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Meet Miliband's new guru: Tim Soutphommasane

The young Australian shaping Labour's thinking on patriotism.

Australian writer and thinker Tim Soutphommasane.
Australian writer and thinker Tim Soutphommasane is emerging as an important influence on the Labour leadership. Sketch: Dan Murrell.

In tomorrow's New Statesman, I profile Tim Soutphommasane, the young Australian intellectual shaping the Labour leadership's thinking on patriotism. I interviewed Soutphommasane (pronounced Soot-pom-ma-sarn) in Wesminster in June after he addressed an intimate Commons seminar organised by Jon Cruddas and attended by several senior Labour figures, including David Miliband. A few days later, he met with Ed Miliband.

Soutphommasane's thesis, elaborated in his book Reclaiming Patriotism: Nation-Building for Australian Progressives, is that the left must promote a common national identity if it is first to win and then retain power. "One of the reasons why you need to have a cohesive, collective identity in any liberal democratic society is that you need to have a sense of fellow feeling in order to redistribute resources."  Since societies have become more diverse, he said, "You can't take it for granted that citizens will have an identity in common or will be willing to contribute to the common good, and so you have to work hard to ensure that people feel like they belong to a community."

Yet too often, for fear of appearing "racist" or "xenophobic", the left has vacated the field and allowed the right to define national identity in starkly conservative terms.  He told me:

There can be more than one kind of patriotism. For a lot of people, patriotism is, by definition, an exclusive and a very nasty sentiment, when there can in fact be a very appreciative and generous love of country, one in which you can criticise your own country when you think it’s in the wrong. That’s the kind of political community, I think, that the left should try and work towards – one that’s mature, one that’s reflective and one that’s more deliberative.

Still only 29, Soutphommasane, who is of Lao-Chinese descent, is currently a columnist for Australian paper the Age, a lecturer at Monash University (he holds a PhD from Oxford) and the author of two forthcoming books, The Virtuous Citizen: Patriotism in a Multicultural Society and Don't Go Back To Where You Came From: Why Multiculturalism Works. He has also served as an adviser to Australian foreign minister Bob Carr and believes that Labour has much to learn from the successes and failures of its Australian brethren. The Rudd-Gillard governments, he said, "have great achievements to their name – the apology to the indigenous people, the establishment of a carbon pricing scheme, the creation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, a massive school-building programme – but they’ve lacked a nation-building story, they’ve lacked a nation-building project."

For Miliband and Labour, he argued, "the task of rebuilding and reshaping the British economy after the financial crisis and after austerity is something that could be a patriotic project". It is this insight that has excited Cruddas, who told me that Soutphommasane’s concept of "nation-building" could act as a "framing device" for the policy review he is leading. "Labour only successfully appeals when it actually owns an alternative national story based around what a country could be," he said. "And that’s why we invited Tim into our policy review. Through the idea of ‘rebuilding Britain’ you could counterpose a sense of national obligational duty to one of managed decline."

In the early months of the coalition government, David Cameron and George Osborne sought to couch austerity in patriotic terms, employing the wartime-like slogan "we're all in this together". But the government's reckless reform of the NHS ("the closest thing the English have to a religion," in the words of Nigel Lawson) and its abolition of the 50p tax rate, an important symbol of solidarity, have deprived it of any claim to be acting in the national interest. The path is now clear for Labour to present itself as the truly patriotic party. Under the rubric of "national reconstruction" (to use Soutphommasane’s phrase), Labour could champion policies such as a National Investment Bank, a school-building programme, and a "solidarity tax" on the wealthy.

The response to Danny Boyle's Olympics opening ceremony revealed an unfulfilled appetite for a patriotism of the left that dispenses with imperial nostalgia and offers a progressive vision of Britain's past and its future. With its representation of the suffragettes, the Jarrow marchers, Windrush immigrants, the NHS and the CND, the ceremony presented a people’s history of Britain that the left instinctively understood and applauded. Afterwards, Toby Young wrote that he felt as if he had just watched "a £27m party political broadcast for the Labour Party".

I asked Soutphommasane how Miliband’s party could harness a new wave of liberal patriotism. "Sometimes political parties can let these moments do the work for them," he said. "But the patriotic goodwill generated by the Olympics does provide an opportunity for Labour. It is almost as though Boyle has managed to pave the way for a new chapter of British nation-building."

In 1945, it was Clement Attlee's promise of a "new Jerusalem" that propelled him into Downing Street over the war lion Winston Churchill. Nearly seventy years later, a patriotic vow to "rebuild Britain" could do the same for Miliband.

Pick up this week's New Statesman, out tomorrow, to read the full profile of Tim Soutphommasane.