For a long time now, the words “nationalistic” and “patriotic” have seemed to me to be largely associated with xenophobia, bigotry and prejudice. Political parties like UKIP and the British Nationalist Party have long been claiming that only they are proud of their country and their people.
UKIP’s 2015 General Election manifesto was emblazoned with the slogan “Believe in Britain” as if no other political party did. The English Defence League adopted St George’s flag (ignorant to the fact that St George was Syrian) as if to suggest that they were the true guardians and lovers of our country, and that no other political party could really care for England.
A quick Google search reinforces this unusual association between bigotry and patriotism. The so-called “patriot movement” consists of various conservative movements in the United States that include organised militia members, tax protesters, conspiracy theorists, and radical Christians who believe in an impending apocalypse. ‘Patriotism’ apparently equates with ‘loony’, too.
And just as these illiberal, conservative groups often pose as patriotic, so the left has forever been accused of the opposite: of having a deep loathing for the United Kingdom and wanting to systematically dismantle all of its traditions and institutions. In his novel A Time of Gifts, Patrick Leigh Fermor describes his early perception of left-wing politicians as men and women determined to see the destruction of everything ‘British’, from country-life and religion to cricket and farming.
This view of the left as anti-patriotic was evident in The Daily Mail’s childish and brutal attack on Ralph Miliband, the socialist writer and late father of Ed Miliband. The tabloid absurdly branded Ralph as “The man who hated Britain” for no other reason than his left-wing political stance, despite the fact that he fought for Britain in the Royal Navy. Of course, The Daily Mail consistently publishes utter nonsense, but its influence and power cannot be ignored – these are views held by a large amount of the electorate.
The persistence of this perception is terrifying: if you type “Corbyn hates” into Google, the first two suggested searches are not (as you might expect) “Corbyn hates inequality” or “Corbyn hates injustice”, but instead, Google suggests the two searches “Corbyn hates England” and “Corbyn hates Britain”. Although Google may not be trustworthy when it comes to politics (I wonder why…), it seems that many in England agree with Cameron when he says Corbyn has a “security-threatening, terrorist-sympathising, Britain-hating ideology”.
This branding of the left, and the Labour Party in particular, as anti-British or anti-patriotic, is very damaging indeed. Previous polling has shown that nearly 8 out of 10 British people are proud of their nationality, and so any party hoping to win in 2020 must reflect that pride. And I believe that it can be done.
The rise of the SNP in Scotland and the popularity of Plaid Cymru in Wales show that patriotism and socialism can and should be synonymous. Nationalistic politics does not have to mean regressive politics. Loving your country does not necessitate xenophobic values and inward-looking views. Caring about our country does not mean we must abandon our concern for the rest of the world, nor does it mean we should redirect foreign aid to benefit ourselves alone (one of UKIP’s manifesto pledges).
I also believe that patriotism, while it involves pride, does not mean we must agree with everything our country has and will do. Being patriotic does not mean we must celebrate our terrible imperialist past, nor does it mean applauding war and supporting unnecessary violence.
For too long, we’ve allowed the word ‘patriotism’ to be wrongly defined, and we as radicals must reverse that. We should not be afraid of waving the English flag or of calling ourselves patriots, because patriotism can mean pride in our National Health Service, in our welfare state, and in our democracy. Patriotism can mean the love of our diversity, our tolerance, and our acceptance of other cultures. Patriotism can mean the love of our artistic history and our support of progressive values (notable in our fight against Nazism). It doesn’t have to mean a passion for the monarchy, a love of tradition, or a constant support of war, as many now see it.
Patriotism certainly can be dangerous – there’s no denying it. That’s possibly why Marx opposed it so much (“The working men have no country”), seeing it as divisive, anti-internationalist, and a direct cause of conflict. But, as I have attempted to demonstrate, it doesn’t have to be. If we love our own country, we do not have to hate the countries of others. Love of one thing does not necessitate the hatred of another.
So patriotism isn’t necessarily a bigoted ideology. Indeed, if argued correctly, a left-wing patriotic ideology could unite the British people like no other, ending the politics of fear (exemplified by the scapegoating of the poor and foreigners) and ensuring pride in and passion for our liberal institutions. That is why the Labour party and the left as a whole must embrace the word patriotism, rather than shying away from it – not just to increase their electability, but to bring people together.
Whilst right-wing politicians brand the people of the UK as scroungers and wasters (just this week, Alan Duncan claimed that achievement equals wealth, suggesting that millions of British people are lazy and unsuccessful), and whilst the Tories take benefits from working people and dismantle the NHS, the Left must stand for compassion and love, protecting our people and its institutions – what could possibly be more patriotic? The left are the true patriots, and we must prove it.
The above post was written by Tom Bailey, an 18-year-old literary and political blogger. He writes on a variety of topics from music to politics on his own blog, where he also publishes his poems. His Twitter handle is @TomBaileyBlog