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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.

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”:


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)

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Middle East's 30 years war

Tracey Thorn. CRedit: Getty
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“Not technically beautiful, she has an engaging laugh”: 35 years of being described by men

For women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

I am sure you all saw the Twitter challenge that took off the other day – a request to women to “describe yourself like a male author would”, started by the writer Whitney Reynolds. There were thousands of hilarious replies, with women imagining how a bad male author would describe them. I thought about posting an example, but then realised, I didn’t have to imagine this. I’ve been being described by male journalists for more than 35 years.

Katy Waldman in the New Yorker wrote about the challenge, and how it highlighted clichés in men’s writing: “…prose that takes conspicuous notice of a female character’s physical imperfections. This is done with an aura of self-satisfaction, as if the protagonist deserves credit simply for bestowing his descriptive prowess upon a person of less than conventional loveliness.”

And oh boy, that hit home. Yes, I thought, that is precisely how I’ve been described, too many times to recall, so many times that I’ve actually sort of stopped noticing. The following aren’t direct quotes, but near enough.

“Not conventionally pretty, Thorn nevertheless somehow manages to be curiously attractive.” “Her face may not be technically beautiful but she has an engaging laugh.” “Her intelligence shines through the quirky features.” Often what’s irritating isn’t the hint of an insult, but just being wide of the mark. “She isn’t wearing any make-up” (oh my god, of course she is). “She’s wearing some kind of shapeless shift” (it’s Comme des Garçons FFS).

I’m not trying to arouse sympathy. I’m much thicker-skinned than you may imagine, hence surviving in this business for so long. But the point is, for women in music, being described most of the time by men is just par for the course.

A few weeks ago, when I was in Brussels and Paris doing interviews, I was taken aback all over again by the absence of female journalists interviewing me about my album – an album that is being described everywhere as “nine feminist bangers”. As the 14th man walked through the door, my heart slightly sank. I feel like a bore banging on about this sometimes, but it astonishes me that certain aspects of this business remain so male-dominated.

Even the journalists sometimes have the good grace to notice the anomaly. One youngish man, (though not that young) told me I was only the third woman he had ever interviewed, which took my breath away. I look at my playlists of favourite tracks over the last year or so, and they are utterly dominated by SZA, Angel Olsen, Lorde, St Vincent, Mabel, Shura, Warpaint, Savages, Solange, Kate Tempest, Tove Lo, Susanne Sundfør, Janelle Monáe, Jessie Ware and Haim, so there certainly isn’t any shortage of great women. I’ve been asked to speak at a music event, and when I was sent the possible line-up I couldn’t help noticing that over three days there were 56 men and seven women speaking. The final bill might be an improvement on that, but still. Any number of music festivals still operate with this kind of mad imbalance.

Is it down to the organisers not asking? Or, in the case of this kind of discussion event, women often feeling they don’t “know” enough? It’s a vicious circle, the way that men and their music can be so intimidating. The more you’re always in the minority, the more you feel like you don’t belong. Record shops seemed that way to me when I was a teen, places where guys hung out and looked at you like you didn’t know your Pink Floyd from your Pink Flag.

I also have to watch songs of mine being described by male writers, and sometimes misinterpreted. I’ve got one called “Guitar” on my new record. There’s a boy in the lyrics, but he’s incidental – it’s a love song to my first Les Paul copy. That fact has sailed over the heads of a couple of male reviewers who’ve seen it as a song all about a boy.

That’s the trouble, isn’t it? You miss things when you leave women out, or view female characters through the prism of their attractiveness, or when you take for granted that you’re at the centre of every story, every lyric. I bet you think this piece is about you. 

Tracey Thorn is a musician and writer, best known as one half of Everything but the Girl. She writes the fortnightly “Off the Record” column for the New Statesman. Her latest book is Naked at the Albert Hall.

This article first appeared in the 18 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Enoch Powell’s revenge