The Patriotism Problem

Patriotism is a tricky subject for Labour. And yet, who within Labour ranks could possibly claim that the Labour movement is anything other than a patriotic expression? We are a patriotic party, with a patriotic history.

Patriotism has taken on new political significance in recent years, as it is central to many major debates – the upcoming Scottish referendum holds at its core the issues of identity and patriotism; the rise of UKIP and the argument for an EU exit are similarly wrapped in the veneer of patriotism. A Scottish separation from the Union or a UK exit from the EU would have immense and far-reaching implications, changing politics forever.

 This is why the Ideas Series project on patriotism promises to be an interesting study of the ideas and principles that underpin One Nation Labour in the run-up to 2015. The project launch on May 19 aimed to dive straight in to some of the most difficult issues this project faces, with discussions on discrimination, integration, 'Englishness' and white identity in 21st century Britain.

 We aimed to ask:

  • What unites us in an “inclusive patriotism”?
  • Can patriotism escape nationalism and the right?
  • What does it mean to be patriotic for BAME, LGBT, naturalised, white British and different religious communities in modern Britain?
  • What do you feel patriotic about?

Taking in a wide range of topics and perspectives, the event produced a lively and informative debate amongst members. We were very lucky to be joined by Patrick Vernon OBE, Ivana Bartoletti and Matthew Rhodes. It was Matthew, representing the think-tank British Future, who got proceedings underway with an excellent presentation on “Patriotism and National Identity”.

Matt outlined the importance of identity and patriotism in recent political debates, such as the future of Scotland and UKIP.

Interestingly, he identified that UKIP's message on the EU is framed primarily through the prism of immigration and concluded that the UKIP threat was not, in fact, about Europe, due to their pre-occupation with immigration.

Identity is an important factor in the rise of UKIP. According to the 2011 Census, there has been a rise in British people feeling British. Of particular note is the fact that ethnic minorities are slightly more proud to be British than those of a white background.

Why is this so? Matt believes it is because at its heart being British is a civic identity, rather than an ethnic one. In addition, negative reinforcement is a factor – ethnic minorities always had to prove their Britishness, so they feel a greater pride in being British.

National identities are also on the rise. All the nations of the UK - England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – have seen an increase in national pride. Scotland has seen the sharpest increase in national pride, while English pride has increased the least. However, all have gone up.

So what makes a people proud of their country? Three factors are at work here:

  • History
  •  Armed Forces
  • Sporting Achievements

By quite some distance, History and the Armed Forces were considered the two things the British people felt most pride in, with sporting achievements an important third.

A significant minority of Brits regard Islam as incompatible with Britishness, and so Muslim integration has proven difficult. Understanding the basis of British pride is intrinsic to understanding our identity and a significant factor in working towards integration of certain groups, particularly Muslims.

What we must do is locate a shared identity through our history.

For example, work is being undertaken by British Future to highlight the efforts of Muslims who fought with the British on the Western Front during the First World War, to vividly demonstrate the entwining of races and religions that characterise British identity.

Matt then highlighted the 2012 Olympics opening ceremony as the “best definition of what being British means”. However, he emphasised that what made it significant was that it was not multi-cultural, but rather mono-cultural – a single narrative about Modern Britain.

The discussion was then opened up to the floor and Patrick Vernon very eloquently echoed Matt's point about the importance of History to pride and identity.

He emphasised the exclusive nature of being 'English' as opposed to being British. The idea of 'English' referring to white Anglo-Saxons is only reinforced by UKIP and the coalition government. It is for this reason that understanding British history is both interesting and important.

While the popular impression given is that ethnic minorities have only come to our shores recently, this is far from being the true case. For example, the make-up of Britain's armies in both WWI and WWII were multi-ethnic in nature. 

Patrick then went on to point out that in the recent Top 100 Great Britons, as voted for by the public, only Freddie Mercury was non-white. This is why he developed his alternative – the '100 Black Britons' to highlight the contribution of ethnic minorities over the centuries (stretching all the way back to the Roman Empire!).

Each generation of migrants adds something to the mix and enriches our shared British identity.  We must remember and celebrate this process. However, until we have a proper historical narrative that reflects this, issues around identity will continue to be a problem.

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