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Patriotism and the left

“The workers have no country,” Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels famously wrote in The Communist Manifesto. “We cannot take from them what they have not got.” It’s an attitude that has long prevailed among a large number of socialists, though by no means all. When World War I erupted three decades after Marx’s death, many of his European followers wrapped themselves in their respective flags and cheered on as millions of working-class people were sent by  the Continent’s ruling elites to slaughter each other.

The left case against nationalism is straightforward. Workers across the globe share a common exploitation at the hands of an increasingly global big business elite. Nationalism means lining up with the same people who exploit them. Rather than submitting to the divide-and-rule  policy of the nation state, they should fight alongside other workers who, like them, exist to enrich the people at the top. Socialists will often say that a British worker has more in common with a French or German worker than they do with their own boss. It’s a powerful point, although the cultural and language barriers probably make it too abstract for most.

Nationalism has certainly served as a convenient weapon at the disposal of ruling elites to keep ‘the masses’ on-side. All sorts of unpleasant dictatorships have stirred up nationalist fervour to prop themselves up, from the old Stalinist regimes of Eastern Europe to today’s embattled Middle Eastern despots. It’s been pretty helpful for elected right-wing governments sinking in the polls, too, as any British socialist who can recall the suffocating jingoism of the Falklands War will tell you.

Even if you take the watered-down version of nationalism that you could call patriotism (though where one ends and the other begins is an unresolved debate), you still have the problem of its profound irrationality. Why love a country more than another simply on the basis of which bit of soil you happen to have been born on?

But embracing a proud internationalism has not been without a political cost for the radical left. The right has few more effective sticks to beat the left with than its supposed lack of patriotism. ‘Go back to Moscow’ was once the knuckle-dragging right’s favourite refrain to a socialist (or, in some cases, anyone vaguely to the left of Genghis Khan).

Or take the most effective electoral machine in human history: the British Conservative Party. From the advent of universal suffrage, it had no choice but to win the support of a sizeable chunk of working-class people if it was to govern. Appealing to nationalist, jingoist and xenophobic sentiments has certainly always helped. When the Tories introduced the draconian Aliens Bill in 1905, they tapped into a growing backlash against Irish and Jewish immigrants. Merseyside used to be an unlikely heartland of working-class Toryism, not least because of Conservative anti-Catholic bashing. The general Conservative embrace of ‘King and Country’ has always gone down well with a fair section of the population.

Are working-class people the most patriotic group in British society? It’s an interesting question, although I’m sure the lower-middle-class Daily Mail-reading population have a pretty solid claim. In any case, there are tens of millions of working-class people and their views are diverse. But it’s certainly true that the working-class kids I grew up with in Stockport inherited a stronger sense of patriotism than I did from a left-wing, middle-class family. Not that it was particularly ideological: football was its most likely manifestation.

One of the nastiest and most common caricatures of English working-class people is of some Sun-reading, skin-headed, tattooed thug living in a terraced house, a St. George’s flag fluttering from a window. In reality, only a small minority of working-class people will flaunt the flag in this way: but it’s certainly a sight you’re more likely to see out in a council estate in Dagenham than in one of the side-streets off Islington’s Upper Street.

There is one explanation for this phenomenon that is both fascinating and plausible. Could it be that the demonization of working-class Britain has fuelled a crisis of identity in many communities? With working-class pride having taken a severe beating over the last 30 years, could it be that English, Welsh and Scottish nationalism has filled the vacuum?

Sam Tarry is one of Barking and Dagenham’s leading anti-racist campaigners, as well as one of the most promising young figures of today’s labour movement. “We’ve seen a switch into a sort of English nationalism, and you’ll see a lot of the white families deliberately hanging out the English flag  from their windows, almost as though they’re staking out the territory, in a slightly aggressive, non-inclusive way,” he put it to me before the last general election.

For me, there is an element there which I can’t quite put my finger on about this sense of what it means to be from a working-class background: what it means to be English, and where your sense of identity and purpose and direction actually now come from, because of that decline of those traditional kinds of social structures that gave working-class people their sense of purpose and identity, and kinship and brotherhood through the trade union movement.

