Stumbling and Mumbling

Author: chris dillow   |   Latest post: Fri, 5 Mar 2021, 12:07 PM


Labour's patriotism problem

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Patriotism might be the last refuge of the scoundrel but it is the first refuge for a politician wanting to avoid the reality of the need for radical change. That seem to be the message of the call by some "branding agency" that Labour should appear more patriotic.

Which poses a question. How is it that Labour's patriotism has come into doubt? For reasonable definitions, it is Labour that is the patriotic party more than the Tories.

Let's define patriotism as love of one's country, and let's define love as wanting what is best for someone whilst valuing them as themselves, and the country as its inhabitants, past present and future.

By these definitions, Labour is patriotic. It wants what's best for people. Of course voters rejected Labour's conception of what's best for them, but children sometimes reject their mother's ideas of what's in their interest (sometimes rightly!) - but this doesn't mean their mother doesn't love them.

By contrast, Tory policies have at least sometimes been motivated not by a genuine desire for the public good but by personal ambition. Cameron's disastrous decision to hold a divisive EU plebiscite was motivated by a desire to strengthen his power over eurofanatics in the party: Johnson's becoming a Brexiter owed more to his own ambition than to the merits of the case; and perhaps Sunak's pushing for an early end to the lockdown is based on a desire to win favour with Tory MPs opposed to the restrictions. Labpat

And Labour -more than the Tories - loves Britain for what it is. Orwell famously described England as "a family with the wrong members in control". Which is how social democrats have seen it. As Phil says, Labour's ambition has been to redefine the image of the nation as one "in which everyone has its place - a one nationism from below". Hence Rebecca Long-Bailey's talk of progressive patriotism and Lavery, Smith and Trickett's claim that "it is possible to love your country and learn and reflect on its history proactively and critically."

Again, this contrasts with the Tories, who have often expressed hatred for much of the country. Johnson has claimed that Muslim women "look like letter boxes"; that Liverpool wallows in victim status"; and that the children of single mothers (including me) are "ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate". And this is not to mention the Tories' long history of racism, homophobia and class hatred, reinforced in recent years by contempt for the young.

This disdain for many of our people is matched by attacks upon our institutions such as the BBC, judiciary, universities and local government - attacks which signify a distaste for the traditional British ways of doing things.

And of course, several of the Tories' cheerleaders don't love Britain enough to pay taxes or even live here.

The Tories' relationship to the country is like that of an abusive husband towards his wife. He might claim that he loves her, when in fact he belittles her and seeks only to control her.

From this perspective, therefore, it is Labour that is the patriotic party, not the Tories.

Why, then, does it seem otherwise? It's because my definition of "the country" is dubious. As Ed West says, there are two patriotisms. In the second form, the "country" is not so much its inhabitants but a collection of symbols: the flag, the armed forces, the monarchy and - yes - a largely false image of history. It is these that "patriots" love. To paraphrase Tom Paine, they love the plumage but care little for the bird. Yes, all nations are imagined communities, but the Tories vision of the nation is a reified one. And when some on the left question this, they allow themselves to be painted as unpatriotic.

And insofar as Tory "patriots" think of the "country" as being a group of people, they do not identify it with all the people. Their image of Britain is less than fully-focused upon the burka-clad Muslim or gay man. Such a restricted view of the political community is of course an ancient one. Here is C.B.Macpherson on 17th century attitudes to the poor:

The Puritan doctrine of the poor, treating poverty as a mark of moral shortcoming, added moral obloquy to the political disregard in which the poor had always been held...Objects of solicitude or pity or scorn and sometimes of fear, the poor were not full members of a moral community...But while the poor were, in this view, less than full members, they were certainly subject to the jurisdictions of the political community. They were in but not of civil society. (The Political Theory of Possessive Individualism, p226-27)

Such a view leads to absurdities such as claims that "the country can't afford" to support the poor and that "keeping the country safe" consists in a strong military rather than a decent welfare state. The Tories' view the state as an
iron fist not a helping hand.

Which brings us to Labour's problem. This conception of patriotism is so well-entrenched that it is unlikely to be defeated by weapons as puny as fact and logic. I therefore have little problem in itself with Sir Keir wrapping himself in the flag: politicians must campaign in lies but govern in truth. The problem is that as such plastic patriotism might be, as Tom Blackburn says, not so much a packaging for social reform as a substitute for it.

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