Can the Left overcome its patriotism problem?
The British Leftist below, Angus Colwell, recognizes that the Left is not patriotic and proposes that there is a third way between rejecting patriotism and accepting it
He has a point that the mainstream political Left in both the UK and the USA were once patriotic. We all know of the advice by JFK about asking what you can do for your country but it was also true in Britain. As a Times writer put it:
"When the mourners sat in the pews at Clement Attlee’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in November 1967 they were played, at the request of the deceased, the musical setting of a poem by Cecil Spring Rice. "I Vow To Thee, My Country" is a fitting testament to Major Attlee, the Gallipoli veteran who was as patriotic, almost as stereotypical, an Englishman of the first half of the 20th century as one could imagine. The congregation went on to sing Hubert Parry’s setting of Blake’s Jerusalem and John Bunyan’s To Be A Pilgrim in a festival that commemorated a successful prime minister and a great patriot."
So why has that changed so drastically? Colwell doesn't know. Maybe he is too young. He just thinks it is unnecessary. But it is clear what has happened. And it is encapsulated in the campaign slogan of "Supermac": "You never had it so good".
Attlee was Prime Minister of Great Britain from 26 July 1945 to 26 October 1951. Harold Macmillan was Prime Minister of Great Britain from 10 January 1957 to 18 October 1963. What lay between them was the great postwar expansion of prosperity that was seen in Britain and elsewhere. And it was an expansion of prosperity that poured down through all the social classes. Macmillan was referring to the eradication of the dire poverty in which working class Britons had found themselves at the end of WWII compared to their state in his era in the 1960s.
And the spread of prosperity throughout Britain led to a gradual erosion of working class support for Leftist salvation. When McKenzie & Silver wrote their book on the British working class in 1968, a quarter of the working class was already voting Tory.
But that was a tragedy for the Left. The chronic anger and unhappiness that is Leftism lost its customary focus and justification for existence. For generations the Left had a clearly defined enemy: "The bosses". The entire program of the Left was to "save" the workers from their Tory oppressors. But when a big segment of the workers started siding with the Tories, that entire program was called into question. To hate the Tories was also to hate a large segment of the workers! That was too contradictory even for the Left.
A new focus for criticism had to be found. And as the whole nation was becoming bourgeois and thus developing Tory instincts, habits and beliefs, there was only one possible target left: The nation as a whole. The whole nation was now essentially bourgeois so the whole nation had to be demonized. And that has gradually developed into the recently seen major breakdown of working class loyalties at the hands of Boris Johnson. Boris has finally shattered the "red wall". Trump in the USA also gained massive working class support in 2016.
So the class basis of politics has changed markedly. The Left have lost a lot of the workers and gained educated elitists instead. And tertiary education is now widespread so the gain for the Left is not inconsiderable.
There are still poor people in Britain who hold to a traditional belief that the Labour party is on their side but that may be something of a last gasp of the old polarities. To the Leftist antipatriots of today, the workers are now no source of virtue so internationalism has become the Leftist dream, a dream with little working class support.
So, no, there will be no revival of Leftist patriotism
Notes: "Windrush" refers to the opening of Britain's doors to black immigrants from the Caribbean in 1948. Colwell regards that as an achievement. Given the stratospheric rate of violent crime among people of African ancestry worldwide, others might regard it as a great mistake. He also regards the legalization of homosexual marriage as a Leftist achievement, even though it was an initiative of the Conservative Cameron government
We hear someone identify as a “patriot”, and we suspect “racist”. If we see an English flag flying outside someone’s house, we suspect they harbour Ukip-sympathetic views. This judgement has been given an authoritative reinforcement too: a British Army leaflet leaked earlier this year was titled ‘Extreme Right Wing Indicators & Warnings’, and included people identifying as ‘patriots’ on the checklist for potential racists.
Billy Bragg wrote in The Progressive Patriot (2006): “Reluctant to make any concessions to reactionary nationalism, we have, by default, created a vacuum, leaving it [patriotism] to the likes of the BNP and the Daily Mail”. In 2006, the right had a complete monopoly on patriotism, and this has not changed. Yet, throughout our national stories, it has more often been the left that has invigorated the change that we now rejoice and revere.
In the case of Jeremy Corbyn, it is his characteristically immature misunderstanding of history that has led to his party, and ideology, being plunged into electoral oblivion. The right’s ownership of patriotism predates Corbyn’s leadership, and it is both the soft and hard left’s inability to connect the country’s past and present with its future, that has left the party in its current state.
The left-wing journalist Paul Mason views the idea that Brexit lost Corbyn the election as inaccurate. For him, Corbyn lost the working class in 2018, not 2019. The most damaging fiascos in this year were Corbyn’s handling of the Skripal poisonings, and Labour’s initial refusal to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of antisemitism when drafting their code of conduct. Corbyn’s response to the Skripal poisonings (instinctively siding with Russia) was a vindication of the popular idea that Corbyn’s suspected antipathy towards Britain was tangible and influenced his policy. His refusal to sing the national anthem, his opposition to Trident, his meetings with the IRA — all of these were common knowledge at the 2017 general election, but the Skripal poisonings proved his discomfort with his country fully guided his national security response and his previous record was more than inconsequential left-wing quirks.
