The patriotism delusion

Image: The Union Flag. Source: The Union Flag ‘Union Jack’ UK Flag 326. Author: Rian (Ree) Saunders, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

JVL Introduction

In this article on Labour Hub, Mike Phipps argues that the left  needs to engage with the issue of patriotism – ignoring it, or treating it as cynical manipulation will not do.

At one level patriotism simply means caring about “one’s country” and the people in it.

But it also has other connotations, based on symbols like the flag, the monarchy and the armed forces.

How can their resonances be challenged? It there such a thing as a “progressive patriotism”?

These themes and more are broached in a new Compass pamphlet Belonging, place and the nation, (click for free download), and Phipps explores some of its arguments here.

He concludes that the left needs to put together a clear narrative, a political vision, of what Britain is and where it is going which necessarily means confronting the Tory patriotism delusion.

It’s not, he believes, an optional add-on…

This article was originally published by Labour Hub on Thu 25 Feb 2021. Read the original here.

The patriotism delusion

”There is a lot of talk about patriotism again these days,” said former Shadow Attorney General Shami Chakrabarti recently.  “I am happy to call myself a patriot, but not if that means using human rights as justification for wars over there, but never refugee protection over here.”

There’s no doubt that Labour’s performance at the last general election was undermined by questions in the minds of some voters about Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged lack of patriotism. How do we respond to this?

We can ignore it. We can berate those voters for being gullible. We can moan about the bias of the mainstream media. We can denounce the Tory embrace of patriotism as cynical manipulation. But if we fail to engage with the issue, we risk ceding important terrain to our enemies.

Two-thirds of voters told YouGov in June last year that they were proud of being British and 50% of Party members thought it was important for the leader to have a sense of patriotism.

Former Labour MP John Denham, who resigned as a minister in Blair’s government over the Iraq war, opined recently, “Most people in Britain, including Britain’s ethnic minorities, see themselves as patriotic and are instinctively suspicious of those who are not.”

He went on, “While you cannot get elected as an unpatriotic party, there are not many votes in patriotism itself. It is a precondition for electoral support, but few voters are actually looking for patriotism on the ballot paper.”

Keir Starmer, advised that Labour has a ‘patriotism problem’, says he is a patriot and loves his country. But what does that actually mean? Socialists, moderate and radical, will always be asked: if you love your country so much, why do you want to transform it?

Perhaps it comes down to what we mean by ‘one’s country’. For some, it’s about its values. Shami Chakrabarti says: “I personally have no problem calling myself a patriot. I am a universalist, an internationalist, a human rights activist, but I also understand that people are rooted in place, language, culture and stories.”

Labour-supporting singer Billy Bragg has also attempted to define progressive patriotism as support for the democratic values a country aspires to – toleration, justice, diversity.

Michael Gove’s reform of the school syllabus when he was Education Secretary saw the introduction of the teaching of ‘British’ values, such as democracy, liberty, toleration and the rule of law. I don’t object to these liberal values being adopted as British, but it is dishonest to pretend that they are uniquely indigenous or even began life in this country. If anything, many of the ideals of the French revolution, such as universal human rights, were regarded as treasonous here for many decades.

Even the adoption of the UK Human Rights Act did not happen until 1998, long after most other European countries had incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights into their domestic legal systems. Even today the Act is contested and there is strong pressure from within the Tory Party to repeal it.

Beyond values, there are other definitions of what ‘one’s country’ entails. Democratic socialists have traditionally configured the issue of ‘love of one’s country’ in terms of its people.  Former Labour leader Clement Attlee once made an election broadcast attacking the Tories’ claim to be the national party by pointing out how Labour represents a genuine cross-section of all society and appeals not to the lower but the highest instincts of humanity.

By this definition, Labour is the patriotic party, wanting what’s best for the vast majority of people. George Orwell once described England as “a family with the wrong members in control”. By contrast, Tory policies have often been motivated, not by a genuine desire for the public good, but by personal ambition. One need look no further than Boris Johnson’s path to power and the cronyism that has characterised the handling of a life and death issue like the COVID-19 pandemic this last year.

If patriotism were simply a commitment to the people of this country, the Tories would lose the argument at every turn. Johnson alone has denigrated Muslim women as people who “look like letter boxes”, Liverpool as a city that “wallows in victim status”, and the children of single mothers as “ill-raised, ignorant, aggressive and illegitimate”.

The problem is that patriotism has other connotations. The one promoted by the Tories is based on symbols: the flag, the monarchy, the armed forces. One may complain that these constitute an idealised version of the nation, which they do, but then what are nations, if not “imagined communities” (Anderson) or “invented traditions” (Hobsbawm)? Flags and anthems may be a modern feature, designed to cement support for empire and militarism, but the problem remains that for many people, they resonate.

