Patriotism and the Left

Lisa Nandy's speech on the Left, patriotism and solidarity.

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As we get to the end of this Parliament, looking back, one of my favourite memories is seeing young people from Wigan and across the country taking to the streets of central London to march in defence of the Education Maintenance Allowance, not for themselves but for the young people who would come after them. Those common bonds. That belief in collective endeavour. It inspires me.

Over the course of my lifetime we’ve seen more and more of a focus on individuals, from Harvey Milk to Malala, amazing inspiring people but somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten that nothing worth doing was ever done alone. It’s movements that change things, or in the words of that great literary hero Harry Morgan, ‘one man alone ain’t got no bloody chance’.

On the left, we’ve always known this. We are a people. We find our identity through the things we have in common, whether it’s at the football match, the election rally, marching in common cause or in the workplace. Through our teams, our friends or our families, being human means being part of something, defining ourselves with, not just against. We are all, whether we like it or not, Aristotle’s political animals, deeply social with a desire to be different but a deeply held human need to belong.

Patriotism is based on these ideals, of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. It’s why I find it so curious that the debate on patriotism has been so comprehensively captured by the right. Because it’s our refusal to understand and harness patriotic feeling that has allowed it to become little more than the narrow nationalism, that 19th Century invention, preached by the right. At best a meaningless symbolism. At worst a backwards looking, hate-fuelled belief that we are superior to others.

There’s something deeply inauthentic about this version of patriotism. To be patriotic – to feel love for your country – isn’t about what we are against. It’s about the things we are for.

All of us have overlapping identities. I’m a Mancunian by birth, a Wiganer by choice, proud to be both British and distinctly English too. I’m proud to be have grown up in the City that has benefited from waves of immigration that gave us the first free library, the free trade hall, where the communist manifesto took shape and the battle of Peterloo was fought. I’m proud to have made my home in the town that gave the world Gerrard Winstanley, that stood shoulder to shoulder with Indian cotton pickers, that came together to support the striking miners and yet again in 2015 is stepping in to feed local families because their government has abandoned them.

I’m proud too to be have been born in a country, England, that gave us the Levellers and the Diggers. And to call myself British, with our history of hundreds of years of democracy, a union that enabled us to create the NHS, the welfare state, comprehensive education and the national minimum wage.

There is no inconsistency in recognising that we hold overlapping identities. To be Mancunian as opposed to a Geordie, Cornish or a Londoner doesn’t mean denying the things that, as the English, we have in common. Perhaps it’s the fact that my father is Indian, born and brought up in Calcutta, that makes me acutely aware that the peculiarities of England, what some would call the English national character - our love of queues, animals, and the pub, our caution about change and the oddity and beauty of our language - all of these things have been shaped by the part we’ve played in the United Kingdom, in the Empire and in the world. That make us who we are.

And this national story, this sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves, matters. It roots us in history and shared traditions, gives us what Paul Kingsnorth calls a ‘mooring in space and time’. This mooring as Orwell said, is what bridges the future and the past, which in turn helps to act as a guide to us for the present challenges we face.

And this matters now more than ever. Because it’s impossible to ignore the destructive impact that global capital has had on our sense of belonging, sweeping away the familiar and helping to create a sense as Kingsnorth says, that we’re all in perpetual transit. “If identity is an alliance between people and places then airport lounge modernity means taking the places out of the picture. All that is left is people who could be anywhere, citizens of nowhere, consumers of objects and experiences.” I hear those words as I read letters from constituents mourning the decline of small independent high street traders, or pass the McDonalds that now sits on the site of a once bustling Labour Club in my constituency.

The demise of that Labour Club and its replacement with a fast food chain that employs young workers on minimum wage, zero hours jobs tells a story about the impact of global capital. It’s left more of us than ever abandoned to the market with the insecurity and anxiety that comes with it. And God help you if you’re poor, because those who have no purchasing power are invisible. Markets see only consumers. Most of all, it’s diluted our ability to take control of our own destiny. With Walmart now the 25th largest economy in the world, roughly equivalent in size to the Norwegian economy, who can truly say we’re free?

