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“Patriotism” Is a Dead End for the Left

Labour’s new leader, Keir Starmer, wants the Left to embrace patriotism. But rather than bowing to the totems of faith and flag, Labour should be drawing on the best of its own traditions — those of dissent, mutual aid, and a radical solidarity that refuses to be content with inequality or injustice.

New Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer leaves his home on April 4, 2020 in London, England. Hollie Adams / Getty

In October 1965, on the initiative of Britain’s freshly elected Labour government, the Beatles visited Buckingham Palace to receive MBEs from prime minister Harold Wilson. Though surprisingly controversial, the gesture had a certain obvious political logic: if Wilson hoped to become the standard bearer for a “New Britain” and align his party with the emerging ’60s zeitgeist, what better way than to bequeath the Order of the British Empire on Liverpool’s favorite sons? Reflecting on the awards, however, none other than Tony Benn — then Minister for the Post Office in Wilson’s cabinet — was doubtful about the wisdom of the move.

“I read yesterday that the Beatles had been given MBEs. No doubt Harold did this to be popular and I expect it was popular,” Benn would write in his diary, continuing:

But the plain truth is that the Beatles have done far more for the royal family by accepting MBEs than the royal family have done for the Beatles by giving them. Nobody goes to see the Beatles because they’ve got MBEs but the royal family loves the idea that the honors list is popular because it all helps to buttress them and indirectly their influence is used to strengthen all the forces of conservatism in society.

A trivial-seeming piece of political theater though it was, Benn, not yet a radical but already a perceptive political skeptic, would conclude: “I think Harold Wilson makes the most appalling mistake if he thinks that in this way he can buy popularity, for he is ultimately bolstering a force that is an enemy of his political stand.”

Minefield for the Left

Keir Starmer believes the Left should stop worrying and learn to love patriotism. Having assumed office last month, Labour’s new leader recently took a video call from a voter in Manchester who said “he had been made to feel his support for the monarchy, Brexit and even waving the union jack was tantamount to racist behaviour” (as per the Guardian).

For his part, Starmer replied that the Labour movement and patriotism are “two sides of the same coin,” adding:

What I desperately want for our country is for our country to get better. In the Labour party we should be proud of being patriotic . . . I don’t think we should shy away from that. That is a really good thing to be proud of, and [to] want your country to be the best it possibly can be.

Though decidedly vague and unspecific, Starmer’s remarks are easy enough to interpret in context. His predecessor, after all, was endlessly hounded by opponents and the press for being insufficiently “patriotic.” None other than David Cameron tied Jeremy Corbyn to a “security threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating” ideology in 2015. Leadership rival Owen Smith, albeit with less hyperbole, said something broadly similar the following year while answering a question about security and defense:

I think Jeremy doesn’t really understand, sometimes, the way in which people have a very strong — perhaps socially conservative, conservative with a small c — sense of place, [a] sense of where they’re from . . . I suspect that Jeremy’s got a rather more metropolitan sense of that, and that’s not one I think is central to the Labour tradition. They’re calling him unpatriotic. I’m saying that I think it’s not something that is core to his set of beliefs. I think he’s got a set of liberal perspectives and left perspectives on things, and nationhood and nationalism and patriotism aren’t really part of his makeup.

To first state the obvious: nationalism and patriotism, now as ever, are a minefield for the socialist left, and how left parties should treat them is not always as clear-cut as some would have us believe. Contesting elections, after all, makes it difficult to avoid the language of national community, even for a Left that holds internationalist aspirations.

There is much to be said in favor of plain speaking and avoiding overly abstract, esoteric, or metropolitan jargon that means nothing to the average person, whether they reside in Greater Manchester, London, or an ex-manufacturing town in the American Midwest. This was the line Starmer’s rival Rebecca Long-Bailey tried to walk last year when she pitched a “progressive patriotism” wherein national and international solidarity would be mutually reinforcing.

Seen in this light, it may be tempting to regard Starmer’s apparent embrace of patriotism as a piece of smart political maneuvering: Labour seeks to lead the country, ergo it should profess to love the country. What could be more commonsensical than that?

This line of reasoning, however, only makes sense if we adopt the most decontextualized idea of what patriotism actually means in the British political lexicon. Starmer, after all, was responding to a question that made reference to the flag and the monarchy. In both Smith and Cameron’s remarks, patriotism and security (read: the military, NATO, and the Special Relationship) were assumed to be interwoven.

