Omid Miri discusses the importance of our national character and the politics of progress.
Throughout history, much has been said about our character as a country. Napoleon miscalculated when he thought calling us a nation of shopkeepers was a slur, Orwell observed that "gentleness" was our "most marked characteristic", and more recently an unnamed figure in the tabloid press threatened Prince Harry with the notion that we were a bigoted country. But whatever may have been claimed about our character, rightly or wrongly, as insult, celebration, or threat, we should agree as a first step that we do at the very least have one – certain shared views, attitudes, sensibilities, and outlooks that on the whole exist.
As we appear to emerge from a period of post-modern rejection of such realities, to deny this first step in favour of a de-constructivist, atomistic view, that we are simply a collection of 68 million disparate individuals, would be a mistake. Communities, nations, even continents have common characteristics that require recognition, increasingly regardless of race or religion, and it is the role of a healthy politics to know when to invoke which of the bonds on that hierarchy of loyalties. What would be a greater mistake, though, and a recipe for disaster, would be to imagine away the observable character in favour of hoped traits for political gain: to deny our real context in favour of something perceived to be more amenable.
This is not to say that Britain is inherently unresponsive to progress, nor that our character is closed-off to the possibilities of radical reform; the Levellers, Chartists, Suffragettes, the marchers of Peterloo, Blake, Morris, Milton, would all say otherwise, and ultimately the creation and periodic successes of the Labour Party itself are proof to the contrary.
But all of these proud markers in our national heritage, Labour victories included, have shared something in common – far from ignoring our national character and context and attempting to drive forward regardless, or imagining we were a different place with different people, they have embraced, drawn upon, called upon, indeed emanated from who we are as a country. To do so required an element of pragmatism, that essential political ingredient, and a deep belief that any real progress must be couched in true patriotism; not hatred of others but love of self.
The opposite is a politics that imagines a different electorate, then blames them for the wrong outcome. It should not be controversial to say that radicalism, progress, and reform are in our cultural DNA, but that ultimately these things cannot and should not be presented in their untrammelled, idealised forms. Only when our context is understood and factored into our political platform, not as some hollow attempt to convince the country that we are something we’re not, but as a true emanation of the country and time we exist in, have we ever had a chance of success. It is only by these means that we can then set about leading the country and shaping the future.
Ultimately, we have to be true to the fundamental traits of our national character: an aversion to extremism and dogma, deep patriotism, realism, and yet an unshakeable commitment to justice. The alternative opens the door to a regressive politics, populism, which feeds into the lowest common denominators and pours fuel on the fires of reactionary thinking, fear, anxiety, and anger – however validly inspired those feelings may be. It is, in fact, only the politics of progress that can fix the conditions that lead there, and by staying true to our national character that the politics of progress ever has a chance to win.
Omid Miri currently works for a Labour MP and is the Outreach Officer for the Arts and Culture Network of the Young Fabians. Omid tweets at @omidmiri93.