Against this backdrop of disempowerment and alienation, it’s understandable that people seek to protest. Borders have become symbolic. They stand for social order, family life, common decency, as Cruddas and Rutherford argue, “immigration refracts all these anxieties into a brittle national sentiment. We have to understand or confirm it or we will abandon this terrain to the forces of the right.”

Modern forces – the war and later globalisation - swept away rigid hierarchy and defined social roles away with it, but what is left in their place?

And the left has no concrete answer to this question. We’re divided even about whether to accept the need for a national story. But now more than ever as we live through a time of change, to dismiss or ignore patriotism is a mistake.

This search for a common identity is undeniable. In recent years Armed Forces Day, the Royal Wedding, the Jubilee and St George’s Day, have brought people out onto the streets across England to celebrate together. Like this or not, patriotism is a force. It’s up to us whether we allow patriotism to be defined in a narrow, backward looking, divisive way, or seek to harness and shape it in support of the things we most value. The conversation has started and we must be a part of it.

Just as in the years during and following the Second World War people grasped for the ‘invisible chain’ that binds the nation together, it’s no surprise that as global capital has become ever dominant, there’s been a rise of English nationalism. The 2011 census shows a dramatic strengthening of English national identity over the previous decade. 70% of England identified as either English or English in combination with some other identity. (IPPR).

There is a growing consensus on the left about the economic and political causes of this tide of insecurity and the need to address them. But there is little consensus about this need for rootedness, for an anchor.

Yet the economic, political and social uncertainties we’re grappling with stem from the same cause: a “contemporary globalised culture” as Kingsnorth calls it, that “sets out to destroy local particularity and our attachment to it, because if we remain attached to it we may not buy into the placeless nowhere civilisation that is being built around the globe in the name of money”.

He goes on to argue, that we have allowed our collective story to be taken away, but we’ve put nothing in its place. And this has allowed the narrative of who we, collectively are and who we want to be, to be shaped and defined by the right.

Patriotism is often posed as a struggle between continuity and change, but actually it’s both. It is, in Orwell’s words, “an everlasting animal stretching into the future and the past and like all the living things having the power to change out of recognition and yet remain the same.”

For the left in England this matters more than in many other countries across the world. We are an evolutionary, not revolutionary people, not least because working people do have much more to lose than their chains. But the fact that we seek to preserve the best of what we are and have been, that we are proud of those facets of our Englishness, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t see with crystal clarity just how fundamentally England needs to change. On the left, we are the people capable of understanding that patriotism is a living breathing bridge between the future and the past. That looking to the future doesn’t have to mean abandoning the past, nor clinging to it.

But the battle for the past has not yet been won. Listen to the supposed patriotism of the right and you would believe our history and heritage was little more than pomp and ceremony and the history of kings and queens. But it’s so much more than this. It’s the history of ordinary, often extraordinary, people that only a small few – like the brilliant Eric Hobsbawm - have ever tried to tell. It’s the history of waves of immigration that have shaped our language, our institutions and our values. It the history of different values – not self interest and individual achievement but of common endeavour and solidarity - and it’s the story of a people who still believe strongly, across class, race and geographical boundaries, in ideals like free speech, the right to a fair trial and the rule of law, ideals we’ve never lived up to in practice but that command strong popular support because they hold the promise of something better.

It’s these values – not xenophobia, hierarchy, patriarchy and individualism - that define the best of what can loosely be termed the English character.

Across the world, in Greece, Spain and France the left is comfortable with taking on authority in a way that draws on nationhood and patriotic feeling. There’s only one example I can think of in Britain in recent years; the Olympic Opening Ceremony or as Jonathan Freedland beautifully described it, a “hymn to collective endeavour”. Headed by a man who turned down a knighthood because he would rather be an equal citizen than a preferred subject, it captured the messy, complicated and sometimes conflicted country we live in. “It didn’t seek to airbrush the darkness in our history. It was able to speak openly about the country’s strengths and weaknesses.”

