Patriotism - it's the one card the Tories have left. Oh yes, William Hague's recent attempt to stir up fury about asylum-seekers, coupled with his depiction of the future Britain as a foreign country, should Labour win a second term, seemed to backfire a bit. They certainly won him a pasting in much of the press. But deep down, once in the privacy of the polling booth, won't the voters of Middle Britain do what they won't admit to the pollsters, and vote for patriotism, for Britain for the British, for thumbing their noses at foreigners? That's what Labour strategists quietly fear. So now, just as Labour sought to swipe the "party of law and order" mantle from off the Tories' backs, Tony Blair wants to wrap the cloak named "patriotism" around new Labour.
The physical incarnation of the bid for the patriotic vote is Michael Wills, the minister for learning and technology in the Department for Education and Employment, but also Blair's recently appointed "patriotism envoy". Except that Wills doesn't like the title. No, he says, " 'Patriotism envoy' is an invention of the media: it's a terribly convenient label, but it's not quite what I am."
Deeper probing reveals just what Michael Wills is, and you can see why the press wanted a convenient label, for Wills is an enthusiastic chap who never uses one word where 50 will do. Michael Wills is looking at what national identity means in modern-day Britain, and is trying to devise a formula that will make it clear that Labour is a patriotic party, too. "Patriotism and national identity have been part of the debate in the past, but in the 1980s we were pretty much on the back foot on this, and we allowed ourselves to be caricatured by the Tories. It's not going to happen again," he declares.
It all depends on what you mean by patriotic. For many on the left, the word evokes elderly generals in military uniforms, right-wing extremists, members of country golf clubs, swiggers of pink gins, bleary reminiscences about the British empire. For Wills, though, patriotism is simply "love of your country". He insists the Labour Party has always been patriotic, recalling Clement Attlee, who "fought bravely in the First World War". Yes, I reply, but the left has always had a strong internationalist and pacifist tendency, too, hasn't it? Wills agrees, though he thinks that the pacifist strand has "always been a minority". It is certainly not a strand that is dominant today: "No one would seriously think that Tony Blair was not a patriotic Prime Minister," he says, firmly.
At the heart of modern-day arguments about patriotism is the ever-troublesome issue of race. Wills has a clear view of what being British means: "the attachment to place, culture, whether it's television, soap operas, vibrant theatre, music; language; shared values; a common destiny; a feeling of community". What he specifically excludes from his definition is ethnicity: he entirely rejects the right's idea that patriotism is "exclusive and in a sense ethnically based", believing that the "most precious thing about Britishness" is that it is not ethnically based. Wills feels very strongly about the benefits brought to Britain through waves of immigration over the years, "from the Anglo-Saxons, the Romans, goodness knows how many French, the Norman, Plantagenet and Hanoverian monarchs, Huguenots, Irish, Jews, Asians, people from the Caribbean". Each successive wave of immigration, he stresses, has ultimately benefited the country: "I don't think anyone can think that we are not infinitely better off as a result of the contributions that each of these peoples have brought. Anything that contradicts that is absolutely wrong and profoundly ahistorical; it does not understand what has made us great as a nation."
And what of today's would-be immigrants, the asylum-seekers so reviled by the Daily Mail? "I have no doubt that those who have the right to come here will make an enormous contribution." Wills talks with a determination that is impressive: "Sorry to bang on about this so much," he apologises, after speaking for five minutes without drawing breath, "but I do feel this very passionately."
It is not surprising, given his enthusiasm for the benefits of immigration, that Wills has withering contempt for William Hague's recent pronouncements on asylum-seekers: "I think he is desperately scrabbling around for anything that will help save him. I don't think he has anything to be proud of." He believes the Conservative Party will look back on its attempt to make asylum a headline political issue as "one of its less glorious moments".
As for the Tory leader's speech to his party's spring conference a few weeks ago, in which he painted a picture of the "foreign land" that Britain would become under another Labour administration, Wills is even more scathing, describing it as "arrogant, patronising nonsense". The speech was "very depressing", and he hopes Hague will "look back at it and feel very ashamed by this attempt to play on prejudice, because at its heart, Britishness is actually a very generous and inclusive national identity".