Scottish and Welsh nationalism have, on the whole, proven more inclusive than the English variant: though both owe their rise, in part, to Thatcherism and Labour’s sharp shift to the right.

But all this raises interesting questions about how the left should respond. Is it possible to stake a claim over a sort of non-jingoist left patriotism?

The left could expose the right’s ‘love of Britain’ with a simple question: ‘Which Britain’? In reality, right-wing patriotism is a love of the ‘achievements’ of ruling elites: of monarchs and aristocrats, of the upper crust of British society oppressing foreign peoples while finding time to do down the masses at home.

Could the left claim a ‘love’ of the other Britain: of people fighting against injustice and oppression? We could champion a British tradition of rebellion: like the Peasants’ Revolt; the English Revolution – the first European revolution of its kind, which spawned the Levellers and the Diggers; the Chartists, who were the world’s first working-class political movement; the struggle for trade union rights; the sufragettes – and so on and so forth. If nothing else, it would be a great inspiration for would-be rebels today.

It would be a powerful retort to those who paint the left as British self-loathers. “We do embrace British traditions,” we could say. “Just not their traditions.” And, so that it doesn’t end up as some distorted left variant of jingoism, we could put it in the context of other similar great struggles across the globe.

I’m not asking the left to drape itself in the Union Jack, but even so, I’d expect some to be uncomfortable with any strategy that doesn’t confine itself to promoting international solidarity. But, with so many of the left’s natural support base as patriotic as ever, could this be a radical response?

11 Comments

  1. Phil says:

    Could the left claim a ‘love’ of the other Britain

    Tony Benn’s been saying this kind of thing for decades, and the radical end of the folk song revival had been saying it for some time before him. Look at Sydney Carter’s “John Ball” (1981) or Leon Rosselson’s “World turned upside down” (1975) – or, going back further, Wesker’s “Chips with everything” (1962), where the National Service squaddies, left to their own devices, go into a menacing rendition of “The Cutty Wren” (a proper old folk song, although I don’t think it’s really as radical as it seems to be in the play).

    I think it’s a fine idea, but for whatever reason it hasn’t had much success up to now.

  2. Ian Campbell says:

    The ties of ‘kith and kin’ have always been stronger than the vague aspirations of ‘international brotherhood’. Patriotism does not have to be jingoistic or xenophobic. Just as charity begins at home, so do patriots understand that other people in other nations also love their own country. Patriotism is one oof the planks of a civilised society – or would be if it were allowed to be. What patriot wants to trash his own country, or cares nothing for his own countrymen, or does not want others to feel welcome and share his pride in his own country? Our families come first, our nation second.

  3. Barry (The Elder) says:

    Is it possible for the democratic left in the future, to fight for democracy in England? ie: An English Parliament. I as a person of England have been denied the democratic right to vote for a Parliament that represents me and my country. What are the left’s proposals to equal the democratic deficit England faces?

  4. Stephen Gash says:

    Despite some good points, this is nevertheless an irritating article, in some ways.

    It has a hackneyed pop at English nationalism with the inevitable, but erroneous statement “Scottish and Welsh nationalism have, on the whole, proven more inclusive than the English variant”.

    This is utter tripe. When Labour’s policy of spreading asylum seekers around the UK sent a couple of bus-loads to Glasgow, they were sent straight back to England with a clear “it’s nort aaa problaam Jimmeh”. Scotland’s token to multiculturalism is designing a tartan for whatever minority group or another, with a clear message “yeel be Shcortish whether yee like it or nort”.

    Welsh nationalism has now stopped hypocritically burning English owned cottages and restrains itself to a whining in the hillsides for more English dosh.

    Public buildings in Scotland fly the Scottish flag, yet the Scottish MPs not able to decide matters in their own constituencies have ensured that the Union Jack is flown over public buildings in England.

    Britishness is rammed down the throats of the English, while Scottishness and Welshness are encouraged in those respective countries.