As Danny Boyle describes it, the participants were told “this is the people’s show and you’re lucky to be in it”. He took 10,000 volunteers who, with incredible symbolism, rehearsed in the car park of the abandoned Ford Plant at Dagenham. Unlike modern Hollywood sets there were no privacy contracts, no mobile phones were confiscated and not a single image leaked before the opening night. It’s an object lesson in how, not just portray but to live those values, of collectivism, solidarity and common ties. And Boyle told the Guardian it couldn’t have succeeded if it was simply a left wing view of Britain. These values are fundamental to our society. When it comes to institutions like the NHS, he says, we decided long ago that ‘we believe in that’.

These are our values, deeply held values, and not just by those who call themselves socialists. Why are people prepared to die for their country if not because they feel instinctively we are not simply individuals with our own self-interest? Intelligent socialism draws on and builds on that feeling, it doesn’t simply insult it.

But too often those left wing politicians who have understood that patriotism is a force have done little more than seek to appropriate this individualistic, narrow view of the world, instead of helping us to refashion and redefine it. This matters, because there are times in history when the nation pulls together to do the same thing but it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing. Patriotism can be a force for good or ill. And if it’s to be a force for good, it starts from an honest assessment and understanding of who we are and the impact we have in the world. It’s the patriotism of Wilfred Owen and his raw, honest, brutal account of war, not the fundamentally dishonest patriotism of Michael Gove and his British values, an exercise in historical whitewash and PR, instead of an attempt to understand.

It tells you how shallow this commitment to patriotism is in the ranks of the Conservative Party. Because patriotism is as much about learning and challenging as it is about celebrating. And there is nothing patriotic about shutting down dissent, gagging citizens, charities and trade unions through the Lobbying Act and a series of attacks on the right to speak. About widening inequality, putting money into the pockets of a wealthy few at the expense of the poorest in the country. Or selling off our shared institutions that, as Jesse Norman rightly said, help to define us as we define them - Northern Rock, the NHS, Royal Mail, the forests.

And this is where UKIP’s brand of patriotism is, as Orwell once said of Mosley, as “hollow as a jug”. It has nothing to tell us about ourselves so instead it picks on easy targets offering phoney solutions, as Polly Toynbee said, to genuine anxieties. In its attack on migrants it shows a breathtaking hypocrisy, a hypocrisy that the left cannot afford to share: “we demand that migrants must be like us, but who actually are we? They must share our British values, but what are they? Newcomers must answer the citizen’s test, but could we?” Jon Cruddas and Jonathan Rutherford point out.

This brand of nationalism has nothing to tell us about the major challenges we face or how to solve them. The growing challenge of loneliness and isolation. An economy based on flexible labour markets that undermine people’s jobs and wages. That treats people as disposable goods, fails to draw on the talent across the country and certainly doesn’t reward it. A state that too often, is seen as ‘other’ to people and their efforts. It manifests itself in low pay, job insecurity, youth unemployment, older people growing old without dignity or warmth, anger, division and alienation.

Collectively, as a nation, we can do better.

It starts, as Orwell said by rediscovering the “the England that is only just beneath the surface”. A country of call-centre workers and small businesswomen, of home care workers, builders and teachers, by assuming our real shape, drawing on our collective talents and taking charge of our own destiny.

To be defined not just for what we are against – a handful of right wing press barons who control our media, a minority of multinationals and the super-rich who refuse to pay tax – but by what we are for. For a national broadcaster with its public interest test, for public services funded by all of us, for all of us, when we might need them. To be proud to take part, to do our bit.

