British nationalism has been the noxious undercurrent in all major political events of the past five years. Whether it’s been Brexit, Coronavirus or the economy, our politics has stemmed from the nation’s expression of pride.
Under Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour Party was certainly muted in its patriotic fervour, focusing on international developments much more closely, often to the detriment of its image. And since the Iraq War caused splits in the party, there’s undoubtedly been a tense balance between these schools of thought. When Labour’s new party political broadcast was released on Wednesday, these philosophies once again came into conflict.
Left-wing parties are not necessarily sceptics of nationalism. European socialism adopts national spirit and imagery, whilst being proud of its values, alongside ideological beliefs. But in Britain, our patriotism is a much deeper, complex integration of culture, history and ethnicity. Ours is not a cosmopolitan nationalism, nor is it values-heavy as in other liberal Western democracies. Because our spirited expressions are so dogmatic and tied to history, be it false or not, this presents an enormous challenge for left-wing groups.
It’s not impossible to align Labour’s ethos with British patriotism – but it does require nuance and effort to deconstruct the shameful and brutal histories our country has created. Flying a Union Flag echoes difficult imperial memories of intolerance and exploitation around the world. If Labour wish to embody the flag, fly it high and wave it for all the country to see, they must pursue a deeper line of constructive review with our past, seeking to represent people of colour in every way.
The importance of this should be self-evident to anyone who’s seen the far-right violence that grips tightly onto both Whitehall and the Union Flag itself. Extremist groups adopt their own spin on what their flag is for. Theirs is a country of prejudice and exclusivity, far from the socialist values of the Labour Party. Without an educated glance at Britain’s historical crimes, Labour’s desired banner of 2020 will be just as stained with bloody shame.
Notable criticism of Labour’s party political broadcast on Wednesday was lodged at Lisa Nandy, who as Shadow Foreign Secretary is certainly well-placed to consider this revision. On an interview on Radio 4’s Today Programme, Nandy stated, “We stand up for British people, we stand up for British interests and we will always put that first.”
This, combined with Keir Starmer’s conference speech the day before, unleashed a real blast of online anger. Some claimed that Nandy was using the language of far-right extremist group Britain First, and used the memory of murdered MP Jo Cox as evidence of why such a dedication to patriotism causes harm. In some cases, Twitter users, through a shield of anonymity and hashtags, evoked far-right slogans of Nazi Germany to criticise the new leadership’s message. This is intolerable and factional anger that will never successfully shift the sands, no matter how noble the cause.
Online activism in all its bluster is assuredly confident but often far from reality. Twitter is not real life, though it is still extremely important to watch and engage with politically. But the best people to be consulting on this change of direction is Black, Asian and other minority ethnic groups in and outside Labour Party circles. It is insulting for them to be ignored while the spirits change. A constructive approach to patriotism must always champion the views and stances of diverse Britain.
Labour’s political journey is not over just because Keir Starmer is leader. The question of whether he should be listening to his party or the people is in constant conflict. And when opposition ministers are writing in the Sun or Telegraph, it raises eyebrows, which are certainly not unjustified. The marketing of Labour is firmly focused on Starmer himself as an alternative to Boris Johnson, and as an upgrade from Jeremy Corbyn. But while this tactic will get a base visibility, policy and problem-solving are perhaps being left to one side. With patriotism, this is seemingly not the case with a very strong message from the start.
A ‘progressive patriotism’, as coined by second place candidate Rebecca Long-Bailey, is not insurmountable for Britain. But in 2020, with fires burning on issues of race, culture and history, Labour should approach their newly erected flagpole with delicate, well-educated steps. A party that abandons its pluralist, diverse values to seek a seat next to the dangerous forces of conservative populism is a party that could implode. Keir Starmer would do well to listen to voices from all sides, yes, but especially those who would be lost to the patriotic fervour that blinds nations and its peoples. In working to stamp out racism and intolerance, Labour must not look to find sympathy with the very prejudice it hopes to remove.