Labour politicians have struggled with the idea of a “progressive patriotism” that can challenge this. Rebecca Long-Bailey drew flak from the left for talking about this, but the original idea came from Jeremy Corbyn himself, when he tweeted in 2019, “Patriotism is about supporting each other, not attacking somebody else. It’s about loving your country enough to make it a place where nobody is homeless or hungry, held back or left behind.”

Challenging the false idealised Conservative view of the nation means tackling head-on the legacy of empire. Compass recently produced a pamphlet, Belonging, place and the nation, on this theme. Clive Lewis MP referred to the Hollywood-created idealised version of US history, in which the cowboys and the cavalry were in the front line of carrying out genocide, yet were mythologised as the ‘good guys’.  He had this to say:

“What does progressive patriotism mean? First thing I ask is, ‘what reality are we talking about?’ If it is the John Wayne, Winston Churchill, unblemished hero, variation, I’m not patriotic… So, if anyone on the front bench, who uses the term ‘progressive patriotism’ tells me, ‘Yes, this is about an honest conversation about our country, warts and all,’ that’s a progressive patriotism I can buy into. But no one’s had that discussion, and I’m afraid to say, because they haven’t had it, because they haven’t unpacked it, I just think it’s a very lazy way of saying, ‘We want to take a really poor and very unfortunate term and try to adopt it with our professed values.’…

“The problem, for me, with the term ‘patriotism’ is that it’s synonymous with some of the worst excesses of British history. Defining it as a deference to a ruling elite is really useful, because that ties in with how ruling elites used ‘mass popular culture’ to sell the monarchy, military, Empire and patriotism.”

Recent protests underline that many people are already thinking critically – and acting upon their conclusions – about Britain’s imperial legacy. Politicians will fail to do so at their peril.

“Germany overcame its history. Why can’t Poland?” asked one commentator recently, condemning the Polish government’s refusal to accept the appointment of a German ambassador whose father had been a Wehrmacht officer close to Hitler. But the same question could be applied to Britain, with even more reason, given the brutality of empire.

It will also be necessary to dissect the Tory’s commitment to the military. On just about every other front it’s straightforward to make the case that the current government puts profits for the few ahead of people’s health, education and environment. But it’s equally vital to make these arguments on defence issues too. Defence experts admit that UK defence needs are being undermined by wasteful weapons programmes that make a lot of money for a few corporations, with no great gain for national security.

It’s outside of the left’s traditional comfort zone to talk about these issues, but failure to do so not only yields critical policy terrain to the right. It also undermines the left-s domestic agenda. Writing in the above-mentioned Compass pamphlet, Esther Brown and Marius Ostrowski argue:

“The progressive left is traditionally suspicious of foreign policy because of its perceived association with assertive nationalism. Yet by avoiding the task of developing a proactive foreign-policy vision, it loses its ability to challenge the status quo, abrogating a major arena in which, as the Opposition, it must hold the Government to account… Further, accepting the status quo of international politics can sometimes contradict its aim to undertake progressive reforms in domestic policy.

“Once in government, this dearth of a positive foreign-policy approach has led to the left often simply taking on and perpetuating the core assumptions of neoliberal (or even neoconservative) foreign policy. Left-led governments have repeatedly been drawn into projects of naked realpolitik, ranging from ‘humanitarian’ interventionism to petropolitics and resource competition.”

As in the past, these are crunch issues on which Labour will be accused of being unpatriotic. Cancelling the replacement for Trident is one. Even under the Corbyn leadership, this issue was dodged, due to the recalcitrance of sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Shadow Cabinet and even of the Corbyn-friendly trade union leaderships. But besides the issue of affordability and the powerful moral argument against nuclear weapons, it is possible to make a strong defence case as to why upgraded nuclear weapons offer neither the pathway to a more secure Britain nor the correct response to the security challenges the country faces.

Opposing war is another. From Keir Hardie’s opposition to World War One, to Gaitskell’s condemnation of the Suez adventure in 1956, to the more recent attacks on Jeremy Corbyn for standing by commitments under international law in relation to Russia, or opposing more bombing as a solution to the problems in Iraq and Syria – the allegation of lack of patriotism is invariably made. These shibboleths cannot be ignored; they must be confronted and exposed for what they are.

More fundamentally, Labour needs to ask what the military is for. The Corbyn leadership was surprised to find quite a few senior defence figures favouring the idea of the military doing disaster relief over starting wars. Speaking at a fringe meeting at the 2019 Labour Conference, one former top civil servant at the Ministry of Defence argued that the skewed priorities of the arms industry were the single biggest threat to Britain’s national defence.