This is what unites the young apprentice in Bolton who pays taxes out of her £2.73 an hour and Cheryl Fernandez Versini who will vote for Labour and a mansion tax that will leave her personally worse off to support the NHS. They both sum up our spirit. A belief that politics is about much more than self-interest, that we’re all in it together, that we do better by our collective endeavour than we do alone, not just as individuals but because the society we live in is richer, happier, fairer, stronger as a result. To seek and find the multitude of things that divides us is easy. But if we look for what unites us, if we were just able to open our ears to it, then to steal a phrase from George Eliot, we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

To put it another way, “there is nothing more unpatriotic” as Polly Toynbee says, “than fostering atomisation.” There is nothing patriotic about scapegoating asylum seekers, or the unemployed, Europe, or the poorest people in other countries across the world. Whether it’s against immigrants, the rich, the middle classes or the unemployed, emulating the division and hatred preached by the right is a dead end. This is why the political effort to fashion a new sort of patriotism in New Labour ultimately failed. The rights and responsibilities narrative, the adoption of phrases like hardworking families, which by implication means others are not, drove us apart instead of uniting us. It’s why One Nation offers an important change in narrative and approach. Because patriotism is inclusive. It brings us together, not drives us apart. With a general election just weeks away this couldn’t be more important.

David Cameron’s slogan, we’re all in it together, was an appeal to this feeling of common endeavour. It’s just that quite clearly, with this government, it isn’t true. But what if we could breathe life into it? What if we could build a patriotism that says, we will draw on all of our talent, not just be governed by an elite few? We could ban unpaid internships, replace the House of Lords with an elected senate, and stop media ownership being concentrated in the hands of a few. We could give people more control over the decisions that affect them, their families, and communities in Scotland, the English regions and across the union. Real, meaningful, accountable power, not the version offered by George Osborne. And by doing so we could bring people together in control of our own destiny. It’s not anti-state, it’s pro-state. For people to make sacrifices, they have to feel the state is themselves, not the other.

This form of patriotism enables us to take the things we are most proud of in our collective, national character and seeks to showcase them to the world. The rejection of patriotism on the left too often takes the form of pessimism, the idea that we, as a collective force, aren’t good enough to change, to progress and to inspire ourselves and others across the world. This is not the socialism I believe in.

It is possible to be “a nation without the worst of nationalism. To be comfortable with your identity and history without withdrawing into them. To welcome outsiders without forgetting what you are welcoming them to” as Kingsnorth says. Because, as Peter Hain recently put it, "patriotism is a noble value, not a narrow one". Patriotism is a love of, support for your own country, not superiority over others. It doesn’t have to mean might, and empire, it should mean “an England that stops trying to punch above its weight and instead asks why it is punching at all”. Respect for other countries, cultures, traditions. What we owe them and what we can learn from them.

It gives us that duty to challenge when we fall short, summed up in the poetry of Wilfred Owen, and during the Stop the War movement when, alongside so many others, I marched under a banner that read ‘Not in My Name’. And in recent years, the spirited fight waged in the UK by NGOs, MPs and members of the public to bring to justice the London listed company Trafigura who dumped toxic waste off the Ivory Coast, putting profit before people with appalling consequences, embodied that sense of challenge and national pride.

Tolerance, equality and compassion. These are the values we should aspire to, and want the world to see. To seek, not to lead the world, but to play our part in changing it and by changing it, change ourselves. Who wouldn’t feel pride to see the Foreign and Commonwealth Office campaigning against the death penalty across the world or the Pride flag flown by British embassies overseas on LGBT Rights Day? Our arts and culture have helped us think more deeply about who we are and the impact we have, to understand ourselves and the world, and our common ties and we are rightly, deeply proud of it. It’s why the decision to open up the Man Booker prize to the rest of the world was a bold, patriotic step. The nation that can be a force for good, or as the Australian PM Ben Chifley put it, ‘the light on the hill’ for people at home or overseas who at times find themselves in darkness.

The difference between their patriotism and ours sums up the struggle for the soul of this country. Between a patriotism of the right that harks backwards, denies our flaws and our mistakes and seeks to persuade us we have heritage to be proud of despite, not because of, our history as one among a community of nations who have helped to shaped England and Britain as they are today. Or an optimistic, future-looking alternative. A patriotism based on solidarity, a commitment to social justice, human dignity and equality. The past is fighting the future, and now more than ever we cannot afford to abandon the fight. 

 

Lisa Nandy is the MP for Wigan. She was formerly Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change.