Labour’s defeat in the general election has led to fierce debate over what the party should do next. Set against this backdrop, Rebecca Long-Bailey’s Labour leadership bid suffered a faltering start when she invoked one of the most divisive phrases of the last two decades. Launching her campaign as the year drew to a close, Long-Bailey recounted the story of the Lancashire millworkers who backed Abraham Lincoln’s blockade of slave-picked cotton in 1862. She argued that this showed a “long history of patriotism rooted in working life”. “To win,” she maintained, “we must revive this progressive patriotism and solidarity in a form fit for modern Britain.”
Long-Bailey’s yoking together of “progressive patriotism” and Lancastrian support for Lincoln’s cotton embargo was confused. The events of 1862 were indeed an inspiring period in the history of organised labour, but they had nothing to do with nationhood.
Long-Bailey’s rhetorical fudge over patriotism is typical of debates about national identity in these islands. While proud nationalists from most other countries can rely on a relatively solid working definition of their nation state, there are, in the British Isles, fundamental problems in determining what a “love of country” should mean.
The main source of contention is the uniquely complicated constitutional arrangement that binds the British nation state, or the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland”, to use its full title. The UK has always been an awkward construct, which from the 18th century began blurring together the medieval nationalisms of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales in the service of a rapacious imperial project.
Now, as Scotland moves closer to independence and the prospect of Irish reunification looms in the middle distance, it is more difficult than ever to discern the basic outline of our national architecture. This means that when a Westminster politician such as Long-Bailey alludes to patriotism, the response of even moderately independently-minded Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish voters will likely be: but which country are we supposed to feel patriotic about?
Even discounting separatist sentiment in the so-called Celtic nations, “national feeling” in a British context can be ambiguous when it is not wholly spurious. For all the talk of multiculturalism and modernisation over the last quarter-century, British identity remains largely based on a series of rather hollow post-imperial signifiers: the Union Jack, the monarchy, Churchill, nostalgia for warm beer and invincible green suburbs. Whatever can be said about British nationalism, it has rarely if ever been progressive.
A more recent development has been to respond to the decline of imperial Britishness by advocating a downsized English identity and political settlement. Since the 1990s there have been calls to build up English nationalism along the lines of modern Scottish and Welsh causes, with some form of English parliament to act as a political counterpart to cultural “Englishness”.
It is this postmodern English narrative that informs the “progressive patriot” call to arms. According to this line of thinking, it should be possible to forge a left-leaning national identity out of radical historical precedents such as the Peasants’ Revolt, the Chartists and the foundation of the NHS. For progressive patriots such as Billy Bragg or the former Labour MP John Denham, this sublimated form of English nationalism has the potential to triumph over the uglier ethno-nationalisms of the far right. Even an internationalist left must make some allowance for both identification with place and the basic democratic impulse to build a new homeland that is rooted in the humane traditions of the past.
But there are also limitations to such calls for a new, progressive England. Unlike its smaller neighbours on the British Isles, England is a populous entity of some 56 million citizens and embodies huge variations in culture, heritage and identity. While right-wing nationalists can be brutally reductive in advancing “blood and soil” versions of Englishness, it is difficult to see how leftists could offer a cogent national narrative that does justice to the diversity of the English social landscape and does not simply fall back on archaic myths of Albion.
Love of country is not in itself a bad thing. But until the left has devised a modern, egalitarian way of redefining the whole concept of nationhood on these islands, patriotism will remain an elusive impulse that will always be articulated more persuasively by the right.
The notion of civic pride would be a much better rallying cry to place at the heart of a renovated democratic socialism. It is true that people throughout Britain feel disconnected from their surroundings and alienated by the atomising culture of capitalism, but rather than offering nostalgic nationalist narratives to fill the emotional deficit created by global capital, a more solid left communitarianism could emerge from emphasising the municipal potential of our towns and cities.
Somewhere between David Cameron’s bucolic fantasy of a “big society”, full of good-willed volunteers and village committees, and the reductive claims of nationalism, there is space for a socialist narrative that builds up a gentle, civic tribalism by reconnecting people with their local democratic structures. A campaign for regional devolution would be an important starting point, as would the relocation of major London institutions to cities throughout the country.
If the 2019 general election has taught us anything, it’s that the left must devise alternative narratives to the simple nativist fantasies that have colonised the former Labour heartlands of the North and Midlands. If a new Labour leader chooses watered-down nationalism, he or she will always be fighting a losing battle with the right. Instead, whoever spearheads the party’s rebuilding project should encourage a love of place and home that looks forward to a revival of pride in civic institutions and allows people to dream that their immediate environment might be the driving force behind a better, fairer new nation.
Alex Niven is the author of “New Model Island” (Repeater)
This article appears in the 05 Feb 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Europe after Brexit