Paul Rogers, Professor in the Department of Peace Studies at Bradford University, broadly agrees. Writing recently in an article headlined “War isn’t the biggest threat to the UK’s security – but is getting the money”, he said, “The UK is going to spend billions more on its military while cutting foreign aid and failing to tackle either pandemic or climate crisis seriously. Does that make you feel safer?”

If you would rather avoid getting involved in a culture war with the Tories over patriotic values and symbols, spare a thought for those already in the middle of it. Ex-military personnel feel exploited both by the Tories’ jingoism and Labour’s eagerness to be associated with patriotic trappings. Ex-soldier Joe Glenton wrote about this recently.

“The new leadership is not concerned about veterans; it is trying to use veterans and the military to bolster its authentocrat credentials,” he declared. He quoted one ex-soldier who said, “We’ve gone through a year where there would be people already leaving [the military], going out the door into complete uncertainty, and the Labour party hasn’t said a word about it. But has found time to have photoshoots with old veterans.”

Another added, “[Labour would do] better pointing out that the lowest paid and most dangerous jobs in the army get done by people from certain areas that had substandard education and a lack of options, who fought wars so others could get rich.”

Labour needs to be wary of accepting the Tory framing of patriotism in terms of glorifying the military. Just recently Home Secretary Priti Patel tried to depict criticism of sub-standard accommodation for refugees in ex-army barracks as unpatriotic. “This site has previously accommodated our brave soldiers and army personnel – it is an insult to say that it is not good enough for these individuals,” she tweeted.

In fact, it was the government who insulted “our brave soldiers” by housing them in Napier barracks in the first place. Seven years ago, a team of planning and environmental experts ruled that the barracks did not “meet acceptable standards of accommodation”, it has now emerged.

Yet the smears go on, and Labour’s attempt to evade them can appear unprincipled. Fearful of looking unpatriotic, Keir Starmer played soft on the Overseas Operations Bill which severely restricted the ability to prosecute serious criminal wrongdoing by UK military personnel operating overseas. The idea that there should be a conflict between patriotism and the international and domestic rule of law – a supposed British value – is palpable nonsense. This fact is understood by many former service personnel, if not by the Labour front bench.

Clearly, Labour needs to redefine patriotism if it is to avoid this kind of morass. It can neither dismiss the issue as a diversion nor accept the Tory white, empire-derived version. A generation ago, New Labour clumsily attempted to rebrand Britain using cultural reference points – Britart, Britpop, ‘Cool Britannia’.

Today the crisis of identity, fuelled and highlighted by economic globalisation, Brexit, regional pressures for greater autonomy and the Tory war on multiculturalism, means that something more substantial may be necessary.

One lesson from recent election defeats is that Labour has to hegemonise every area of policy if it is to win. It is not enough to be seen as ‘good on welfare’ or the ‘best party on the NHS’.  To accept this is to surrender key areas of policy to the Tories and reduce Labour ultimately to a pressure group.

But equally, as the 2019 debacle underlined, good policies alone are insufficient. “For the Many, not the Few worked the first time round,” noted Mark Perryman, “because it was so different to what had come before.  But two years later…Labour needed a new story to tell, and there simply wasn’t one.”

Putting together a clear narrative, a political vision, of what Britain is and where it is going necessarily means confronting the Tory patriotism delusion. It’s not an optional add-on, but central – not just to winning, but to staying on course in office.


Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Comments (14)

  • Doug says:

    Nothing on MSM and toilet papers
    Nothing on corruption of social media, blatant fake news and outright propaganda repeated ad nauseum
    True story from 2019 GE
    I’ve voted Labour all my life but I can’t vote for that Jeremy Corbyn
    Who did you vote for in 2017
    Labour of course, I always vote Labour
    Regulation, 3 strikes and your out of business, along with criminal prosecution, could sort it out, but we never do

  • Fran Heron says:

    Well written and argued. It has convinced me that my instinctive reaction to patrioism has been to reject it for all the reasons Mike Phipps has mentioned. Wrapping oneself in the Union Jack is anathema to me. Queen and country likewise. Hostility to the emblematic flag waving public is amplified because our flag has been hijacked by the Far Right and white supremecists.

    The arguments put forth in this article have jolted me out of complacancy with my views and I agree with so much about the arguments espoused by the need to engage with progressive patriotism and the need to be aware of just what it is and what it is not.

    Thank you for that much-needed jolt.

