The New Statesman Essay - Let traitors flinch

In the new Labour Party, the scarlet standard is out, the Union flag in; but ministers are still con

In October last year, Tony Blair circulated a note among his cabinet colleagues entitled "Labour and Britain". "Over the next year," he revealed, "issues of national identity are going to be important." The memo insisted that "we have a very good story to tell", and urged ministers to start making speeches "setting out our vision of a modern British identity, based on enduring values rather than unchanging institutional arrangements". To help co-ordinate the message, the Prime Minister announced the appointment of Michael Wills, a junior education minister, as the government's patriotism envoy.

All this came in the wake of Philip Gould's celebrated memos. Findings from focus groups had revealed that the government was in danger of being "outflanked on patriotism". This is a problem that has preoccupied new Labour since its inception. It has used patriotism as a weapon in a variety of political battles. Yet when it gets on to this subject, new Labour still fails to convince, because it is, at bottom, talking not its own language, but that of its opponents.

In the early days, Blairite modernisers mobilised patriotism, and a sotto voce nationalism, to further the core project of distinguishing new from old Labour. Blair made numerous "I love my country" speeches. He began his long love-in with the armed forces (later consummated with General Sir Charles Guthrie). The Union Jack made repeat appearances at party conferences. In the 1997 election campaign, the future PM told Sun readers of his passion for "the Queen's head on a £10 note". Readers of Country Life saw Blair adorned in green wellies talking of his love of the patria - the land, soil and husbandry of the British people.

The new patriotism enjoyed its finest hour in a party election broadcast starring Fitz the bulldog. The capture of the British bulldog as a new Labour beast served to show that a modernised Labour Party had few qualms about narrow nationalism. The ghost of George Orwell, and his constant worry about the left's love of country, was finally exorcised, along with the ghost of the donkey jacket that Michael Foot wore at the Cenotaph.

The post-election period saw the nadir of unthinking patriotism with the emergence of "Cool Britannia", a joint project between the Design Council and the think-tank Demos. Playing on the vogue for "Brit" (Brit art, Brit pop) in the early 1990s, it was a crass attempt to "rebrand Britain", and symbolised all that was wrong about new Labour's breathless fetish for modernisation. Although, a few years later, Michael Wills dismissed the marketing exercise as "nothing to do with us", it was in fact everything to do with the government. The brains behind the report, Geoff Mulgan, quickly joined the Downing Street Policy Unit, while one of its authors, Mark Leonard, was appointed to a Foreign Office commission on updating Britain's image abroad.

It was left to Gordon Brown to introduce a more considered approach. In a speech in November 1997, he set out a vision of British patriotism oriented around values, not institutions. "When we talk about the character of a country," the Chancellor argued, "we are not talking only about its traditional institutions." Instead, "we are talking about the qualities of a people". And what were those qualities? "Being creative, adaptable and outward-looking, our believing in liberty, duty and fair play" - that was what added up to Orwell's "British genius". The golden thread of British history, according to Brown, was an enlightened individualism, "standing firm against tyranny and the arbitrary use of power".

Brown's patriotism had a clear political agenda. As new Labour had previously employed love of country to mark a break from the past, here it was used to sanction the government's plans for devolution and constitutional reform. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly would cement the British constitutional tradition, rather than destroy it.

The inspiration for Brown's speech can be found in Linda Colley's Britons: forging the nation 1707-1837. This highly influential text provided new Labour with its very own patriotism handbook. A bulldozing account of the development of Britishness during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, it offered the government an intellectual route map for constitutional reform. Colley argued that Britain was simply an artificial construct forged during the Napoleonic era by the combined forces of Protestantism, empire and war. Now that those pressures no longer exist, there is little reason to retain the old constitutional structures of the United Kingdom. What can be constructed can just as easily be deconstructed. Devolution and constitutional reform were therefore not an attack on nationhood, merely a long-overdue modernisation.

Colley became an instant hit in new Labour circles. Brown forwarded her book to newspaper editors; Blair invited her to No 10 for seminars on citizenship. While her work was frequently criticised within academia (for its narrow, unionist version of British history; its inattention to Ireland; its linear analysis of Protestantism), her conclusions were left largely unchallenged in the political field, save for a few lonely voices on the right, such as the historian Noel Malcolm and the Times journalist Michael Gove.

The government was on a roll, and "values not institutions" had become the calling card of new Labour's patriotism. In a speech to regional newspaper editors, Blair explained how British identity "lies in our shared values not in unchanging institutions". And those values were now honed down to "fair play, creativity, tolerance and an outward-looking approach to the world". Wills managed to get it down to "tolerance and openness". Brown, however, now stressed something called "civic patriotism", the supposedly unique British tradition of self-help and civic engagement exemplified by the 19th-century friendly societies.

Stung by the charge that its patriotic values were of such vacuous universality as to be endorsed by any other modern liberal nation, the government at last aligned them with an institution. Unlike the House of Lords or trial by jury, outmoded institutions redolent of a past order, the national health service was pinpointed as a timeless organisation that managed to embody modern British patriotism. The NHS, according to Blair, "represents the best of British values in action". (Quite where this statist Leviathan, which killed off numerous self-help societies and local surgeries, fits in with Brown's localist "civic patriotism" is unclear.) Later, Wills would add "the BBC and the armed forces" as other institutions symbolic of the British genius.

