Three Lions and a Unicorn

"It was not until the Great War that I fully grasped the strength of the ties that bind men to the land of their birth”

"It was not until the Great War that I fully grasped the strength of the ties that bind men to the land of their birth”. So wrote Major Clement R. Attlee in a private note at the end of 1918. There can be little doubt that the greatest hero of the left – wounded by artillery fire leading his men into an Ottoman trench in the First World War and serving with distinction as Winston Churchill's deputy in the Second - was a patriot. But many of his intellectual descendants are ashamed of the word. To many on the left today, the Union Jack and St. George Cross are symbols of oppression, nationalism, xenophobia, even downright racism, and those who look on them with pride are to be sneered at in a Thornberry-esque fashion. But it is my contention that we can learn much from the first forty years of the Labour Party - not least, what happens to a party of sneering Liberal professionals when the working class decide to take their political destiny into their own hands. But one of the key things we can learn from the likes of Clement Attlee, J. R. Clynes, even Nye Bevan, is their understanding that patriotism is the keystone of progressive politics.

 The objections of the “lefty” intellectual to patriotism in the 21st Century essentially boils down to two parts. The first is a confusion between nationalism – a chauvinistic, aggressive imposition of a single notion of culture – and patriotism – a love of place, civic duty, solidarity, a willingness to sacrifice for the betterment of Society as a whole and a pride in being a part of a collective whole which is greater than oneself alone. There are of course areas of crossover between the symbolism and imagery of patriotism and nationalism, but if they were indeed identical the sight of Sir Mo Farah proudly doing a lap of honour wrapped in the Union Jack, before staring at the same flag from the podium as God Save The Queen blares round the stadium would seem oddly incongruous. So too would the passion with which BAME athletes such as Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, Maro Itoje, Mako Vunipola, Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid, Lewis Hamilton and countless others across multiple sports show when they represent England or Great Britain.

 The essential difference between nationalism and patriotism is the basis on which they are built. For nationalism that is race – for patriotism it is citizenship. Citizenship denotes belonging to a national community, sharing institutions such as the NHS, education system and the welfare system. It also means reciprocity and solidarity. Patriotism is, quintessentially, solidarity at the national level. Why should I give a damn about an old man dying in an Aberdeen hospital? Because just as my taxes are paying for his healthcare, his paid for my education. We are both a part of a greater whole and that reciprocity and belonging gives us a connection that does not exist when I give to a charity appeal for a foreign country. Recognising that connection and prioritising it does not mean ceasing to give a damn about people outside. It just recognises that those who form a part of my society have a relationship with me through that society which is valuable.

It's why, when the Attlee government enshrined the Welfare State into law, they did so with the National Insurance Act; why when they enacted universal healthcare they called it the National Health Service. If we wish to combat the atomised individualism of neoliberalism, to preserve the Welfare State and put meaning to the phrase “by the strength of our common endeavour”, we cannot at the same time loudly condemn the Patriotic national solidarity it is based on. To do so sets an explosive charge beneath the feet of the Welfare State. 

Unable to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism – between pride in citizenship and belonging and a nasty sense of racial pre-eminence - the lefty intellectual indulges in the 'Dogwhistle Fallacy' and assumes any and all talk of the former is a code for the latter – an attitude which leaves us both alienating and attacking huge swathes of our own society and utterly unable to call out and condemn the genuine dog-whistling that not only does go on, but is dramatically on the increase since the result of the EU Referendum. When UKIP continuously tell the public that to be British is to think like them, and when they turn to us to ask if that is true we either ignore it or worse say that yes it is and that is shameful, and therefore if you feel proud of your country you are a UKIP sympathiser, we shouldn't be hugely surprised if eventually they conclude that we're right and become one.

 The second objection of the intellectual left to patriotism is a romanticised vision of the universality of progressive values that tends to get termed “being a citizen of the world”. Looked at seriously the nature of this statement is obvious intellectual claptrap. What people mean when they say they are a citizen of the world is that they are comfortable with immigration and multiculturalism, like to travel a lot and believe the whole world would be too if only they realised it. It is a beautiful and beguiling fantasy. It tends to be more of an airy statement of values than a coherent programme of action and often focuses on issues of international conflict rather than issues of domestic policy. As a rule, 'Citizens of the World' prefer to talk about the plight of Palestine rather than poverty in Preston. It tends to be a metropolitan and middle class attitude, rather than a small-town, rural or working class view, and believes there is no essential difference between the responsibilities owed to others in our own society and that owed to others around the planet.

I believe this view is mistaken, both because it tends to gloss over the messy complexities of immigration and multiculturalism and because I would argue that we owe a far greater duty to the members of our own society, a duty born out of reciprocity, shared institutions and traditions and a far greater connection between us as members of the same national community. For all they profess they are 'Citizens of the World' none seem too keen to advocate scrapping the NHS and Welfare State to send the money abroad to people arguably suffering from worse living conditions than those in the UK – but that surely is the logical conclusion of saying that Patriotism does not matter and that everyone around the world should be treated equally?

 That is obviously the argument taken ad absurdum. But it highlights a wider fact that is often not acknowledged – that although our values are universal, they are not experienced by people as universal abstracts, but as real, tangible institutions and traditions which, being national, are flavoured with a patriotic tinge. We understand solidarity through the NHS and the welfare state. We experience equality through the Human Rights Act, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act, the Disability Discrimination Act and – if it comes to it – through the British legal system. We understand democracy through the House of Commons and our general elections. We know tolerance through our interactions with our neighbours of all creeds, races and colours in shared places like the local park, the school playground and the GP's waiting room.

 These are our national institutions, but we are also linked by our national myths. The tales of Agincourt, Cable Street and the Blitz Spirit. These are of course based on our history and there we hit the difficult topic of the worst actions of our ancestors. - many of them connected to the British Empire. We must never forget the Amritsar Massacre, the treatment of the Boers or our role in the slave trade before its suppression. We must apologise for the past wrongs of our country and seek to ensure they do not taint our present or worst of all be repeated in our future. But to dismiss our national myths as a method of airbrushing history is to fundamentally misunderstand that they are the manner in which we show the values to which we most aspire.

We must never gloss over or excuse away the times in our past when we have failed to live up to our ideals of tolerance, responsibility and standing up for what is right, but that we use those past failings as lessons of history that inspire us to better uphold our values in the future. A patriotism that is secure – which ours is not in the UK, and probably hasn't been since Suez – is stable enough to acknowledge its past. That is what we should be arguing for.

 Because as Clement Attlee and his comrades knew, if we ignore all this, if we surrender our cultural story to the likes of UKIP, then we are agreeing with them that they are who the British are. And by systematically destroying the solidarity of the society we champion, eventually they will be right – and it will be our fault. 

Luke John (LJ) Davies is the Regional Officer on the Young Fabians exec. Follow him on Twitter at @LJDavies87

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