The IHRA debacle’s impact was twofold: it meant that the antisemitism crisis in the Labour Party exploded into the mainstream for over year, culminating in both the departure of nine Labour MPs earlier in 2019, and the Chief Rabbi’s intervention during the election campaign. It was deeply damaging for Labour in Jewish communities. But, at large, the antisemitism crisis was not necessarily a wider vote-loser in its own right, but supplemented other suspicions about Corbyn as menacing. For many who didn’t know where the antisemitism came from, it was ominous and perturbing. To those who understood where it came from, it was emblematic of Corbyn’s aversion to patriotism — aligning with Palestine, which was, in the minds of many, akin to aligning with Islam against the west. When election campaigns were interrupted by Islamist terrorism, Corbyn’s own links with militant groups appeared to some to be proof of sympathy with the enemy.
These two errors were completely avoidable. Had Corbyn condemned Russia like Theresa May did (which happened to be the finest hour of her premiership) and adopted the IHRA definition, his anti-monarchist views could have seemed like harmless quirks, and the antisemitism in the Labour Party kept in house. It is right and a relief that these two critical flaws of Corbyn were exposed — and yes, it is Corbyn himself, not Corbynism — otherwise his most dangerous instincts and tendencies could now be in Downing Street.
There is a deep irony at the heart of many on the left’s understanding of history. For many, there is no grey area between support and deplatforming, between reverence and eradication. Labour’s pledge for a formal inquiry into Britain’s colonial past is welcome, and a review of our empire is long overdue — Edward Said should be as recognisable a name as Edmund Burke. But this historical framework has slid into cancel culture, most emblematic in #RhodesMustFall movements. Removing statues, and thus removing figures from history, is to not revise and remember — it is to forget. The casual absorber of history may not be as familiar with Cecil Rhodes as with other tyrants, and tearing down statues is not going to improve that. Similarly, deplatforming and cancel culture suppresses the symptoms of an ill society, rather than addressing the causes.
Corbyn himself’s own view of history is riddled with irony. His hero, John Lilburne, was a strident patriot. Corbyn and McDonnell both revere Clement Attlee’s government (1945–1951), and the creation of the NHS, the nationalisation of 20% of the economy, and the establishment of the welfare state. Yet Attlee was the man who led the British development of the nuclear deterrent. Attlee had a clear vision of “collective security”, a concept Corbyn fundamentally misunderstands.
Attlee also exemplified a progressive, left-wing patriotism. His government advocated for the creation of a ‘New Jerusalem’ — a prosperous and egalitarian society. Are these not the two things Corbyn wants to reconcile most of all? Attlee had the benefit of a postwar climate — he was able to advocate for a patriotic unifying bond to replace the gloomy bonding activity that was World War II, building a new nation. But now there is a void that needs filling — a yearning for unity and common identity — that Labour must look to inhabit.
The Dutch writer Ian Buruma observes that in the comparatively peaceful twenty-first century, there is a “weird longing for the state of war, for the clarity it brings, and for the chance to divide one’s fellow citizens…neatly into friends and foes”. As society grows more secular, the unifying bonds that religious practise once maintained are replaced by various creeds. Often, it is nationalism that fills the gap. The Irish political scientist Benedict Anderson depicted the nation as a socially constructed “imagined community”, a home in the minds of people who perceive themselves as part of that group.
It is not hard to see how this idea of nationalism slides into racism. To borrow the terminology of the psychologist Henri Rajfel, our societies resemble an out-group which we do not feel comfortable identifying as part of, rather than an in-group. Those who do identify themselves in respect to a nation can stray away from the idea of loving their own country, to the more ugly idea of national, and often following that, racial superiority. Progressive patriotism is loving your country in its own right, not in comparison.
This “progressive patriotism” seems a blue-sky elusive concept. But it can exist, just in the same way that nations exist. Nations are not imagined communities as Anderson writes — they have material realities. Shared landmarks, shared food, shared cultural tastes, shared weather — as we know all too well from our small talk.
The best exemplifications of progressive patriotism are in sport. Eric Hobsbawm wrote that “the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of 11 named people”. Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman, wrote a vital article in the summer of 2018 about England’s football team as the embodiment of a progressive idea of nation. He compares 1984, when a subset of England fans refused to accept England’s 2–0 win at the Maracanã because a goal had been scored by a black man (John Barnes), with the cultural (and sporting) success of the current England football team. When the 2018 World Cup came around, we saw a multiracial team, fully integrated with each other, happy to wrap themselves in the England flag — the picture of a history of immigration to England.
While that is England, Britain broadcasted its own progressive patriotism to the world at the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. There are flaws with this fundamentally Whiggish view of history — while our history is not necessarily one of inexorable progress, the idea of progression and story is our “bridge between the future and the past” as Orwell put it, and helps us to celebrate the positive things that have bonded us as a nation.
At the Olympics Opening Ceremony, these were Britain’s industrial revolution, the NHS, and our literary and cultural heritage. It featured Paul McCartney, the Arctic Monkeys and Tinie Tempah. The ceremony celebrated the women’s suffrage movement, the Windrush generation and featured mixed-race families and grime artists. It was, as Forbes put it, a “love song to Britain”.
