by Paul Marshall
Tuesday, 31
December 2019
Idea
11:00

If Labour want help with patriotism, they should read Orwell

George Orwell’s thoughts on patriotism are more relevant than ever

Labour politicians are making fools of themselves over the issue of patriotism.

While their working class supporters (and ex-supporters) have no problem with the p-word, the professional Left can barely allow it to pass their lips, and soon get into difficulty when they do.

Why do they struggle so much?

I think the answer can be found in two George Orwell essays, written during the Second World War: “The Lion and the Unicorn” in 1941 and “Notes on Nationalism” in 1944.

The first was written close to the moment of deepest national gloom. February 1941. After Dunkirk and well before El-Alamein. Attlee, Bevin, Greenwood and Herbert Morrison were in the Cabinet; the memory was fresh of the part they had played in handing Churchill the keys to Downing Street. But not all in the Labour movement had embraced the idea of patriotism; many were still in thrall to the supranational creed of Communism.

In an attempt to win them around, he starts with an affirmation of working-class culture:

“Bound up with solid breakfasts and gloomy Sundays, smoky towns and winding roads, green fields and red pillar boxes….”

OK, it is a bit hokey Hovis – but bear with him:

“… they (the ’common people’) have retained a deep tinge of Christian feeling, whilst almost forgetting the name of Christ”.

This rings so true today. It could describe the mood which lies behind the public’s rejection of liberal wokedom in favour of deep-rooted traditional values which feel to most people a lot more like common sense.

Having set the scene, he moves on to patriotism:

“One cannot see the world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty… As a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are weak as straw in comparison with it.”

In his second essay, he explains what he understands by the word — and its distinction from nationalism:

By patriotism, I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally.

Nationalism on the other hand is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.

Nationalism, in the extended sense in which I am using the word, includes such movements as Communism, political Catholicism, Zionism, Antisemitism, Trotskyism and Pacifism.

- George Orwell, Notes on Nationalism

You don’t have to agree with his specific examples to get his general point: which is that nationalism can be supranational. Unlike patriotism, which is defensive and sacrificial, nationalism is defined by a quest for power. It seeks to dominate.

We know where this argument leads. We know only too well. The EU incarnates a new form of nationalism; it seeks to dominate, to impose against democratic consent. It speaks a language of power; it aims to create a new global force which can stand on equal terms with the United States and China. We all know people who espouse this “power” argument: it is the deep-seated motivation of Macron, Verhofstadt, Blair, and Heseltine.

It is not attractive. It is not even realistic. Fortunately, it does not have a wide purchase among the British electorate. And Orwell was there before us:

“The power worship which is the new religion of Europe, and which has infected the English intelligentsia, has never touched the common people.”

The detachment of the English intelligentsia from the wider population was not limited to “power worship”. There was a guilt about history and a shame of demotic culture which detached it from its natural roots.

“The really important fact about so many of the English intelligentsia…(is)…their severance from the common culture of the country…The English intelligentsia are Europeanised. They take their cooking from Paris and their opinions from Moscow… Any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during God Save the King than of stealing money from a poor box.”

It really is remarkable how little seems to have changed over 80 years.

The Tory party may have won a decisive victory earlier this month, but to hold on to its new voters the  party needs to stop being so shy about people’s “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life”, and start talking about that everyday patriotism which we cherish. It’s there in Remembrance Sunday and the Invictus games. It rejoices in the Cricket World Cup, enjoys Elgar and The Beatles and Stormzy, and celebrates our history and the comity of nations embodied in the Commonwealth.

Labour, if it is to have any chance of returning to power, needs to show it understands “the world as it is”. It could start by reading a little Orwell.

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