    Both the British National Party and the National Front have the Union Jack as their emblems. Yet the British media, especially the BBC and the left falsely associate both these parties solely with the English. Some of the worst British nationalist thugs hail from Wales and Scotland.

    The English retreated from the the Union Jack because of its racist taint, so the Anglophobes chased them saying the English flag was a racist symbol. Risibly, the left and the BBC mocked English nationalists by correctly identifying St George as not being English. So the English are to be mocked for having a patron saint who is not English, but are simultaneously racist for flying his flag.

    The fact that St Andrew was a Jew who never set foot in Scotland is not a fact used to batter the Scots. However, burning crosses is a Scottish tradition and the symbol of modern neo-Nazis is the Celtic cross.

    However, it is the English singled out for censure.

    I notice the article made one reference to the Irish, typically portraying them as victims. Irish nationalism has spawned arguably the first fascist party ever elected in the British Isles, namely Sinn Fein, and certainly one of the most violent. Romanian gypsies got short shrift in N. Ireland. The irish populate the world spewing their anti-English bile, yet are as hostile to immigrants as any other people. It is they, more than anybody else who have hyphened the American identity. All the same they must be “the victims”.

    I am an ardent nationalist and associate with nationalists across the world. I love foreigners, because they are foreign. I want to go to Denmark and mix with Danes because that is what they are. I would like to go to India to see India and Indian culture. I have no designs on invading their countries.

    I do not want to go to other countries to discover a multi-culti hotchpotch that resembles England. I oppose globalism and rampant capitalism.

    Internationalism has invariably proved to be more oppressive than nationalism. Few so-called nationalists have not invaded another country. Dictatorhips have unarguably existed under a nationalist banner such as Spain and Chile without resorting to invasion elsewhere. However, they were arguably less harmful than the socialist expansion of the nazis or communist expansion of China in Tibet and the Soviet Union in Europe.

    I oppose all totalitarian doctrines, whether it be a theocratic despotism or political regime. No religion should be protected in law, in my opinion.

    I am a social democrat, which is different to democratic socialism. I prefer the John Lewis model of business practice. To me that is the English way of doing things. I like mutuality and the old Co-op philosophy, but progress requires a mixed economy. Kraft and Nestle are anathema to me.

    I am however, a nationalist. A country provides people with security and a sense of belonging. An identity. Nationalism coupled to democracy is as near perfect solution as we will ever achieve.

  5. Michael says:

    ‘you still have the problem of its profound irrationality. Why love a country more than another simply on the basis of which bit of soil you happen to have been born on?’

    And yet I, as something of a lefty, find a statement such as that entirely irrational. This is not to endorse parochialist nation-state nationalisms – it is to call out the cold irrationalisms of the self-proclaimed rationalists.

    ‘“We do embrace British traditions,” we could say. “Just not their traditions.” ‘

    If your emphasis really is on the spirit of rebellion and the battle ‘against injustice and oppression’, then you might just well find that ‘their’ history is more interspersed with ‘our’ history than I expect you’d care to admit. For which reason, leave the silly sectarianism aside.

  6. Geoff, England says:

    ‘Forward thinking for the democratic left.’

    Six words that are a complete and utter oxymoron. I f you don’t know what ‘oxymoron’ means, blame the education system of the last few decades.

  7. The question this article begs is which patriotism or nationalism? The author seems incapable of distinguishing between England and Britain, moving seamlessly between a critique of territorial English flag-displaying working-class families and the argument that the Left should reaffirm a British tradition of working-class revolt against injustice and oppression, all the examples of which are in fact English.

    Is the sub-text of this that English nationalism = bad and British patriotism = good? If so, the author isn’t advocating anything that the Left haven’t been doing for the last 15 years: castigating the ‘exclusive’ English and exalting an ‘inclusive’ Britishness that must by definition exclude (only) Englishness.

  8. Tim Pendry says:

    Is the ‘official’ Left finally getting it … ‘Britain’ has been an empire according to its own elite’s conception since John Dee invented the idea for Queen Elizabeth.

