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  1. The Staggers
6 March 2023

Union Jacks aren’t just for conservatives

Corbynites who complain about Labour displaying the symbols of the country it hopes to run have given up on electoral politics.

By Ido Vock

Starmer Derangement Syndrome is real. If you want proof of how the leader of the Labour Party’s public image has driven sections of the very online left round the bend, look no further than the furious reaction to a graphic released by the party. 

The image – featuring the generic slogan “build a better Britain” over a Union Jack border – drove parts of the Corbynite left into a frenzy. A political party using national symbols is “literally the basis of fascism”, one person with a nuanced grasp of twentieth-century history informed me. The graphic “feels like a hate crime”, was another’s contribution. 

The charitable explanation of why moderate displays of the UK’s national flag drive the crank fringe of the progressive movement nuts is that flag-waving was for a long time largely the purview of the far right. The British left, lacking a progressive tradition of radical patriotism akin to the French and American revolutions, overreacts when a symbol long surrendered to the racists of the National Front and British National Party is employed by a progressive party.

Still, the 1970s were some time ago. It is myopic to pretend that displays of the Union Jack do not retain negative connotations for some Brits, but so is pretending that its associations have not changed over time. Since the heyday of the National Front we’ve had Britpop, Mo Farah draped in the flag at the 2012 London Olympics and Stormzy wearing a monochrome Union Jack stab vest at Glastonbury 2019 in a bitter expression of national identity. Nationalists may still wave the flag on Brexit marches but they surely no longer own it (if they ever did).

More importantly, the national identity the flag represents has moved on too. Britain is the most successful multiracial democracy in the world. Blood and soil nationalism is weaker in the UK than in any other big European democracy. The prime minister, Rishi Sunak, is of Indian descent. The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, is of Pakistani descent. The first minister of Scotland might soon be too.

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Ironically, the extreme aversion to any display of the national flag is itself a form of the British exceptionalism the far left usually decries. All around the democratic world progressive parties employ the language and iconography of soft patriotism.

In 1980 Germany’s Social Democratic chancellor Helmut Schmidt campaigned on a slogan of “Security for Germany”, with his election poster draped in the national black, red and gold. Many French political candidates use the word “France” in their election slogans, such as the Socialist candidate Benoît Hamon’s “make France’s heart beat” for the 2017 presidential race. Canada’s Liberal party incorporates the Canadian maple leaf in its party logo.

Most British voters are not raging nationalists, but nor are they ashamed of their country. Any party that hopes to win power must at a minimum be willing to display the symbols of the country it hopes to run. To act otherwise is to divorce yourself so completely from public opinion that you might as well have given up on electoral politics. That is the prerogative of the Corbynite left – whose record might reasonably lead them to the conclusion that winning elections is a futile goal – but it is clearly not Starmer’s calculation.

[See also: Why Larry Summers is moving left with age]

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