For a Progressive Patriotism: Labour’s Quest to Redefine National Identity

Esther Brown discusses the issue of national identity and patriotism on the left. 

Britain today finds itself ensnared in toxic narratives of ‘us and them’. It is divided by several expanding social faultlines: Remain versus Leave, cities versus towns, Scotland versus the rest of the UK.

British parties have responded to these narratives in very different ways. The Conservatives have embraced the nationalist politics of ‘divide and conquer’; the SNP and other regionalists have doubled down on their claims to distinctiveness; Liberal Democrats and Greens have found their home in an almost anti-national Europeanism. This leaves Labour as the only party that has yet to settle its answer to the ‘national question’. 

The left has long had a difficult relationship with national identity: its association with imperialist ambitions sits in tension with the left's internationalist values. Rosa Luxemburg famously chose the international workers’ struggle over emancipation for her native Poland. Leon Trotsky likewise insisted that the workers’ revolution was incomplete until it had been spread to every corner of the globe.

But to win the next election, Labour must keep its finger on the emotional pulse of the country. Brexit in 2016 and Jeremy Corbyn’s defeat in 2019 show the costs of neglecting the patriotism of the voters Labour needs to win over. Yet in doing so, Labour must strike a careful balance. It cannot pander to the hostilities fostered by the right today. Instead, it must define a ‘progressive patriotism’ that acts as an alternative to reactionary nationalist nostalgia--in George Orwell’s terms, a ‘devotion’ to country and culture that does not try to empower one group at the expense of another.

Previous attempts by Labour have fallen into this trap. Blue Labour tried to pursue a ‘conservative socialism’ that tapped into a politics of tradition and English virtue. As John Cruddas put it: ‘an English socialism that resists relentless commodification, values the land, believes in family life, takes pride in the country and its traditions’.

But Labour’s attempts to beat the Conservatives at their own game are inherently limited. The Conservatives’ affinity for stable continuity will always sit more comfortably with narratives of tradition than Labour’s instinctive drive for social transformation. After all, Labour has always taken the side of those who were written out of history, not those whom traditions are set up to preserve.

This is not to say that Labour’s national identity is an abstract utopia. It counts among its forebears a litany of radicals and reformers: Chartists, trade unionists, and the architects of the NHS. All harboured a deep love for Britain and its people; not uncritically endorsing every facet of Britain’s national legacy but, as E.P. Thompson suggests, contesting the idea of Britain to make it more inclusive.

Patriotism does not have to be synonymous with subservient love for the establishment. Indeed, the most patriotic British voters are often those who have been left behind by the current political and economic system. This is why progressive patriotism must centre values that overcome the dangerous politics of ‘us and them’, and seek to unify, not divide, Britain’s disparate communities.

At the heart of any left-wing patriotic vision must be a drive to foster the common goods of society for the benefit of all. To achieve this, Labour must elevate its commitment to the welfare state and progressive taxation as the main instrument to foster equality as a patriotic goal. It must protect strategic industries across Britain to ensure universal access to opportunities for growth and development. And it must ensure continuity between Labour’s domestic and foreign commitments, pursuing the goals of tolerance, justice, rights, and democracy as vigorously for those beyond Britain’s borders as those within them. 

Keir Starmer has made positive steps towards addressing Labour’s patriotism deficit. But in order to offer an authentic left alternative to Conservative nationalism, Starmer must push beyond his current prioritisation of ‘law and order Labour’. The stakes could not be higher. Get this wrong, and Labour may lose again--and jeopardise its progressive identity in the process. Get it right, and the next election is Labour’s to win.

Esther Brown graduated with an MSc in African Studies from Oxford University in 2018. Since then she has worked in geopolitical consultancy. She is particularly interested in democratisation and popular protests. Outside of work, she is passionate about social mobility, cooking, and outdoor adventures.

She tweets at  @estherm_brown.

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