Politically, what the government became most eager to extol was the "outward- looking approach to the world" - or "outward-looking open-mindedness", as it emerged in one mangled version. Where Labour was in greatest danger of being "outflanked" by the Tories on patriotism was over European integration. It was essential to align a pro-active European policy with chest-beating, tub- thumping patriotism. So those backing the cross-party Britain in Europe campaign to enter the euro became a "patriotic alliance". The decision to contribute British troops to the European army was an act of "enlightened patriotism".

As the decision on entry to the euro nudges closer, we can expect the rhetoric to intensify. Blair has described Britain's "hesitant" relationship with the European Union as a tragedy. "It has been a tale of insisting that it is never going to happen, insisting that it won't progress and then, reluctantly and belatedly, coming along afterwards." The euro referendum is meant to achieve final closure on our confused post-colonial legacy after the initial attempt during the 1975 referendum. Indeed, the logical, if problematic, conclusion of Blair's rhetoric is that it would be an act of unpatriotism on behalf of the British people to refuse the euro.

With the Treasury showing ever deeper scepticism over the euro, a tangible tension is developing between the Blair and Brown strains of patriotism. When it comes to Europe, the Chancellor's celebration of Britain's outward-looking approach is probably overshadowed by his belief in self-government and individual autonomy as national virtues. His intense frustration at any interference from Brussels in UK fiscal policy indicates he has yet to see the pooling of sovereignty as a fundamental patriotic duty.

It is when the PM looks beyond the boundaries of the European Union that his patriotism really shines. Unlike many on the metropolitan soft left - the Margaret Hodges and Paul Boatengs of the Labour Party - Blair has no problem with the British empire. Indeed, he positively celebrates it. In a recent interview, he revealed that he was reading a biography of Field Marshal Earl Roberts - a celebrated British general of the 19th-century who secured the imperial writ through India and Afghanistan. What Blair seems to admire is the moral certainty of purpose that his illustrious forebears brought to foreign policy. For Blair's Kosovo read Gladstone's Bulgaria. According to his cabinet memo: "New Labour is standing up for Britain in the world: fighting for ethical values."

Nowhere is this more the case than in Africa. Blair has developed an intense fascination with the problems facing sub-Saharan Africa. Following his personal involvement in the Sierra Leone fiasco - and his staunch defence of the British ambassador's shady dealings with mercenary forces - he became curiously concerned with the Congo. He has just appointed one of his closest advisers, Liz Lloyd, to a new post in the Cabinet Office, specifically to oversee African policy. Again, there is the patriotic sense of a moral, almost Christian duty - that Britain should have a pivotal role in the world, not because of post-imperial guilt, but because of a tradition of enlightened foreign policy. As part of his Disraeli-like relationship with the Queen, Blair has also become a firm advocate of the Commonwealth.

But how will the new Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, take to this analysis of our glorious imperial past? As a former president of the National Union of Students, Straw is not only far less in awe of the British monarchy, but also less certain of the value of our colonial heritage. Indeed, he has blamed the "distorted patriotism" of English football hooligans on the "global baggage of empire". Ominously, the Foreign Secretary wants to "redefine not only what it means to be British, but also what it means to be English". And, frighteningly for us, he views it as the "responsibility of people . . . like me to try to change that".

Yet when the Commission on the Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, established by the Runnymede Trust, tried to do just that, no one was quicker than Straw, then Home Secretary, to disassociate himself from the findings. A team of 22 liberal worthies, under the chairmanship of Bhikhu Parekh, argued that the multiple identities of modern Britain (Sikh Brummie; black Briton) meant that we should abandon any unitary conception of Britishness in favour of championing a "community of communities".

Instead of engaging with this critique of British patriotism, Straw lazily focused on the report's flawed and infamous assertion that "Britishness, as much as Englishness, has systematic, largely unspoken, racial connotations". The central point about the illegitimacy of Britishness wasn't challenged. No positive alternative of British identity was offered up, save our old friends the values of openness, tolerance, and so on.

The government did not and does not have a comfortable vision of the past to celebrate any cohesive idea of British culture. For the past five years, because of its drive to annex the political centre, new Labour has promoted a patriotism built on Tory ideals. The weakness and confusion encircling new Labour's vision is the product of operating within a Conservative paradigm.

Thus the government feels the need constantly to defend its limited reforms of the House of Lords; its reverence for unreconstructed armed forces; even its love of British bulldogs - symbols, over the years, of National Front thuggery and an awful Conservative intransigence. The authorities Labour appeals to are typically high up the Conservative canon - Edmund Burke, Benjamin Disraeli, even Harold Macmillan. Labour is not talking its own language.

Instead of a platitudinous assertion of values not institutions, the government should emphasise a new patriotism built around institutions and heroes who embody the enlightened, progressive spirit of the British liberal tradition. We need to hear about the culture of patriotism that produced the meritocracy of the Open University; the mutualism of the co-operative movement; the civic pride of the great town halls; the environmentalism of the national parks; the solidarity of May Day (in its radical and socialist form); the internationalism of the anti-apartheid movement; the philanthropy of Toynbee Hall - as well as the progressive ethos of the BBC and the civilising force of the NHS. We need to hear less about Burke and Disraeli and more about Lilburne, Paine, Ruskin, Tawney and Beveridge. This is a language and tradition with which the Labour movement should feel comfortable. And there is as much tolerance, fair play, open-mindedness and all the rest in these progressive institutions as in parliament, the army and the pound.

With the referendum on the euro, demands for regional devolution in England and statehood in Wales, and the collapse of our geopolitical position under the wing of America, Britain will become even more self-analytical about its identity. New Labour should stop wheeling out patriotism for petty political feuds, and instead offer a more cohesive, radical and progressive vision.