was such that it was borrowed – rather unsuccessfully it must be said – by the right. Back in 1993, prime minister John Major attempted to channel Orwell, telling an audience of Tory members that we were (still) a nation of “long shadows on county cricket grounds” and “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist”. Major was attempting to sell the European project to an obstinate Conservative Party. Britain would “survive unamendable in all essentials”, said Major, leaving out the part of Orwell’s oeuvre which had called for a socialist United States of Europe and the billeting of red militias in the Ritz. That would surely have been too much for the assembled ‘blue rinse brigade’.
Orwell only gets you so far of course. Major went on to lose the next election; patriotism – and the evocation of England’s most principled socialist – was not enough to erase from memories years of Tory sleaze and crumbling public services. As Blair put it at the time (albeit in his rather corny way): “It’s no good waving the fabric of our flag when you have spent 16 years tearing apart the fabric of our nation.” Reveries about old ladies cycling to communion – an anachronism in the forties let along the nineties – are little consolation to someone who cannot afford a school uniform for their child.
Authenticity is an overused word but it has some pertinence when it comes to patriotism. Jeremy Corbyn could have spent the past five years extolling the attributes of ‘English civilisation’ a la Orwell and still it is unlikely he would have been able to shake off the widespread perception of him as someone who is hostile to Britain. Hug a wet dog and you will take on some of its smell; embrace enough terrorists and it will be said that you too share their antipathy towards Britain.
Similarly, William Hague, Major’s successor as Conservative leader, tried his best to drag the Tories into line with the rapidly changing Britain of the late nineties. Yet his management consultant’s patriotism was of the most convoluted and cringeworthy kind. Hague donned a baseball cap, boasted that he could drink ten pints, and made a spectacle of turning up at the Notting Hill carnival – which merely highlighted how strange the Tory party really was. It all felt hopelessly incongruent, a gambit to fool voters into thinking he was somebody that he wasn’t. Ed Miliband’s “hell yes I’m tough enough” – in response to a question from Jeremy Paxton as to whether or not he could stand up to Vladimir Putin – was another example of a political leader attempting to burnish a phony patriotism – in this case an absurd, ‘alpha male’ machismo.
The current Labour Party, after the calamity of Corbyn’s leadership, will at some point try to have a conversation about patriotism. On one side will stand the noisy anti-imperialist crowd whose views we heard enough of during during Corbyn’s accidental ascendancy. There will also be another, prolier-than-thou faction which views the English working class through a similar lens to the far-left – as unreconstructed yobs who enjoy nothing more than sticking two fingers up at political correctness. However, they believe this is a jolly good thing.
None of Labour’s electorally successful leaders did patriotism like this. They certainly didn’t cosplay that they were fighting an anti-imperialist revolution. But nor did they don a figurative cloth cap in order to bash a ‘metropolitan elite’. Rather, they were in touch with the ordinary concerns of the British people – and their patriotism, an understated patriotism to be sure – flowed naturally from that.
This is the sort of patriotism Labour must rediscover if it is to win office again. It must comprehend the ordinary day to day struggles of the people; and it must understand the thoughts, feelings and the temperament that these struggles mould into something we call the national character. That is arguably the most important component of what is sweepingly defined as love for one’s country.
As Keir Starmer seeks to drag Labour back to some sort of electability, the party must rid itself of those whose first instinct is to side with Britain’s enemies. But if the party tries to overcompensate – if it attempts to burnish its patriotic credentials in a crude or tacky way – then the more elusive a genuine patriotism will invariably be.
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