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20 January 2016

Why are so many on the left embarrassed by patriotism?

If Labour is to succeed, it must recognise the possibility of patriotic socialism - and stop other parties monopolising Britishness.

By John King

The sight of Jeremy Corbyn singing “The Red Flag” on the September day he was elected Labour leader was bad news for anyone who hopes to see the party connecting with the masses any time soon. Having set himself apart with a song that has no connection to the wider population and, for many, links to the horrors of totalitarianism, he followed this up by not singing the national anthem at a Battle of Britain memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral. The wider belief that Labour is in some way anti-British was reinforced. The irony is that most socialist policies are inherently patriotic, but there are ghosts in the Labour machine and they have been haunting the party for generations.

Corbyn is a decent man, part of a maverick English Labour tradition that includes Michael Foot, Tony Benn and perhaps Ed Miliband, but all four of them are metropolitan intellectuals who could never or never will understand why so many ordinary people are passionate about their country. Patriotism is a dirty word for those of an internationalist persuasion, which means they remain out of tune with much of the electorate. Like Nicola Sturgeon and Nigel Farage, Corbyn says most of what he believes, and this is an attractive quality. He will naturally draw people to him, but the wider electorate wants something more. Songs, gestures and symbols matter, and Labour’s iconography is all wrong.

Standing up to the multinationals and banks, nationalising and protecting core industries, progressively taxing the mega-wealthy, returning tax credits to those who need them, protecting the public sector, backing open-minded trade unions that fight for the rights of hard-working people, confronting a housing crisis that hurts millions, backing all those vulnerable souls being bullied in the name of “austerity”, dealing with the social cleansing/gentrification of London – this is patriotism if your definition of a country is its citizens and its culture, and this should go a long way towards winning every single election, yet it has not worked out that way.

Some of this is down to the Conservatives and their supporters in the media, but the blame lies with Labour, and especially that element within the party that hates the idea of Britain in general and England in particular. George Orwell wrote about this 75 years ago in his classic essay “The Lion and the Unicorn”:


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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. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God Save the King” than of stealing from a poor box.


Little has changed.

Orwell went on: “In intention, at any rate, the English intelligentsia are Europeanised. They take their cookery from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the general patriotism of the country they form a sort of island of dissident thought.” More recently, Martin Amis’s excellent book Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million looked at this group’s refusal to confront the Soviet terrors.

Metropolitan intellectual snobbery is part of an older, anti-English racism that runs back through the centuries to a series of multinational monarchs who looked down on the native peasants.

Patriotism is not the same as nationalism, and neither should it be defined by war or a hatred of others. It is about identity and culture, shared customs and values. This is the way our society has developed, in its best form as an extended family that can bind us and create unity. For most people it has little to do with the state, but it does connect to history, and can involve selective choices and myth-making, yet is common to all beliefs. The term “patriotism” might not even be used. Everything is down to interpretation, the weight put on a description. An alternative is to see it as a form of localism.

Nobody wants to see their culture ignored, insulted and dismissed. Perhaps patriotism is stronger among the mass population, where culture lives and breathes, and exists in the everyday rather than an art gallery. Here, the education is broader and more immediate, freed from the narrow limitations of the university lecture theatre. Britain is a special place. Why shouldn’t we say so and have pride in ourselves?

The SNP – a nationalist organisation – has taken left-wing values and shown what can be achieved when these are married to a love of country. The SNP is on a roll, a dynamic and upbeat party that celebrates its people and culture in a way that would not be allowed in England, yet even in this case there are problems lurking as the party refuses to confront the realities of the EU – which, in effect, negates any concept of genuine independence.

The SNP’s achievements have been huge, but the rise of Ukip is just as impressive. Nearly four million voted for it in the general election and it has achieved its success because it is British and proud, albeit without the same left-leaning domestic policies as the SNP. Even so, it has pulled in big numbers of working-class former Labour voters, those who have rejected the party as being out of touch and elitist. Crucially, Ukip understands that the UK needs to survive and regain control of its law-making before anything else is possible.

For generations, the Tory party has claimed to be the patriot’s choice. In grand gestures it has been bigger and bolder, but, at the same time, it allows the rich of this country and the wider world to become even richer at the expense of the people. Everything is put up for sale as it runs down the nation it says it loves, makes its citizens pay for the actions of the banks, allows its front benches to be controlled by multimillionaires with no clue what it is like to start from scratch and struggle for every pound coin. Rampant free enterprise is never going to be patriotic, but the Tories keep on flying the Union Jack, which has been neatly folded and handed to them on a plate by Labour.

Tony Blair grasped this truth, yet even he couldn’t go the whole way. Neil Kinnock had already made a start, introducing the red rose and rejecting Militant, and this was something Blair built on, appealing to both the country’s liberal traditions and its strong work ethic. The result was a “new” Labour Party in tune with the wider population and, for the first time, it won back-to-back landslides. This was achieved partly by moving towards the centre ground, which was necessary in a country that rejects extremes, but socialist principles were enacted and, on the whole, it was a good time. Blair rode the “Cool Britannia” express, a plastic reproduction of the 1960s, perhaps, but one that was upbeat and wrapped in the Union Jack. The masses equate their flag not with slavery or the empire, but with popular culture and the defiance of the Second World War. During the Blair years, Oasis, Blur and Happy Mondays provided the soundtrack to a remixed collision of free enterprise and healthy investment in public services. Things deteriorated, of course, and if Blair had had his way we would have been lost in the eurozone years ago, because, like Kinnock, he became enamoured with the EU and knows a career opportunity when he sees one. But, for a while, long-term concerns about Labour’s lack of patriotism were removed and it was highly electable.

In our liberal and tolerant country, maybe the electorate routinely rejects Labour because it sees too much intolerance and arrogance. “Diversity” is the new fetish of the media and political class, but it has always existed and, indeed, is one of our strengths. It is represented in the four nations of the United Kingdom, our counties and towns, our tribal origins and histories, celebrations and traditions, accents and music and food and rivalries and every quirk of culture. This diversity was never separated and pulled apart, as togetherness was considered important. And isn’t it a shame that Labour is unwilling to give the people of this country the respect they deserve for their generosity of spirit in more recent times, leaving it to David Cameron to make the case in his speech at the Conservative conference in Manchester last October?

When Orwell was writing “The Lion and the Unicorn”, Britain was involved in a war against fascism, and for a while stood up to Nazi Germany alone, and that is something of which to be very proud. The punk band Cockney Rejects put it this way in one of their greatest songs, “Power and the Glory”: “And the fat men sat in office blocks/Said ‘look, we won the war’/And the tears we shed over our dead/Made us hate them all the more”.

Patriotic socialism makes us proud of our ancestors and our history, angry at the establishment. Cock Sparrer, one of the biggest British punk bands, say it all in the chorus of “England Belongs to Me”: “No one can take away our memory/England belongs to me”.

If Labour is to succeed again, it needs to understand the patriotism of the people it aspires to speak for and represent. Really, those running the party should feel the same way.

John King’s novels include “The Football Factory” and “Human Punk” (Vintage)

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This article appears in the 20 Jan 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war