I’m an American, and I love Britain. Why can’t the Labour Party love it too?
I bloody love Britain. That may seem a bit twee to you, but I come by it honestly. The sense of fair play, the dry wit, the “mustn’t grumble, best get on with it” attitude that saw the nation through the darkest days of the Blitz and the self-deprecation that I can only assume is a product of the cool, damp climate. I love it all.
So why can’t Labour?
That’s the question being debated in light of a leaked internal strategy presentation obtained by The Guardian. “The use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial etc give voters a sense of authentic values alignment,” the report states. This has invoked the ire of many on the Labour left, including Norwich South MP Clive Lewis, who said “the Tory party has absorbed Ukip and now Labour appears to be absorbing the language and symbols of the Tory party.”
This is not a new conflict within Labour. These divisions go back to the beginning of the party itself. Labour Party founder Keir Hardie famously opposed the First World War but faced opposition from his own backbenches — some of whom sang the national anthem while Hardie spoke against the war in the House of Commons. The conflict between patriotism and internationalism continued into the 1980s, according to former Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls. There was a conflict between “people who wanted to start international engagement from a place of patriotism, like David Owen, and those like Roy Jenkins, who I think saw internationalism as an alternative to patriotism,” he told the BBC last year.
This conflict did not end at the British shoreline but extended to domestic politics as well. In her book Gay men and the Left in post-war Britain: How the personal got political, Lucy Robinson discusses the conflict between a more muscular working-class socialism and a more cosmopolitan socialism mixed with identity politics in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, Ken Livingstone of the Greater London Authority represented the latter, while the former found a standard bearer in Derek Hatton, who served as the Deputy Leader of the Liverpool City Council:
Livingstone was accused of pushing liberal middle class causes whereas Hatton was accused of bringing the macho, the street and the football stadium into the professional world of local government. Livingstone connected with all sorts of locally grown identity politics to reinvigorate his branch of municipal or local socialism, but Militant’s Hatton stuck to a more traditional leftist line fed through top-down Party structures.
We are seeing these same dynamics play out today, albeit with different actors. The hard left — personified by Momentum and Novara Media — has largely embraced the “identity politics” of the cosmopolitan Livingstone along with the internationalism of Hardie and Jenkins, while the political descendants of Hatton have moved further to the right on issues of culture and national identity. The question now is as it has always been: how does Labour square that circle?
Here it is important to acknowledge just how hopelessly sentimental my opening paragraph is. It is hard to praise “fair play” when there is rampant inequality in the UK, including 2.4 million children living with food insecurity. “Mustn’t grumble” seems painfully insufficient when more than 100,000 people have died during a mismanaged pandemic. Self-deprecation is too often a mask for the real pain and uncertainty people feel after a decade of Tory austerity, four years of Brexit, and national crisis after national crisis.
But these are problems with the Tory government, not with the nation. People do not want to be blamed for their own misfortunes, nor do they want to be defined by their plight. They want to feel a sense of agency, a sense of pride, a sense of community and belonging. That is why appeals to patriotism work so well. People don’t want to be reminded of their problems; they want to be presented with solutions.
They want to feel good. About themselves, yes. But also, about their country.
Over the past decade it has become fashionable on the left to point out Britain’s historic and present shortcomings with an almost puckish glee. Empire is bad. Diversity is good. Or to sneer at things that are actually popular with the British public, like Mrs Brown’s Boys or borders. But endlessly bleating on about how terrible the country and those who live in it are is no way to win an election.
If you think none of this actually matters, I assure you it does. Though a Labour supporter since around 2014, when I first began writing about British politics at the end of the noughties, I was a staunch supporter of the Conservative Party. I loved the UK and its rich and storied history, from William Rufus to Red Ellen Wilkinson. I admired its culture, from Sunday roasts to the Proms. I respected its commitment to fairness, reason, and human rights — things I saw eroding in my own country.
But I did not feel that Labour felt as I did about Britain. All I heard was what was wrong with the country, not what was right. I heard what wasn’t, not what could be.
David Cameron, on the other hand, offered a vision of Britain as a global leader, a country with a renewed sense of purpose and a place brimming with potential. As I learned, it was a bill of lies, but it didn’t matter. Had I been able to vote in 2010 I would have cast my ballot for the Tories, and over the ensuing decade many people did just that because the Tories offered what Labour has not: hope.
If you won’t listen to me, listen to your compatriots. 50% of Labour members believe it is important the leader has a sense of patriotism. 67% of voters are proud or very proud to be British. And why shouldn’t they be? There is so much to be proud of! The National Health Service is a crown jewel that is the envy of the world. The welfare state — yes, gutted by the Tories but still a safety net for millions of people — is a triumph of a selfless and decent nation. The London stage, the Premier League, the BBC are all world-renowned and instantly recognisable as symbols of British excellence. Why shouldn’t they be celebrated?
None of this is to say Britain is perfect, nor does it mean pretending it is. There is a long way to go in correcting the historic and present wrongs of systemic racism, rampant misogyny, and the legacy of imperialism both in the UK and abroad. Labour should not shy away from having those difficult conversations and tackling those pressing problems. Indeed, the willingness and ability to have those conversations is something that the nation should be proud of, and Labour should frame these issues in such a way. Recognising your mistakes and your shortcomings and striving to be better is a noble and patriotic endeavour.
And that is what Labour needs to realise. Being patriotic does not mean one must be jingoistic. Nor does it mean one must do so on the right-wing populist terms of Nigel Farage or Boris Johnson. Rather than reject the flag outright, the Labour Party needs to reclaim it and say “this flag is ours as much as it is yours!”
It is time Labour redefine patriotism on its own terms. It does not need to be the cockeyed arrogance peddled by the Tories, but it does need to show voters that you actually like the country you seek to govern and the people who inhabit it.
Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer based in Tennessee. His work has appeared at the Independent, Huff Post UK, Salon, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @skylarjordan and become a sustainer at www.patreon.com/skylarjordan