  • David Hawkins says:

    The left shouldn’t sneer at our military but I do think we have a right to ask what they are for. I think most British people would talk about the defence of British territory including overseas places like the Falklands and Gibraltar. That’s why the very last thing we should be talking about is Trident. Because although I would abolish Trident, most people see it as essential to our defence. Instead of talking about Trident, we should be talking about Cyprus. Why does Britain have sovereign military territory in the middle of the Mediterranean ? It’s ONLY purpose is to facilitate military intervention in the Middle East. And why did a Labour Government commission two massive aircraft carriers whose sole purpose is for military interventions outside Europe ? In the whole post war period there has been meaningful debate about what our military is for. We hear vague statements like “defending Britain’s interests abroad” but never an explanation of what those interests are. We need to ask what are the benefits of of having a neo colonial military and why do other countries like Germany manage perfectly well with much smaller militaries ?
    We shouldn’t get caught up in almost infantile discussions about what percentage of our GDP we spend on our military. Instead we should focus on what functions our military should perform. We need a World class military with the very best equipment to defend British territory and keep our citizens safe. And we need to say that our interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and Libya have achieved exactly the reverse of that. Our citizens are less safe as a result of those interventions.
    We can be proud of our soldiers without sending them off to engage in ill advised interventions throughout the World. Why for example is one of our aircraft carriers sailing around the coast of China annoying the Chinese government ? Would we ever contemplate an invasion ? Of course not ! So why engage in pointless military posturing when we don’t have enough money to fund the NHS ?
    But this will only work if the left has a positive message: a strong defence that takes pride in our soldiers but limits the scope of what we expect them to do.
    We must make clear that we are not weak on defence but we are against wasting money on pointless imperial posturing that actually makes us more at risk from terrorism.
    When the public are better informed, we can start talking about Trident, but Trident should be the very last starting point.

  • Anne says:

    My father represented Queen and country around the world. I was proud to be British, because of the Beatles, it was cool! The older and more aware I became of the realities, the more ashamed. Ashamed of the immorality, ignorance and stupidity of our governments, the greed and corruption, the perpetrators getting away with murder. And mainstream media brainwashing the public to vote for for them without question. The nadir beckons:.spending trillions on Trident, so destructive it can never be used.

  • Naomi Wayne says:

    At last – an article that dips a toe in the water of confronting how we feel about and relate to our country and national identity. It’s a very thoughtful effort, which makes it a great pity the author doesn’t acknowledge the elephant in the room. Our national identity, the calls to our patriotism, refer, when made by the establishment, to us as Brits – citizens of a three and a bit nation federation. This umbrella ‘identity’ is now predominantly claimed by English and (most) Protestant Northern Irish citizens. A majority of Scots self-designate as Scots rather than British, an increasing number of Welsh also self-designate as Welsh rather than British, while identity in N Ireland is still intimately related to religious identity (not necessarily belief). Only the English subsume ourselves as British, and only the English left cannot even bring ourselves to use the word English. So many of my left friends when asked to self describe will say European first, British next, then, maybe, Londoners. I find it extraordinary, and desperately sad, that those of us who are English socialists leave the ‘patriotism’ field wide open as a British patriotism, and to those from Keir Starmer rightwards.

  • Diamond Versi says:

    In this day and age we need to move away from the concept of patriotism and also the idea that Britain is unique. We belong to the global community where every country is important. If Scotland becomes independent then should we consider the Scots to be traitors or are they not patriotic? No, of course not.

  • Janet Crosley says:

    What a breath of fresh air.I have secretly hidden my dislike of patriotism in the usual meaning of the word. I was born during the war, and am expected to be a flag-waving patriot. I am born in the west, I don’t feel proud of it, I could have been born in a far worse situation. The basic values of the LP are what I try to live by, helping others here and abroad, and enjoy it. War is wrong, wasteful of the planet’s resources. Why are we so stupid to make arbitrary divisions, where none are needed. eg breaking up the UK, or EU. We are all human. (Well most of us).

  • Oh dear. What a reactionary swamp we are sinking in. ‘Progressive patriotism’ is an oxymoron. It makes as much sense as talking about an enlightened bigot.

    As Samuel Johnson said ‘Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’.

    When Hannah Arendt was accused by Gershom Scholem, in the wake of the controversy around Eichmann in Jerusalem, of lacking ‘Ahavath Yisrael’ (love of the Jewish people) her response was that she loved her family and friends but not a whole people. Love of Jews means hatred or a distaste for non-Jews.

    So it is with love of one’s country. It means you don’t love other countries. Let’s call it by its name. Nationalism. It is the opposite of socialism. It’s putting lipstick on a pig.

