THERE HAS BEEN A LOT OF CHAT in recent months about the necessity for Labour to work up a patriotic identity - specifically an English patriotic identity - as a way of reconnecting with a lost working class vote. This is a really bad idea.
It will make a right wing situation more right wing, it won’t help build support, and hands ground to our opponents. Neither will it help those communities where the need for change is so great - you can’t pay your bills with a flag. The Scottish Labour Party (SLP) has been chasing the patriotic dragon for years now - with results which are dismal.
For a long time now, every setback for Scottish Labour has been met with a response involving a greater emphasis on ‘being Scottish’ rather than being Labour. This process was taken to an imbecilic low in 2014 when Jim Murphy insisted on a new clause IV for the SLP committing ourselves to working for “the patriotic interest of the Scottish people”. This was so successful Scottish Labour MPs went in a single election from being a group to a solo act. The reasons for this failure are simple.
If we are saying that the reason people are getting a raw deal is because they are part of the patrie rather than a dysfunctional economic and political system, then we are reinforcing the ideas of, and ultimately support for, a politics based simply on those values. The more politics is reduced to matters of identity the more difficult it becomes for progressive voices to make themselves heard. If Labour is stressing the importance of England or Englishness it won’t shut the Tories or UKIP up. Far from disarming our opposition it empowers them. As we’ve discovered in Scotland at enormous cost, you can’t out-Nat the Nats - and you won’t out-jingo the jingos. And nor should we want to.
All forays into the politics of national identity are exercises in exclusion. Approaches predicated on ‘our people’ need to be approached with great caution. Another reason to be sceptical is that all political exercises in patriotism are exercises in historical distortion. For example, the emphasis is always on pride in the abolition of the slave trade - not shame about its existence.
That’s not to say that we should ignore patriotism. It is a powerful motive force. There may be some who will cheerfully dismiss patriotism as merely being false consciousness and say our task is to build a proletarian internationalist consciousness among the workers. Well - it’s a point of view, but it won’t do us many favours. A productive engagement with patriotism is really only possible when we are changing the terms of the debate, exposing the hypocrisy and the failings of those urging us to rally round the flag. We must challenge what patriotism means rather than saying “us too”. When political actors seek to invoke patriotism it is generally to distract attention from failings elsewhere. Scotland is again a good example of this. The SNP are never keener to stress that they are “Stronger for Scotland” than when the impact of their business tax cuts on public services is being pointed out.
Practically no one wants to be thought of as unpatriotic - but there aren’t many people who are desperately keen to be thought of as unfair or greedy or unjust either. So when a patriotic approach is being attempted we should counter it by asserting the values that are ours – fairness, decency and equality. John McDonnell did this very effectively at Labour Party Conference when he said that “patriots pay their taxes”.
We need to base our approach firmly on the material reality of people’s lives, rather than chase the imagined community of national identity. However we need to engage rather than simply dismiss. The experience of Scotland shows adopting the values and arguments of our opponents disarms