“Patriotism” can, in theory, mean almost anything. Patriotism in practice implies a range of attitudes that more or less map perfectly onto a small-c conservative vision of British society. To be patriotic in Britain, at least in the sense meant by the median Telegraph columnist or member of the Murdoch press, means to revere institutions like the monarchy and the House of Lords; to express a dewy-eyed nostalgia for Britain’s imperial past and a dogmatic commitment to its post-1945 role as a junior partner in the US-led global order; to be skeptical (if not outrightly hostile) toward multiculturalism — or, at any rate, to believe it should be subordinate to some larger idea of authentic (i.e., white and conservatively inclined) Britishness, and often more specifically, Englishness.

Only in this context could a newspaper that had once proudly banged the drum for Adolf Hitler have accused the likes of Ralph Miliband — a deceased Jewish refugee who served aboard a Royal Navy warship during the invasion of Normandy — of “hating Britain.”

The ludicrous scandal that ensued when Jeremy Corbyn was said to have bowed with insufficient conviction at a Remembrance Sunday event in 2015 therefore had an obvious symbolism that should be difficult to miss: “patriotism” necessitates deference, and, then as ever, Corbyn’s history of radical dissent from the orthodoxies cherished by Britain’s traditional ruling class made him unpatriotic by default.

Starmer, who was elected leader on a promise to retain much of the Corbyn program, clearly hopes to signal that he shares none of his predecessor’s predilections for cultural dissent or left republicanism. Though he has yet to articulate it as a fully developed strategy, it’s an impulse with plenty of precedent in Labour’s recent past. Ed Miliband rather awkwardly tried to appropriate Benjamin Disraeli’s “one-nation conservatism” and give it a softly communitarian spin. A few years earlier, a bizarre current spearheaded by Labour peer Maurice Glasman even sought to pioneer a “conservative socialism” placing “family, faith and work at the heart of a new politics of reciprocity, mutuality and solidarity.”

Neither really caught on or proved particularly effective, probably because people craving faith and flag will instinctively gravitate toward the party already most synonymous with them. (Harold Wilson, for his part, dutifully practiced the proper regal etiquette and doled out MBEs on behalf of Her Majesty, yet an aspiring junta of industrialists, tycoons, and army officers with ties to the royal family still came dangerously close to trying to oust his government in a coup.)

Historical precedent thus strongly suggests that there’s no amount of genuflection adequate to appease the doctrinarians of British nationalism, who will reflexively deem every Labour politician one iota to the left of Peter Mandelson insufficiently patriotic. Starmer (whose full honorific reads “Sir Keir Rodney Starmer KCB PC QC”) could probably spend PMQs (Prime Minister’s Questions) belting out “God Save the Queen” while doing a pantomime of Horatio Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar and still be branded a crypto-subversive by the Tory press once his media grace period has expired — particularly if he campaigns on anything remotely resembling the manifestos of 2017 or 2019.

Prescribed Culture

If Labour’s new leader is determined to embrace some version of patriotism, it should be one that refuses to bend the knee, literally or figuratively, to a narrowly conservative idea of Britishness — as too many Labour politicians over the years have sought to do. What does it actually mean, after all, to love a country — something which, by its very nature, is a complex and endlessly changing thing: an intricate mixture of people, histories, and memories somewhat arbitrarily subsumed under the banner of “nation”? As Owen Jones put it in 2013:

Patriotism is often subverted and manipulated by those with wealth and power. Loving your country means being subservient to the Establishment, or so goes their logic. Make the ruling class and the country interchangeable concepts, then those challenging the powerful can simply be swept aside as near-treasonous fifth columnists . . . Not a single living Brit can honestly claim to love everything about something as complex and contradictory as Britain. But whatever Britain is, it certainly is not synonymous with those who rule it.

Modern conservatism often insists on the significance of locality and place, as well as the importance of a shared culture. But its rigid commitments to both market logic and traditional authority elide the deep social and material divides that might make actually realizing one a real possibility.

Hierarchical societies do not have a shared culture so much as a prescribed one, their values and symbols flowing from top to bottom and from rulers to ruled.

Britain today remains a deeply hierarchical country. Rather than bowing to the totems of faith and flag, Labour should be drawing on the best of its own traditions — those of dissent, mutual aid, and a radical solidarity that refuses to be content with inequality or injustice.