December 19, 2019

The recent election has re-opened one of the most stubbornly festering quarrels on the British Left: is it okay to love your country?

Blue Labour’s Jonathan Rutherford argued recently that national solidarity is a cornerstone of public support for a welfare state, and the nation-state a critical defence for ordinary people against the forces of globalisation. It appears the public agrees: Dominic Lawson argues that it was Corbyn’s rejection of common basic gestures of patriotic feeling that caused the British working class to reject him.

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But Blue Labour’s call to respond with a return to “patriotic, communitarian, one-nation” Labour politics was countered with accusations that patriotism is just racism in disguise.

Part of what makes this unfair caricature funny is the nagging worry that it might contain a grain of truth. What if patriotism is a bit racist? After all, it is possible to conflate membership of an ethnic group with belonging to a nation-state. And history is not short of examples of national or ethnic antipathies being used to justify violence and hate.

But what if many of our fellow-countrymen have decided they don’t care? That retaining a democratic nation-state and a sense of national pride is worth being accused by members of the identity Left of stupidity or racism? If this is the case, our high-minded betters have two choices.

The first is to try even harder to “educate” the stubborn proles out of their love of Queen and country in favour of (one presumes) intersectional identity politics and socialist internationalism. To which I say: good luck with that.

The second is to make a positive case for patriotism. Racial prejudice is still, sadly, a feature of British life, but there are many more non-racist Britons than there are racist ones. A look at the 2019 General Election results for actual racist parties such as the BNP (total votes: 510) supports the contention that racism does not have mass electoral appeal.

What would an inclusive patriotism look like, though? The last serious effort anyone made at articulating such a thing was Tony Blair’s Cool Britannia back in the 1990s. (It is perhaps not a coincidence that he was the last Labour leader to be, however fleetingly, popular with the working class.)

But Cool Britannia was fatally wounded by Blair’s decision to drag the country into a disastrous war in order to shore up our post-imperial “standing” on the “world stage”. And if Cool Britannia’s geopolitical fantasies were punctured by the Iraq debacle, its cultural and economic vision imploded with the Great Crash of 2008.

We seem to have run out of iterations of Great Britain. Colonial empires are frowned upon and the EU’s opt-in reprise of imperialism has been resoundingly rejected by the British public. “Soft power” is an elite preoccupation and ours is waning anyway. Financialisation has hollowed out our economy. So what remains for us to be patriotic about? It is perhaps understandable that many decent people on the centre-Right and centre-Left fear that the answer is “just racism, sorry”.

I think they are wrong. If Great Britannia has run out of road, I would like to wave a (suitably small) Union Jack to celebrate a new, bijou British patriotic vision: Small Britannia.

For starters, our island home is small but nonetheless beautiful and precious. Small Britannia should make stewardship of this small home a patriotic duty — our ancient landscapes are struggling, as they are relentlessly strip-mined of natural health and resources by super-sized agribusiness. Subsidised by that one-size-fits-all policy of anti-smallness, the Common Agricultural Policy, this kind of industrial agriculture rips up hedgerows and decimates wild plant, animal and insect species (especially the smallest) with crop spraying, habitat destruction and topsoil erosion.

Post-Brexit, freed of the strictures and perverse incentives of the CAP, a patriotic vision of Small Britannia might help us also resist pressure to import US-style agribusiness methods. Instead we could go large (or small) on environmental protections and seek to promote a rural economy that celebrates everything small, from small multi-crop farms to small fields with rich hedgerows to fertile topsoil teeming with the small organisms that keep the land healthy. 

Small Britannia could continue, in the same spirit, with policies oriented toward supporting smallness in businesses. Thickets of regulation automatically benefit big business, as they have the resources to meet them, while smaller organisations flounder or are simply put off starting because of regulatory obstacles. As suggested in this 2014 report on EU over-regulation, Small Britannia could encourage a flourishing raft of small businesses by exempting them from a thicket of rules (written risk assessments, GDPR etc) they neither need nor have time to obey.

While we’re at it, let’s celebrate smallness in architecture and urban development. Let Small Britannia encourage human-scale building, self-build projects, small-scale development, and architecture in keeping with local settings. A patriotism of smallness would embrace not enormous bland housing estates, gigantic modernist skyscrapers or even the grand imperial-era architecture of cornices, porticoes and Great Men but small architecture: vernacular styles using local materials and adapted over centuries to work harmoniously with local climates.

Boris Johnson is already embracing Small Britannia in turning his development focus toward towns and smaller places. We must demand more of this, and ensure a post-Brexit Johnson government responds to the despair of “left behind” parts of the country not with handouts or pressure to turn everywhere into an underwhelming simulacrum of London, but a vision of smallness flourishing on its own terms.

Let Small Britannia oversee a wave of investment in towns, in rural transport, in encouraging new, small businesses in small places. And let us have policies that help the young to stay on in small communities or come back there to raise their own families, rather than draining youth and talent away to enormous urban hubs. 

Smallness also supports integration. Letting go of empire and the grandiose visions of the past means embracing the country we are today, not just an imagined “original” (white) population. Here, again, Small Britannia could do worse than start with a celebration of small communities. It is far harder to segregate by religion or ethnicity if you live in a village where everyone knows everyone else by name. (I live in a small town and this is one of the best things about it: though our population is multi-ethnic, civic life is far more tolerant and inclusive than anything I ever saw living in London.)

Stable, friendly small communities need not mean suspicious and exclusionary ones if we all share a love of Small Britannia. Far more than balkanisation by the resentful categories of the identity left, a patriotism of human-scale communities and buildings and landscapes has the potential to offer a genuinely inclusive sense of belonging.

And as Small Britannia oversees a flourishing of smaller, more stable and more inclusive communities, let us also celebrate a new geopolitical smallness. Small Britannia does not have to either possess or join an empire. Let power-bloc politics grind on; small nations have survived unscathed in other great-power eras. And within Small Britannia, let us see a real devolution of power; as Tom Clougherty argued in CapX earlier this year, fiscal devolution to the regions could hold the key to economic rebalancing away from London.

Small Britannia can close the book on all the dreams of ‘reach’ and ‘influence’ that are really codes for one empire or another. Let us turn our backs on the grandiose vision of the hyper-liberals, with their dreams of technocratic global government. Let us be free of Cool Britannia and its Hyacinth Bucket-like fretting about how Britain appears “on the world stage”. Let us above all spurn the ethno-nationalist frothing of those few racists who believe, mistakenly and perniciously, that Britain’s worth was ever tied to its ethnic makeup.

Let Small Britannia instead be a beacon to a world still in thrall to a narrative that says globalisation is inexorable, that small cannot survive,  that nation-states are doomed and governance must inescapably globalise in order to keep a lid on capital. Let us prove that the hollowing-out of small communities can be reversed and national democracies can return accountability to electorates.

Let us not abandon patriotism to actual racists but reclaim it for the decent majority. Small Britannia can set aside cold, homogenising utopias and empires, and embrace the local, the particular, the emergent and the organic. Let us turn away both from nostalgia but also from abstract victim identities and embrace all the citizens we have, with their multiplicity of origin stories. Out of this we can forge a new national synthesis in which everyone in our great small country can feel proud to wave a (small) Union Jack.