Patriotism and the Left: A Complex Relationship

“If you hate this country so much, why don’t you just f*** off?” A line that will be familiar to anyone who has ever suggested that the country they live in could be improved in any shape or form. Unpatriotic, disloyal, a traitor. These insults are often thrown by Britain’s greatest patriots as they defend the country they hold so dear to them. Unfortunately, this is often the level that our political discourse stoops to. But why does it have to be so? For one to criticise the failures in our society in an attempt to better the lives of British people conveys a deep concern and love for the people of their country. To fight against our established institutions and traditions is no easy task but is undertaken with the intention of improving the lives of fellow citizens. It would be naïve for us as a society to dismiss this concern as ‘unpatriotic’, rather than understanding a real desire to transform the country into a nation to be proud of.

This is not the view of many across the British political landscape. Small-c conservatives are often quick to depict progressives as driven by a strong hatred towards the country they live in. This was a line of attack used frequently in 2019 on the then-leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn. A large proportion of the electorate came to see him as a man intent on destroying the UK, a smear that he could never recover from. While these claims about many on the Left like Corbyn are largely inaccurate and hyperbolic, this should not distract from the uncomfortable truth, that the relationship that many British progressives have with their country is often far from harmonious.

The issue of Europe has only served to exacerbate the pre-existing tensions between progressivism and patriotism. The nationalist and jingoistic sentiment that has emerged in our Brexit-dominated political climate has alienated many Brits from their country. Patriotism has been a crucial element in the Brexiteer narrative of the EU Referendum and its aftermath, and the feeling that Brexiteers have monopolised patriotism is difficult to shake off. For those who oppose this narrative, it is often a struggle to reconcile their love for their country and their support for remaining a part of the European Union.

While Leftism and Europhilia are in no way intrinsically linked (Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s strong support for the EU springs to mind), the 2019 election shows a vast chasm in the Labour Party’s performance in constituencies that voted to Remain and Leave respectively. While 40% of the UK’s Remain-voting constituencies elected a Labour MP in 2019, only 25% of their Leave-voting counterparts did the same. Europe has evidently caused problems for the Left. 

Yet, the Left’s difficult relationship with its country is multi-faceted. Other obstacles exist in the rekindling of a progressive patriotism, something that appears to be missing (or is at least perceived to be missing by voters) in the modern Labour Party. It would be difficult to paint Jeremy Corbyn as someone enamoured by the neoliberal institution that is the EU, but this did not matter to the many members of the British public who believed him to be unpatriotic when casting their vote in 2019. The claim from the Right that he was a Queen-hating, terrorist sympathiser was impossible to shake off and convinced voters. 

A large number of working-class people in this country are proud of Britain, its history, and its traditions. Labour has lost so many of these voters precisely because they believe that the party does not. Studies have shown that many of these people, particularly in the north of England, favour increased spending in public services and a firmer stance against the exploitation of workers, two ideas that are intrinsic to the Labour Party and its social democratic project. It is difficult to overstate the significance of the Labour Party’s alienation of these voters. The loss of these traditional supporters has been central in the party’s decline in recent years. It is a problem that will need to be resolved if they are ever to return to government.

The Left cannot succeed without convincing the public that they believe in Britain. When Clement Attlee stormed to a landslide election victory in 1945, the Labour Party had become respectable in the eyes of the British public by serving their country when it needed them most. Attlee, Sir Stafford Cripps, Herbert Morrison, Arthur Greenwood, and Ernest Bevin had all played major roles in the war effort as a part of Winston Churchill’s war cabinet. The public had come to see Labour as a party that stood for British values and people. Fast forward half a century to 1997, New Labour opportunistically harnessed the optimism of ‘Cool Britannia’ to propel Tony Blair into Downing Street. This celebration of British culture tied in perfectly with the New Labour project and the carefully constructed image that Blair presented to the nation. In both these successful elections, the electorate saw Labour as a party that loved Britain. For Labour to win again, the Left needs to rekindle their love for their country – or at least appear to have done.

This is much easier said than done, but it is possible. We need to learn to be proud of the parts of our history that warrant praise. Rather than continuing the jingoistic glorification of Britain’s imperial past, we should be focusing on the great things that this country has done. The hard work of radical activists in the 19th and 20th centuries ensured that Britain developed into a liberal democracy, without the need for bloody and devastating revolutions. In the Second World War, British citizens played a pivotal role in defeating one of the most heinous genocidal regimes in history. The Labour government elected in the aftermath of that war began the building of a Welfare State that would go on to improve the lives of millions of Britons. That is just to name a few.

I hope that this has not been read as a justification of the chauvinism that is far too often apparent in British politics. I cannot condemn that enough. Yet, I admit that my own feelings towards my country are not what I would like them to be. I understand that my relationship with Britain needs rebuilding. I would urge those on the Left who feel the same to try so too. As George Orwell wrote in The Lion and the Unicorn, many British left-wing intellectuals always feel that ‘there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman.’ Despite these words being penned in 1941, they still hold merit. This needs to change. On a political level, as leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer needs to prove that he and his party do not share this view. Or at the very least, present to the public a convincing image of a party that is proud to be British.

By C Hicks

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