Patriotism and the Labour Party

By Vicky Gill

"It is now up to Labour to redefine patriotism into a movement that is centred on social cohesion, social progress, and the “basic fairness and human compassion” that Keir Starmer spoke of in his keynote speech."

Patriotism is a contentious term and one that has been frequently brought up in the past days during the online Labour Party conference. It has opened up debates on my Twitter timeline on whether this stance is one that fits the values of a progressive party that champions minority voices, or one that contradicts and shifts away from those values.

The most problematic incident in the promotion of Labour patriotism occurred when Lisa Nandy spoke of “British values” on Radio 4 Today on September 22nd, stating: "we stand up for Britain, we stand up for British people, we stand up for British interests and we will always put that first." Whilst Nandy, as well as the PLP, have used such phrases as “British values” in good faith, it is evident that the idea of ‘Britain First’ and ‘patriotism’ has been hijacked not only by right-wing extremists such as the EDL, Britain First and UKIP but also by some Conservative narratives to promote deeply racist and xenophobic views entwined to the Brexit debate, shifting it entirely from one of sovereignty and economic benefit to one that stoked a completely misguided and prejudiced fear of immigration and immigrants. This is language soaked in the divisive politics of the right and should never be used by a Labour MP without clarification of their intended meaning rather than its connotative meaning which is damaging and hurtful towards the minority groups Labour claims to defend.

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As a PoC, who was told on the day that the Brexit referendum result was announced to “be careful when getting on the train to school”, such statistics stating that a rise in hate crimes linked to political moments such as the EU referendum demonstrates how polarising and divisive this dog-whistling is to social cohesion and community.

Whilst the Oxford English Dictionary defines patriotism as a ‘love of or devotion to one's country’, and as such leaves very little room for any nuanced stance, I hope that Labour adopts the humane and inclusive form of patriotism that its past leaders have exhibited. I believe that one can simultaneously love one’s country whilst acknowledging the problems that are prevalent within it. This is something that the party must now try to achieve. I would like to see a balance between being proud of this country and the progress made, yet not shying away from the uncomfortable truths of its past such as the Empire and historical immigration laws, and the challenges ahead in creating a more fair and equal Britain for every single person.

The attempt to reclaim Labour’s lost patriotic stance is one on the whole that I welcome. Previous Labour leaders and Prime Ministers have been proudly patriotic. In John Bew’s biography Citizen Clem, he writes that patriotism was at the heart of Attlee’s socialism. By this, Bew means that Attlee believed that the country as a whole share a national interest – one of unity, prosperity, and building a nation that serves all its citizens (the famous ‘cradle to grave’ social welfare system) regardless of age, gender or class. This is still seen today, as a survey published by Ipsos MORI found that of all the things that make people proud, 50% of people stated that it was the NHS. The idea that Labour’s legacy in healthcare for all is the most important value to such a swathe of the country, coming before the monarchy or even our history, suggests that a new type of patriotism can and should be formed. 

The likes of the Guardian and the New Statesman have both published articles on the need for the left to reconnect with patriotism that is motivated by progressive politics. The New Statesman article highlights the growing predominance of  “cultural backlash” theory. Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart, who wrote a book on this subject, state that the most heated issues in western society are cultural, and that the recent changes in attitudes of the younger, more diverse communities have triggered a sort of retreat into authoritarian defence, especially amongst the socially conservative, almost transgressive population who feel threatened by the rapid changes of social and cultural progression. We have witnessed this through neo-nationalist populist leaders such as Johnson, Trump and Modi who use the method of enrage and rule, flaming divisions so that any social bridges that could have been crossed are inflamed.

Labour should never be a party that uses this type of language, stoking up tensions to divide and rule, but the party must provide a progressive form of patriotism to oppose and quash the neo-nationalism that we see growing. 

The leader of the Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, addressed his personal, as well as the party’s, stance on the matter in his keynote speech, stating that “racial inequality is one of the causes that brought me into politics. And the eradication of structural racism will be a defining cause for the next Labour government.” Yet, alongside such a statement as this, which is so prevalent and important because the BLM movement continues to expose and highlight the structural racism in this country that has largely been ignored, the Labour Party have been pushing out a message of patriotism. It does appear that the two can go hand-in-hand.

"The idea that Labour’s legacy in healthcare for all is the most important value to such a swathe of the country, coming before the monarchy or even our history, suggests that a new type of patriotism can and should be formed."

But, Labour must continue to shape and define its patriotism and its family values. It cannot claim to be a party that is progressive if it allows for patriotism to be defined by existing rhetoric that pervades mainstream discourse.

For example, on September 22nd, the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, decided to demonise the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities. This is a woman who represents a party that claimed “Britain deserves better” and committed to “levelling up” in the 2019 election and yet decides to contribute – in her very influential and powerful public role – to the abhorrent smears that the Gyspy, Roma and Traveller community perpetually face. We have seen countless times Conservative MPs talk of “illegal immigrants'' that are“breaking into Britain” and “invading”. This neo-nationalism should not be something that the Labour Party should emulate to win support, the party must vehemently oppose such language and brand it for the nationalist dogma that it is at every turn in order to define a patriotism which should be pursued in good faith and betterment. This also means that Labour must address the connotations that now surrounds the discourse of neo-nationalism and a perverted patriotism that is ever-growing and increasingly confused with traditional patriotism. 

Labour is a party whose Clause IV states “where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect”. This is what should be at the centre of Labour’s patriotism. It is now up to Labour to redefine patriotism into a movement that is centred on social cohesion, social progress, and the “basic fairness and human compassion” that Keir Starmer spoke of in his keynote speech. 

Labour’s patriotism must therefore commit to turning this country into one which fulfils Starmer’s wish: “the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in” for every single person that lives here. To do so Labour must commit to solving the systematic racism and prejudices in Britain; to creating a national curriculum that is fair and teaches about Britain’s history in a way that isn’t glorifying; to creating immigration laws that are fair; to create a country for the next generation to thrive and feel safe in and create robust and just opportunities for all.

Vicky Gill's interest in politics grew after participating in the UK branch of the European Youth Parliament in 2018, and after doing a module on the 20th century social and political history of the UK at A-Level.


Disclaimer: All views expressed in this piece belong solely to the author and do not reflect the views of Demographica as a company.

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