    The English population is the last indigenous people to be liberated (now added to by a migrant population which it did not choose to have landed on it but which it now broadly accepts as co-victims of the system). An English Parliament certainly can’t do worse than that failure currently on the banks of the Thames.

    From this perspective, the ‘official’ Left has always been very conservative. English and English-adoptive (for we are colour-blind) and Scots and Welsh and Irish and all the sub-groups thereof can live together perfectly happily if only we can all get rid of the thin layer of globalising ‘internationalists’ who have oppressed the peoples of the world, first as imperialists and then as communists.

    A sense of place and of past is not a bad thing so long as it is not at the expense of the future or expressed as ‘essentialism’. Nationalists are no better or worse than feminists and racists in that respect, so maybe we should be ‘personists’ who are connected to a community and maybe it is time for respect for the sense of locality embedded in ‘these islands’ and in parts of these islands. This is not centralised state nationalism or thuggish racism by any means.

    The international/national socialist dichotomy is of no use to anyone in the post-industrial internet age. A ‘national feeling’ of the Left and a sense of place, however, might get us out of the hands of the new breed of ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ … the floating middle class of public intellectuals, bankers and ‘international community’ wonks that underpins the culture of Davos.

  9. Les Taylor says:

    Owen, congratulations on broaching a subject that for many on the Left is pretty much taboo – acknowledging the existence of nationalism, and its impact on Socialism. I must take you to task for using the words “Britain” and “England” interchangeably – this is a tactic used by the British establishment quite a lot – they say “here” “this country” and “the regions” a lot, and give the impression they mean Britain, when in fact the British government of occupation now rules only in England, as many issues are now devolved. Just because the British government sits in London does not make it English: if it were, Scottish, Welsh and Ulster MP’s would not be allowed to vote here, would they? And yet vote they did only recently, to bring in higher fees for English university students, whilst students in their own country enjoy subsidised or even free university education, courtesy of the English taxpayer.

    Britain, like the EU, is a costly artificial construct of formerly sovereign nations with different identities, and both Unions are now in the process of disintegration – and as an Englishman I hope I live to see the death of both, just as the eastern European nations prayed for the fall of the USSR.

    Is it any wonder the English working class are starting to develop a siege mentality? They have been, and still are, ruled by lazy, corrupt Labour and Tory British politicians (how many MP’s declare themselves “English” rather than British?), who have taken it in turns to either sell off or destroy our manufacturing base, as well as allowing a level of immigration that has stretched our housing supply and public services to breaking point and changed the very character of many English towns and cities. The Left lost its credibility amongst the English working class when it became apparent that they (the Left) were more interested in pandering to the wishes of newcomers and minorities than the indigenous people who prop the whole system up with their taxes. We’re not happy about “multi-culti” either if you must know – there wasn’t much wrong with English culture, why fix what ain’t broke? If you’re a guest and you don’t like it, don’t stay!

    This identity politics has been a disaster for the Left, as they have lost the support of what is still the largest demographic group across most of England – with the exception of those English towns and cities where the indigenous English are now the minority!
    You make the statement that the Scots and Welsh Nationalists seem more “inclusive” than their English counterparts, but left out the fact that England has borne the brunt of immigration under Labour, as the above statement about demographics shows. It’s easy to boast about inclusiveness, when you’ve not had to practice it.

    Whatever Marx may have said, the English working classes want a country, one where they have a proper say in how it is run, where their children are educated not brainwashed, where jobs and housing are not impossible dreams, where big business is kept under control, where they can live out their days in peace and quiet without fear of teenage gangsters. Labour had thirteen years to fix these problems, but left England in a worse state, and worse off, than they found it. Sorry if all this makes hard reading for you, but the English will have a hard time forgiving the Left for the mess it left us in – can’t see them trusting you, or the Tories, any time soon.

  10. Geoff, England says:

    Excellent post by Les Taylor. Sums up what I and, I suspect, millions of working-class English people feel about the LibLabCon fascists.

  11. tally says:

    and when the welsh and scots fly their flags from their homes I suppose they are not staking out their territories?

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