The party has a patriotism problem — and Keir Starmer knows it
If the decision were theirs alone, would the massed ranks of delegates attending the Labour party conference next week really wish to have the King saved, whether by God or anyone else? Most likely not. Which is why many among them will be more than a little unsettled at the leadership’s decree that the event be opened with a rendition of the national anthem.
The chances are that even Sir Keir Starmer himself wouldn’t exactly die in a ditch to ensure any monarch was long to reign over us. He was, after all, once captured on film professing his own republican sympathies.
But the decision to have conference sing the anthem is, if nothing else, shrewd politics. Let’s be frank: we all know that Labour has a “patriotism problem”. Millions of voters still view the party, not without reason, as being populated by anti-British, “progressive”, citizen-of-the-world types who sneer at any demonstration of patriotic sentiment. This perception is especially prevalent among voters in Labour’s old Red Wall constituencies, whose support the party must regain if it is ever to win power again. And Starmer probably understands that it is among these working-class communities that monarchy enjoys some of its highest levels of affection.
While, of course, republicanism is not inherently antithetical to patriotism — we need only look to France to disabuse ourselves of such a notion — it is undeniable that voters in Britain often associate support for the Royal Family with love of country. It is an attitude that probably explains why, shortly after becoming leader, Jeremy Corbyn was condemned as “unpatriotic” for having kept his lips sealed during a rendition of “God Save the Queen” at a commemoration service.
Tony Benn once explained that while Labour’s ranks had always contained a good number of socialists, it had never been an explicitly socialist party. In the same way, it might be said that although the party has always played home to its fair share of anti-monarchists, it has never represented a vehicle for outright republicanism.
In the days when Labour was proudly conservative, its pro-monarchy stance was probably one of straightforward conviction. Clement Attlee, for example, dismissed republicanism as a middle-class pursuit borne out of that demographic’s own sense of inferiority. “Capitalism, not monarchy, was the enemy,” he once wrote.
In modern times, however, the position probably owes itself more to crude electoral calculation than to principle. The more sapient within Labour’s ranks, whatever their disdain for hereditary power, know that any party that proposed abolition of the royals wouldn’t stand an earthly chance of winning a general election. Which is doubtless why Tony Blair, though content to go around ripping up vast chunks of the constitution, didn’t dare threaten the monarchy.
Naturally the toytown revolutionaries inside Labour — many of whom flooded in after Corbyn was elected leader — are already wailing and gnashing their teeth at the decision to kick off conference with “God Save the King”. (For such people, even Jerusalem, which is traditionally sung at the closing of conference, is a bit too nationalistic.) But it can hardly be considered controversial for a party that aspires to govern a country to have that country’s anthem played at the commencement of its annual get-together. And, after all, Labour does have an election to win.
So, for now, the party’s anti-monarchist tendency will just have to suck it up. Or, when the anthem rings out in Liverpool next week, do what Benn always did when called upon to swear an oath to the monarch in parliament: recite the words while keeping a smile on his face and his fingers crossed.