Can he, in any way, I ask, understand the fears of some people, particularly the older generation, who see a very different country now from the one in which they were brought up, and do not know what to make of it? Wills says he sympathises with anyone "who is afraid or worried", but insists that it is all based on "a profound lack of understanding". He cites as an example the fear that Great Britain is being broken up under Labour, arguing, with some force, that Labour remains the party of the Union, while William Hague is leading the Conservatives down a path that will lead it to become an English party alone, "a narrow sect". He sees the current debate in the Conservative Party in stark terms, picking up on William Hague's recent speech in which he called for "English votes for English laws". "What is ironic about the speech was the fact that casually, carelessly, hardly noticed by anybody, he is abandoning a century of unionist tradition within the Conservative Party." Wills believes that the logic of Hague's speech leads down a slippery slope to an English parliament, "and once you have an English parliament, you don't have a United Kingdom, you don't have a Union, you have a federal structure. Now the Conservative Party may want to argue for a federal structure . . . " He believes that William Hague did not realise what he was getting himself into, and detects signs of back-pedalling. "They haven't really thought through what their role is in a modern Britain," he says. "There's a deep subterranean struggle going on as to whether they should now become the English party. Equally, there's this very strong unionist tradition within the Conservative Party."
Wills warms to his theme that Hague is taking the Tories on an unknown journey that would "horrify" his predecessors. "That is a profound shift, an historic shift in the nature of the Conservative Party, and I think William Hague is sliding into transforming the nature of the Conservative Party from being a great national party to essentially being a sectarian party."
It's all strong stuff - yet how does he answer the Tory charge that actually it is Labour that has destroyed the United Kingdom by bringing in devolution for Scotland and Wales? According to Wills, things could not go on as before. The Scots and the Welsh felt that "England was just riding roughshod over them". He asserts that without Labour's programme of constitutional reform, the Union would have been under very serious threat. "If you believe in the United Kingdom, you have to take cognisance of the fears and worries of minority nations."
Wills quarrels with the idea that once you have an institution - such as the House of Lords - it should remain sacrosanct and unchanging. "One of the things that distinguishes our history is our pragmatic qualities, our flexibility, our responsiveness to change."
Part of his mission is to try to find out what young people today think of patriotism, and how Labour can tap into those ideas. To this end, he is travelling around the country doing "roadshows" where he meets different groups of young people. He is finding that young people "feel a very profound sense of rootedness in their own country". Yes, there are some who feel part of the global world and not much else. Wills recounts how one young man stood up and said: "I don't understand all this stuff, because actually we all listen to the same music, we drink the same coffee, wear the same clothes, have the same labels." In a time of cultural globalisation, Wills claims, there are "these plural identities, in the sense of belonging to our families, to our towns, to our regions and our nations". He sees Britain as providing an "inclusive umbrella for that". Surveys show that around three- quarters of people - 75-80 per cent - believe that they have a British identity.
Is Wills making much headway with his bid to make new Labour the party of patriotism? The right-wing press have been remarking unkindly that he has disappeared without trace since his appointment was announced. Wills admits that it is not "a mainstream Labour issue", but clearly relishes the challenge. He claims to have strong backing from the Prime Minister himself, who believes patriotism to be an issue where Labour can score points during the election campaign. A clear sign of where the thinking is going is Wills's focus on the National Health Service as the institution that always comes out top - "and by quite a long way" - as the one that represents the best about being British. He sees that as reflecting the British sense of "fair play" - "fairness in the sense that healthcare is allocated according to need, not according to how much you can pay".
You can see how Labour can put together an argument about British values and about fairness and national identity. Yet, for many on the left, patriotism remains, as Dr Johnson famously remarked, "the last refuge of the scoundrel". Michael Wills's ideas sound reasonable, but there's clearly a long way to go before new Labour comes wrapped in the Union flag.