Labour Must Embrace Patriotism

By Lewis Coyne

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Many problems beset the Labour party at present. But while gallons of ink have been spilt over the issues of leadership, economic credibility, and national security, less has been said about Labour’s deep-seated difficulty with patriotism. Failing to develop an inclusive and progressive patriotism has not only been electorally damaging, it reflects the technocratic mindset which has dominated Labour for the last fifteen years.

The problem applies to British patriotism in general but is particularly acute regarding England. We on the English Left may accept the sight of the Union Jack, and perhaps even enjoy seeing the Saltire fluttering on the breeze in Edinburgh. But they recoil before St George’s Cross. Why?

The phenomenon is not new. George Orwell, the authority on this subject, famously observed in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’ that “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings”.

That was in 1941 but – aside from the reference to suet pudding – could have been written yesterday. In no other country is the Left marked by a form of curious self-criticism. Hardly anybody doubts that François Hollande, Alexis Tsipras, and Bernie Sanders possess a love for their countries. It may be suggested that Labour’s leadership could not be on that list, but the problem goes wider than that. If Corbynism regards patriotism as just an ideological underpinning of Western imperialism, old-style Blairism sees it as the parochial sentiment holding us back from full commitment to Europe. In this respect each is a side of the same Islington coin.

There is no reason for this aversion and it goes without saying that most members of the public find it alienating. English patriotism is usually modest and understated, but Labour should disregard that appreciation of history, culture, and the traditions of liberty and fair play at its peril. Fortunately figures from across the party – Jon Cruddas, Lisa Nandy, Tristram Hunt, Owen Jones – are trying to articulate a patriotism which strengthens the Left’s appeal to change the country for the better.

Labour has to embrace this attempt. To be clear, developing a patriotism for the Left does not mean being uncritical of the past and present. To quote Orwell again: “Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past”.

This latter point really gets to the heart of the matter. I argued in August last year that Blue Labour – though flawed – offered a way for the left to reclaim notions of community, localism, and belonging currently monopolised by the right. Patriotism is part of that, and policies which reflect it should feature in Labour’s electoral offer. The following are some obvious things that Labour could do in England:

  1. Create an English Labour party to complement the Scottish and Welsh parties within the framework of the British Labour party. The process to establish it could begin straight away.
  2.  Back the calls for an English national anthem (surely Jerusalem), and advocate making St George’s Day a bank holiday, just as St David’s Day and St Andrew’s Day are in Wales and Scotland respectively.
  3. Above all, take the issue of federalism seriously. Late in the day, Ed Miliband promised a ‘constitutional convention’ on English devolution and what form it might take – be it a parliament in the North or regional assemblies – but since Jeremy’s election there has been worryingly little said about the issue. It would be disastrous if the Conservatives are allowed to continue making the running on devolution.

These policies could help Labour overcome its cultural estrangement from the English public, but only as part of a serious rethink of the left’s aversion to patriotism in general. The Labour party has to urgently develop an inclusive and progressive patriotic vision, for England and the UK, if it is to again become relevant to the electorate.

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