    Mike Phipp’s superficial article fails to posit any context to a patriotism that led to 30+ million deaths in the Bengal famine or the Drogheda massacres.

    It is just such patriotism that led Germany’s Social Democrats to vote for war credits in 1914. It means a crossing of class lines. It means a betrayal of all the internationalism of Marx and Engels that the working class had nothing to lose except their chains.

    Patriotism means being bound hand and chains to your ruling class. When working class people say they love ‘their’ country I ask how much of it they own. When they talk of a British culture I ask whether that is the culture of contempt that our rulers have for those beneath them.

    Yes the British working class have always been patriotic, born of the crumbs of imperialism. That was their achilles heel .

    So when Anne says that her father represented Queen and country I have to disagree. Her dad represented ICI and BP and if he had been killed he would have died for the sake of their profits. That is why you see so many servicemen amongst those begging on the streets. When our ruling class has squeezed all it can out of its working class recruits it abandons them at the drop of a hat.

    As for representing the Queen that may be true but did her dad ask who the Queen represented? It certainly wasn’t him.

    When political charlatans like RBL talk about a ‘progressive patriotism’ then we can see through them and their lack of class politics.

    I prefer to pay tribute to the progressive internationalists who gave their lives for the Republican cause, be it in Ireland or in Spain during the 1930’s.

    I’m sorry that JVL saw fit to print an article which legitimises all that is worst in society.

  • George Wilmers says:

    The delusion lies in the very idea of a “progressive patriotism”. Patriotism by its very nature involves the “othering” of the foreigner. In the last hundred years the only examples where patriotism has played a socially progressive role, and then only for a limited time, are those of peoples who struggled to liberate themselves from brutal colonial oppression. Where such colonial oppression does not exist, patriotism is just an ideological subterfuge to turn transform the resentment of the working classes of their material conditions into xenophobia and chauvinism, to persuade them of their common interests with their exploiters, and to isolate them from working class struggles abroad.

    If “progressive patriotism” in a country which has not suffered colonial oppression were a real possibility, as the article seems to suggest, the English would not have to invent it: some other people would surely have discovered it by now. English patriotism is in its essence, as it has always been, nothing more than the last refuge of the scoundrel class.

  • steve mitchell says:

    Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. As true today as it was when it was written. Nye Bevan used to taunt the Tories about wrapping themselves in the flag. Awarding themselves medals for battles lost. Nothing has changed much. The Left have always had to defend themselves against accusations of not being patriotic. Great politicians like Bevan knew how to put the accusers down in debate. Over the last 41 years the Tories have presided over the destruction of the industrial base. There isn’t one world class company in the UK today. The blame lies with the Tories . Labour have lots of ammunition to show just how treacherous Conservative philosophy is. Orwell in his famous essay in 1941 wrote that business had nothing to fear from Hitler and Fascism except if it was a Jewish business. Lord Rothermere, owner of the Daily Mail described Hitler just a few months before war broke out in 1939 as “that German gentlemen” .

  • bob cannell says:

    When competing against an over powering opponent and you know you cannot win ‘their’ game, fight a different game. Change the rules, change the game. I always did this in business up against slow moving corporate monsters. The Vietcong did it against the US. The Americans did it against the British. The Indians did against the British.
    It is the height of incompetent stupidity and a dereliction of responsibility to fall for the Death or Glory trap. Like Scargill did to the miners. There is no Glory in a Glorious Defeat. To paraphrase Trump ‘Do whatever you need to Win, coming second is for losers’. We owe it to our people not to lose.

  • Amanda Sebestyen says:

    Tony and Steve, I’d like to correct your historical understanding of Samuel Johnson’s quote about patriotism. Johnson, as a reverent Tory and Royalist, resented the ‘patriot party’ the Whigs for invoking brotherhood and liberty rather than rank and obedience. It was often a limited kind of brotherhood as Whigs were strong on property and warfare… whereas Johnson opposed slavery and was kind to destitute friends. Nonetheless if push came to shove and we had to choose, better a Whig patriot than a Tory mystic imo.

  • Sheelagh Strawbridge says:

    Excellent article, spot on.

  • DJ says:

    Having read this article I am still at a loss to see what could possibly be progressive about British patriotism. The outcome of rallying behind the flag seems to have ushered in an English nationalist government. The Tory Brexit project has weakened the Labour movement and served to divide the working class. The sad fact is that many on the left have failed to grasp this. Internationalism has been subordinated to notions of a national road to socialism. Talk about taking “back control” is meaningless if you are low paid or unemployed. Why dignify racism by redefining it as “progressive patriotism”?

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