We cannot let the Right define patriotism

By Emma Burnell / @EmmaBurnell_

In 2017, it is impossible to avoid thinking about the topic of patriotism. For many on the left, patriotism is synonymous with the darker concept of nationalism. Both are also tinged for many on the left (as actively encouraged by those on the right) with a sense of nativism. This has led to many on the left to disavow a sense of patriotism that they can’t feel part of or don’t see as having any part of a progressive narrative.

I understand this instinct. I remember the distortion of patriotism as racism that the National Front used in the 70s and 80s and its revival in the form of UKIP and Britain First in Brexit Britain makes those of us who believe in pluralism shudder and want to close off any avenue these arguments could possibly take towards the mainstream.

Countering the arguments as they take hold is absolutely right. They are racist, they are nasty and they are downright morally abhorrent. They do not belong to a modern forward-looking people or the kind of country we aspire to.

Which is why it is therefore essential that we do not allow such nasty arguments to be associated with a value as mainstream as patriotism. Nor should we allow patriotism to be defined by the right in their narrow, jingoistic, imperialistic way.

If we refuse to engage in a value that so many hold as a common good, we will neither understand it nor be able to claim it as our own. Worse, if we define that value by the worst people who claim it, we allow the racists and xenophobes to claim a greater hold on our national mood that we have.

Patriotism is a common belief and one widely seen as a positive. It mirrors left wing beliefs such as solidarity and commonality. People are now and have always been inspired to do extraordinary things due to their patriotism. This is not something we should seek to disavow. This sense of solidarity – of doing things for and with others for a greater cause should be a place where we find common ground with the majority of the electorate. It will be by taking the things we have in common and building a left-wing argument for them that we can bring people towards us politically. That is how we persuade them to give our politics a hearing.

I am patriotic. I believe in my country and want to do my best for it. For me that means fighting to keep us an outward looking, internationalist nation and a place that welcomes people from everywhere and rejoices in our shared values and the enrichment that comes with our diversity. It also means working every day to make our country better. To live up to the potential to do good for our people and others that being born in one of the richest countries in the world give us. To take pride in what we achieve and to use that pride not to rest on our laurels and revel in our past glories but to spur us on to do better.

I fight the Tories because I disagree with their vision for our country. I don’t believe theirs are the values that best represent the best of Britain. I believe we can make this country better, and I believe that to try to do so is my patriotic duty and the patriotic duty of the Labour Party.

You can’t ask a country you don’t love to allow you to lead it. But you can’t improve a country whose flaws you are blind to. That is why the Tories’ backwards looking Brexiteering version of patriotism is so damaging. The challenge for the left now is to claim the mantle of being the party of a Britain for everyone. To offer a patriotic vision of the better country we can be when we put fairness at the heart of our commonality.

Emma Burnell is a regular columnist for Open Labour

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