Not everyone was impressed by Keir Starmer’s first conference speech as Labour leader. When he told viewers “we love this country as much as you do”, a number of Twitter users retorted by quoting Samuel Johnson: “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

This might sound like a dictionary definition, but you won’t find the line in Johnson’s famous work. Instead, it comes from The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell. Johnson wasn’t referring to “a real and generous love of our country” as his biographer is quick to clarify, but “that pretended patriotism which so many […] have made a cloak for self-interest”. Of course, there’s no way all of that could fit within 280 characters.

According to Starmer’s definition, patriotism combines respect for a country “that has given [him] so much” with a desire to “extend that same opportunity to everyone”. By coincidence, he drew the same distinction as Boswell and included in a few distinctions of his own for good measure. The speech may have been hazy on policy detail, but its contrasts were razor-sharp. Starmer was set against Johnson – Boris that is and not the long-dead lexicographer. Patriotism was positioned against faux patriotism. Competence against “serial incompetence”. A Britain moving forward against a Britain being held back. 

A few commentators criticised Starmer for elevating values over policy. But, here the big picture is important. You have to lay down a firm ideological foundation before you start building towards policy specifics, which was hinted at in the references to education and the NHS. 

Just think back to the election last December. By cluttering their messaging with policy detail, Labour sacrificed clarity for volume, which was the campaign equivalent of shooting from the hip. As Starmer admitted in his conference address, his party lost because of this and they deserved to.

Other critics were sceptical of Starmer’s values. Grace Blakeley, for example, argued that “by repeating your opponent’s frame […] you don’t steal their votes, you just strengthen their narrative”. Coming from a self-confessed “Moët Marxist”, it’s an oddly prescriptive thing to say as in a country where two-thirds are proud of being British, it’s quite defeatist. Labour may have had a squeamish attitude to national identity over the years, but that’s no reason to let Conservatism have a monopoly on patriotism.

In fact, George Orwell regarded patriotism as “the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing”. In The Lion and the Unicorn, he entreats socialists to make use of patriotism and envision it as a state of belonging that broadens individual horizons, rather than disparaging it. 

Even those who “cling like glue to their miserable scraps of privilege will surrender them fast enough when their country is in danger”. In the hands of a socialist, declared the essayist, national loyalty is a “tremendous lever” and it looks like Starmer has come to the same conclusion.

However, if the Labour leader can stay true to his conference address, can combine a patriotic vision with socialist principles and if he can show patriotism goes beyond dangling on a zip wire with a fistful of Union Flags, then power doesn’t seem such a distant prospect. In re-defining patriotism for the modern Labour party, this may prove to be Keir Starmer’s defining moment.

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