The reaction of the Conservative MP Adrian Burley was that the Opening Ceremony was “leftie multicultural crap”. But Burley inadvertently made a telling historical judgement — the association with a “love song to Britain” — patriotism — with “leftie[s]” — the left.
The things that we revere have been largely invigorated by the left throughout our history. The creation of the NHS, women’s suffrage, the legalisation of homosexuality — these are celebrated today by the right, but were enacted and pressured by the left. The Conservatives are proud of introducing same-sex marriage in 2012, but conveniently forget to mention that more Conservative MPs voted against it than for it. It was passed with Labour votes.
Inevitably, to embrace this kind of patriotism we need to accept a few myths — the Olympics Opening Ceremony did so when it championed the Industrial Revolution as an act occurring from within England’s “green and pleasant lands”, and not reliant on the colonial expansion like it was. Tom Holland, reviewing Margaret Macmillan’s The Uses and Abuses of History, highlighted the advantage of slight fabrications:
“Without the mythologisation of Magna Carta, the history of liberty in the English-speaking world…would have turned out very much for the worse; without Churchill’s romantic evocation of Britain’s island story in 1940, Hitler may never have been defeated”.
The culture war over Churchill’s legacy fought by the left is an example of their current disassociation with progressive patriotism. We need to acknowledge Churchill’s racially abhorrent views and remember and condemn them, not remove them and him from history. That Britain defeated Nazism in 1945 is an unequivocal good, possibly the most in history, and removing the spearhead of that from our memory can lead to a strange sense of relativism. This leads to what the philosopher John Gray observed — that “sections of the left relativise the Holocaust, treating it as only one among many crimes against humanity”. This relativism sparks a fierce conservative backlash, which tramples all over the middle ground, polarises our politics and drowns out the grey area of remembrance of Churchill’s triumphs with acknowledgement of his deep flaws.
This historical cancel culture is an acutely modern idea. Yet the left’s aversion to nationhood is not. Orwell identified the left’s disassociation with patriotism in England Your England (1941), an essay written during the Blitz. His observation at the time that “the English intelligentsia are Europeanised” rings true amidst the Brexit debate — many liberals prefer to identify as “European”, or more often, “Londoners”, and feel an aversion to identifying as “English” or “British”.
What has changed since when Orwell was writing in the 1940s is the expansion of disassociation from patriotism from the intellectual elite to the modern left at large. Colonial guilt — which is justified and vital — has mutated into a deeper cultural embarrassment and self-hatred, of everything Britain stands for.
It has led to a strange self-alienation amongst many, rendering themselves void of a place for identity. Worse, it feeds the worst impulses and backlashes of the nationalists, as the left attempt to proselytise this abandonment of nation for all (most of whom are comfortable identifying with nationhood). The middle way we need is through acknowledgment both of past glories and mistakes — for example, reconciling our colonial guilt with our positive history of immigration since the Second World War is how we make certain concessions to myths without mistreating history.
At the 2019 election, Labour did not lose due to a wholesale rejection of their economic policies (which remain popular). Labour fundamentally abandoned patriotism, and nation as identity. As did the Liberal Democrats. Labour’s catchphrase “for the many, not the few” was ironic when choosing to advocate negating the decision of the “many”. The “Liberal Democrats” is an ironic name for a party who back overturning democracy — an act more at home in Viktor Orbán’s Hungary than the British centre ground. Able to monopolise Farage’s grievances in respect to nationhood, Johnson was able to emerge as the only mainstream patriotic figure at this election, and is reaping the rewards.
The Leave vote was an inherently patriotic act. Unfortunately, some who voted Leave did so according to the comparative nationalist view of nation — a misplaced view of superiority. But many voted Leave in a more affirmative sense — as a vote of confidence in our nations and the institutions that govern us.
The Brexit vote was a vote of confidence for our parliament, our judiciary, our civil service, and an expression that we are happy to be governed by them. Standing up for these great institutions, slightly Whiggish though it may be, is an example of progressive patriotism in the political sense — it is not refined to culture and sport. The subsequent demonisation of each of those institutions has been ugly and has enhanced distrust of our own country, provoking Leavers and Remainers for different reasons.
If we didn’t trust the European bureaucrats who supposedly governed us, but do not then in turn have faith in our own institutions either, who do we trust? The Brexit vote has so far enhanced social dislocation, not addressed it.
The left must emerge as the progressive patriotic voice in Britain. It was the left who enacted legislation to bring the Windrush generation to the United Kingdom, the left who first endorsed women’s suffrage, and the left who legalised homosexuality. Our most successful black, female, and LGBT sportspeople, musicians, actors and public figures are not successful in an “imagined community” — nation exists, and their success is the consequence of history, of progressive legislation of past governments, and a progressive idea of our nation.
Forward-looking, innovative and progressive patriotism must not be confined to sporting events. It is the left who were the invigorators of it, yet it is the left who are currently exacerbating the backsliding of it. The left must acknowledge responsibility and pick the mantle back up.