“As I write, highly civilised human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me”. Alas, this superb opening line is not mine but George Orwell’s, and it begins his brilliant, but criminally under-read, essay ‘The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius’, written during WWII.
I have been consulting the pages of this work with some regularity since Labour’s calamity of the 12th December 2019; an event which can broadly be put down to the very problem that costs it again and again: patriotism.
The Labour Party and the wider Left ought not to be having such problems with patriotism. The concepts of solidarity, community and the common good are alien to the Tories, and second-nature to the working class of any nation, and yet we are thrashed time and again on this question because we come across as at best ambivalent and at worst hostile to the idea of a love of country. This usually stems from a fear of endorsing reactionary ideas or whitewashing Britain’s imperial past. For goodness’ sake, I’m a Catholic and I haven’t got the guilt issues so much of the British Left has over their own country! We don’t have to put an asterisk in every time we say something good about Britain when we can only change the here and now. Patriotism is not right-wing in and of itself. What is wrong with a love of country divorced from endorsing the status quo?
Personally, I’m happy to call my country the greatest in the world. I don’t see it as something that can be measured by statistics, it’s what you feel; it’s the greatest as far as I’m concerned. After all, I wouldn’t live anywhere else. Ours is a land with a grand and sprawling history, a rich and unique culture and an earthy decency among most ‘ordinary’ people. I love the pub, the football, the landscape, the architecture, the music – especially the music, coming as I do from Elgar country and having worked for a long time in Holst country. This is all without mentioning the humour. I love the unabashedly cynical and sometimes downright vulgar humour we derive from mercilessly and freely mocking ourselves and our rulers, a freedom not enjoyed everywhere.
There are however many things about the country I’m dissatisfied with. I suspect the greatest country in the world should be doing a lot better in giving its working class representation and institutions through which to improve their lives and increase their stake in the country they love. It should not entangle itself in aggressive military expeditions unless the safety of the nation or that of an ally is directly threatened. It can do much better in its choice of Prime Minister than a mumbling haystack in a suit; a whimsical fop with a superiority complex; a hulking blancmange of quivering ineptitude and shifty self-interest.
None of this makes me any less of a patriot. We can slate the Tories and what they’ve done to our country, we can stand against the hard-right orthodoxy that’s taken hold here and we can still say that we love our country. At no point do we have to go along with jingoistic nonsense or militarist appropriation of the flag. It shouldn’t be so difficult.
For the last four years patriotism in Britain has been largely defined around Brexit and the issues that drove it, to the extent that it came to embody, in one neat package, a way to express dissatisfaction with and lack of faith in the main political parties and the process at large. Orwell states in his essay that “[the English] must stop despising foreigners. They are Europeans, and ought to be aware of it”. For many on the Left, this would apply directly to Brexit, but I don’t agree. Leaving a political organisation – the EU in this case – is not symptomatic of a country of bigots in my view, but a country whose working class especially do not feel in control of their own existence.
As a campaign, Brexit was carried largely by England, and by white, working class English voters who identify as English before or rather than British. The issue of England is one that has barely been touched on by Labour for a long time, especially since the referendum. We, and by we I do not mean simply ‘the Left’ or the Labour Party, have often couched our understanding of Brexit voters in terms of socioeconomic status or age, but we have critically neglected or at least underemphasised the English question in our analyses. This points to a hesitance to delve into such territory. As long as that remains the case, dear comrades, we are giving the forces of reaction, repression and retrenchment a free hit.
What we are seeing is a desperate clamour, particularly but not exclusively by the white working class, for the revival of a community spirit on a national scale. The country is atomised and divided – of that there is no doubt, and the great, tragic irony is that so much of that atomisation comes directly from the free-market fundamentalism of the modern Conservative Party. The ruthless subjugation of labour in the 1980s saw many industries obliterated along with the communities around them. These communities were forged in the fires of industry, but destroyed in the corridors of Whitehall, without sympathy or sentiment, by Conservative ministers determined to stop Britain being the ‘sick man of Europe’ any longer. The long-term social impacts of these decisions have been catastrophic for our country, if not for the well-heeled bankers and swashbuckling marketeers of the brave new financialised world.
However, what we cannot ignore in the context of national atomisation, if we are to be taken seriously, are issues we are uncomfortable discussing, such as immigration. Let’s begin: of course migrants are not a burden on the country. They keep the NHS running – as this pandemic has shown us all beyond doubt. They also contribute to the ‘essence’ of England and Britain that Orwell talked about in The Lion and the Unicorn with different foods or cultural practices, many of which have become commonplace. But what is equally true is that the population of England grew from 49 million in 2001 (when Labour last won the popular vote here) to 56 million in 2019. That was nearly four million more than the comparatively small increase in England between 1980 (46.79 million) and 2001. Coupled with the fact that we know birth rates are historically low, we can reason that this increase is largely down to immigration.
People must be allowed to express concern about this level of increase without being demonised immediately as racist. Former UKIP voters are not the brown shirts, and by the way we need a good chunk of them back. There are legitimate political concerns at play for many people, especially those Labour exists to represent (from both indigenous and migrant communities), and they should be discussed openly in a political context (i.e. without hysteria). The knee-jerk labelling of the likes of Gillian Duffy as ‘bigots’ (as Gordon Brown did in the 2010 General Election) has not solved a single issue and has driven so many former Labour voters away.
What is needed from us now is a unifying and positive vision of our country at the national level and an inclusive focus on community and workplace engagement at the local level. We must reclaim the idea of ‘the nation’ and what defines it from the right, or continue to face electoral disaster.
The truth is that, if we are to recover, we are going to have to learn to fly more than one flag at the same time. The red one alone won’t do. Socialism with a serious and affectionate patriotic framing is neither impossible nor undesirable. There is nothing to be fearful or contemptuous of here. Most people do not attach negative connotations to their country’s flag, and if we are to represent people rather than manage them, neither can we. It is a losing strategy, and wrong in any case.
I am Labour, I am left-wing, I am European, I am British, I am English. There is no contradiction, no conflict, no contempt. That is not true for many voters across our country at present. We must change that. We must discover a way to unite people, and to communicate our love of country without sacrificing deeply-held principles (what is the use of a party of labour otherwise?). If we continue without addressing this and shunning the emotional response patriotism engenders, however, what is the use of taking part in electoral politics?
People must be confident that a party they are voting for at least likes the country it proposes to govern, even when it advocates the most comprehensive reforms. It’s time we gave them that assurance – not by pandering to reactionary politics or abandoning socialism, but by embracing the country in an unequivocal sense and tapping into the unifying potential of the warmth most people feel towards it. We have to express our socialism clearly as a means of national improvement and strengthening of our people – all of our people – in a material and political sense; a strong national vision of morality and humanitarian purpose in every arena of our politics, from foreign policy to immigration.
The cause of labour is, after all, not only the hope of the world, but of our country too.