George Orwell was famously contemptuous of much of the left intelligentsia. “England is perhaps the only great country where intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality,” he wrote in his 1941 essay England, Your England. “In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution.”
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
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There has always been a healthy suspicion of jingoism and flag-waving on the Left. However it wasn’t this that Orwell was referring to. Few wrote more damning screeds about the British empire than the former colonial policeman, who was always willing to give the “blimps” who ran Britain a good kicking. Rather, Orwell was referring to a more generalised contempt many on the Left felt towards Britain and — by extension — their fellow countrymen.
Socialism to Orwell meant bread and butter issues of higher wages and more freedom — freedom itself depending to a large extent on how much money one has. Yet the movement attracted its fair share of cranks. It was this penumbra of crankishness that prevented socialism from developing a mass following. A major hallmark of it was its anti-Britishness.
Jeremy Corbyn has been compared plenty of times over the past five years to the “vegetarian”, “fruit-juice drinker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist” oddballs Orwell wrote about in The Road to Wigan Pier. In Orwell’s time these types seemed to gravitate towards the socialist movement “like bluebottles to a dead cat”, as he put it. Since Corbyn became leader in 2015 something similar has occurred: the Labour Party has been flooded with conspiracy theorists, antisemites and various other subliterate fools. Uniting almost all of them is a profound contempt for Britain and in particular British foreign policy.
This is arguably a major reason Labour lost the recent election. “Such was the demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn,” wrote the Labour MP Liam Byrne, “that hundreds of voters I met thought Labour’s leader was a communist terrorist sympathiser who wouldn’t push the nuclear button or sing the national anthem.”
This isn’t so much the “demonisation of Jeremy Corbyn” as an accurate summation of the Labour leader’s views. Seumas Milne and Andrew Murray, two of Corbyn’s first appointments as advisers, are communists. Corbyn called members of Hamas and Hezbollah “honoured friends”. He fraternised with the IRA and argued for the abolition of Nato. He has obfuscated shamefully over acts of aggression directed against Britain, such as during the Skripal poisoning in Salisbury. It is not demonising someone to accurately list the things they have said and done.
Many who opposed Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party from the outset did so because of the crude ‘anti-imperialism’ he subscribed to. As Professor Alan Johnson wrote in 2015: “Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘strange associations’ — so widely noted, yet so little understood — are not a personal foible. They are a symptom of the ideological corruption of that part of the Left in which he was formed.”
This ‘ideological corruption’, as Johnson put it, is a legacy of Stalinism — or more specifically, Stalinist ‘second-campism’. This refers to the Soviet Union’s policy of supporting reactionary movements in what at the time was called the Third World, on the basis that they contained ‘progressive’ elements. The cultural theorist Judith Butler summarised this world view approvingly in 2006: “Understanding Hamas/Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.” Never mind that such movements sought to murder Jews only for being Jews.
This was the milieu — swamp might be a more appropriate term — from which Jeremy Corbyn emerged in 2015. Crude anti-capitalism meant that America and its allies, notably Britain and Israel, were responsible for all of the world’s ills. This worldview is best encapsulated by the Stop the War Coalition (an organisation that Corbyn chaired for many years), whose guiding mantra might be boiled down to “It’s our fault”.
The flipside of this ‘anti-imperialism’ is a lionisation of any movement that points an AK-47 in the direction of the West; distinctions in non-western countries are rarely made between the rulers and the ruled. The Iranian mullahs, Hamas, Hezbollah, Nicolas Maduro, Daniel Ortega, Colonel Gaddafi are viewed as historically progressive forces. Those who languish under their tyrannical rule are ignored. This also contains a neat reanimation of Bertrand Russell’s point about the “fallacy of the superior virtue of the oppressed”. Effete bourgeois intellectuals and activists, softened by the relative comfort available in the western democracies in which they live, pursue their vicarious revolutionary fantasies through fatigue-wearing men of action such as Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez.
The assumption that Britain’s role in the world is overwhelmingly negative and that Britain’s enemies “have a point” undermines repeated attempts by Labour over recent weeks to forge a “progressive patriotism”. The implication being that the Labour Party is viewed as unpatriotic by the electorate. The Conservative Party doesn’t need to constantly burnish its patriotic credentials. Labour on the other hand must, partly because its hard-Left flank contains many comrades who cannot abide the notion that Britain has any progressive role in the world.
This is not simply a question of foreign policy, though foreign policy plays a significant part. One burnishes one’s credentials in Labour these days by talking up one’s opposition to the 2003 war in Iraq. It’s as if there were no consequences of isolationism and inaction prior to 2003 (Srebrenica anyone?) and everything since is viewed through the lens of ‘blowback’ from the Iraq war. A profound ignorance reigns when it comes to successive humanitarian interventions in Sierra Leone, Yugoslavia, as well as the no-fly zone over Iraq from 1991 to 2003.
If the next Labour leader is to win an election Labour must change significantly. In selecting Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour leader back in 2015, party members didn’t only consign the party to inevitable defeat while he was at the helm. They probably relegated the party to opposition for several parliaments post-Corbyn. This was their biggest miscalculation. It will take this long to detoxify the Labour brand in the eyes of the electorate. As the New Labour strategist Philip Gould wrote after defeat at the 1992 election: “Labour lost because it was still the party of the winter of discontent; union influence; strikes and inflation; disarmament; Benn and Scargill.”
It was a decade-and-a-half between the infiltration of Militant in the early Eighties and Tony Blair’s victory in 1997. Labour’s climb back to electoral credibility could take longer this time.
There is set of first principles that the Labour Party must adhere to if it is to have any hope of winning back power in the foreseeable future. Central to that is the assumption that Britain is a country that is more good than bad, both as a place to live and in its conduct around the world. This is not to ignore ill-thought out and gung-ho foreign policy decisions such as Iraq — nor to whitewash domestic issues such as inequality and xenophobia. Britain is not a bad place to live, and from its generous developmental budget to successful humanitarian interventions in places such as Kosovo and West Africa, there are examples in its recent history of British governments doing the right thing.
There is a lot more to do of course. There always is. Britain’s obsequious relationship with Saudi Arabia is an easy target for the ire of Labour activists but an appropriate one. As is China, whose human rights abuses the British government seems increasingly willing to overlook for the sake of economic expediency.
But whenever such matters are discussed some perspective is required. And this will not be forthcoming for as long as Labour adheres — even tangentially — to the fly-blown notions that animate Corbyn’s worldview. A break with these sclerotic doctrines is required. And a break with them will do more for Labour’s chances with the British people than any convoluted attempt to forge a gimmicky ‘progressive’ patriotism.
Patriotism needn’t be flashy or tub-thumping. But it does begin with the belief that one’s own country is more good than bad, more right than wrong.