Can patriotism be progressive?
A seemingly innocuous statement has triggered a heated debate on the Left
Every so often, the Left engages in an agonised debate over whether it is possible to be Left-wing and patriotic at the same time. The debate has kicked off again as Rebecca Long-Bailey, the shadow business secretary, has written a piece about how Labour lost (because of Brexit and the “broken political system”, obvs; Ctrl-F “Corbyn”, zero results, unsurprisingly).
In it she makes a somewhat vague case for a “progressive patriotism”, based on “unity and pride in the common interests and shared life of everyone”, and also sugar and spice and all things nice. To my slight surprise this inoffensive-to-the-point-of-vacuous suggestion has caused all sorts of friendly fire incidents.
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So, can patriotism be progressive? The argument always strikes me as a bit of a waste of time, insofar as it entirely hinges on your definitions of the two words involved — “is it possible to be proud of the place that you come from while also supporting a redistributive tax regime,” obviously yes; “is it possible to demand an England for the English while also being an anti-racism campaigner,” possibly not.
The trouble is that the intellectual heart of the modern Left doesn’t, really, like Britain very much. I’m not saying that as an insult! I too am a Citizen of Nowhere; I quite like Britain, I think it’s a beautiful country, especially when viewed from the window of a train, and I actually think (controversially) that it’s probably done more good than harm over the last 500 years or so, on balance, although I’m not confident about that. But I don’t feel any particular pride in it or visceral attachment to it.
I think that’s the same for a lot of middle-class Lefties in a lot of countries; the Right associates itself with The Flag And Our Brave Boys, whereas the Left sort of feels a bit awkward about the whole thing; they associate flag-waving with colonialism and the military with oppression. Even at the World Cup you get some lefties specifically supporting whoever is playing against England. The trouble is that actually a lot of people — including a lot of traditional Labour voters — do feel a visceral attachment to their country, and rightly or wrongly are proud of it. You can argue that they’re wrong to do so, but they’re the voters you have.
The middle-class Left is dimly aware of this, and so they try to put on a bit of a show when election time comes around. See for example Michelle Obama’s rapid attempts to backtrack when she said “for the first time in my adult life I feel proud of my country” , or Ed Miliband claiming that when he sees a white van with an England flag he feels “respect”. But it’s just not very convincing. Long-Bailey’s “look, you can find things to be patriotic about if you … um … look at Lancastrian mill workers in 1862!” fits into the same pattern.
It is probably not going to be possible for the Left to compete, really compete, with people on the Right for vote-winning patriotic fervour. But it might be possible for them to, at least, not seem anti-patriotic; not palling around with IRA members, or by not agonising over singing the national anthem. At least seeming like you don’t actively despise your country. New Labour may have got a lot of things wrong, but at least the at-the-time toe-curling branding of “Cool Britannia” felt like it came from people who didn’t specifically dislike the country they were in charge of.
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