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Some initial thoughts on Labour, patriotism and Tim Soutphommasane

It has been the contention of some that the Englishness we speak of today is rather bleak and shrill, “based on loss and abandonment”, as Jon Cruddas recently put it. But the nation today will be in the throes of national ecstasy, nearing the closure of the Olympic games with 29 gold medals under our belt and a glorious victory from Mo Farah in the 5000m race.

The Conservatives will want to capitalise on what Ellie Robinson recently called the games’ “bounce”, but it is an irony too far for some that Michael Gove, the Education Secretary and who Michael Portillo recently called a ‘serious candidate for the future’, has approved the selling off of 21 school playing fields – one of which is doing so to pay for classroom upgrades before it becomes an academy, Gove’s flagship idea for schools, in September.

The Conservatives started off aiming so high. They were the party of big society and a one-nation grouping who were slightly dubious about the individualism that embraced the post-Thatcher landscape. Now at a time of great British celebration we remember that this party is instead the one of sell-offs, privatisation, NHS confusion, welfare state disgrace and imbued with a subserviance to free market, predatory capitalism opposed to any appeals to conservatism.

It does little other than make the efforts of some in the Conservative party, who wanted to detoxify the image and re-brand it as one focused on building stronger communities, look destined for failure. Too wedded is the party to Big Capitalist dogma that it can’t possibly be able to make good on its promises of making sure we’re all in it together.

This offers Labour space to renew some of its commitments to community in a way that justifiably visits themes the Tories usually have in their political toolbox. One of those themes is patriotism.

Tim Soutphommasane is a young Australian academic whose book Reclaiming Patriotism has caught the attention of Jon Cruddas, leading Labour’s policy review. He has met with Ed Miliband and has been dubbed a new guru by George Eaton of the New Statesman.

In his native Australia he observed the conversations that were being had by the UK Labour party around Blue Labour and commented that it was one the Australian Labor party ought to have had a long time ago.

For him the political left should have an unapologetic appeal to patriotism. With the economic agenda of cutting for growth being constantly derided, the left have an opportunity themselves to offer their own solutions. In Soutphommasane’s own words, “the task of rebuilding and reshaping the British economy after the financial crisis … is something that could be a patriotic project”.

But what defines this patriotism? If, as Soutphommasane aims to show, one’s own country ought to be appealed to, when right or wrong, can this actually be called patriotic at all? After all when we think of patriotism we may think of an unconditional love towards one’s country.

Though for him patriotism is about having a collective narrative which itself has positive consequences for the community experience. In the interview with George Eaton, Soutphommasane has opined that in order to have a sense of “fellow feeling”, which is key to pulling together in a way that’s vital for the working of something akin to big society, the UK needs a collective identity.

This inevitably leads him to a critique of multiculturalism. For him this has only led to communities within communities, doing very little to open up commonalities essential for community harmony. And it is this, for Cruddas, that is crucial for a nation-building project that will frame the next Labour party’s policy review.

The problem here is in how we enable this collective identity. If it is to reflect the mood of the nation then this identity may run the risk of picking up on various prejudices that stir the country. We will have to just let it be, if this is the case, but then how do we challenge that identity if we don’t find it necessarily politically palatable?

On the other hand, if we can be optimistic that the mood of the nation is generally positive, pluralistic and even progressive, if small ‘c’ conservative, then what Soutphommasane is aiming to apply to the UK political scene is a variant of civic nationalism (like much of Scottish nationalism) predicated upon tolerance and community empowerment.

What is different about Soutphommasane’s vision is that it sees genuine political worth in the left maintaining a patriotic bent, rather than it being merely a reflective and contemplative affair. If pursuing a patriotism that encourages common feeling towards one’s fellow citizens in their communities and beyond, then surely it is something we can all accommodate for.

2 Comments

  1. Roger says:

    ‘It has been the contention of some that the Englishness we speak of today is rather bleak and shrill, “based on loss and abandonment”, as Jon Cruddas recently put it. But the nation today will be in the throes of national ecstasy, nearing the closure of the Olympic games with 29 gold medals under our belt and a glorious victory from Mo Farah in the 5000m race’.

    And there you have half the problem (and I’d suggest half the solution) right there: the perpetual fuzziness between ‘Englishness’ and Britishness.

    Give the English a parliament of their own – which as a new assembly could hardly be elected by anything other than PR and thus need not be Tory-dominated – and reduce the powers of the UK parliament to foreign affairs and defence and whole new possibilities become available to radically redefine patriotism.

    Deny it and we are left in an ever more ramshackle state where central power continues to be held by what Gerry Hassan calls a South East Regionalist Party serving the interests of the City of London.

  2. James Moore says:

    I thought it was the British team that won 29 medals and not the English team. It is this constant inability to see all the other people who are non English within our population who are either ethnically Welsh, Scots, Irish, black, Asian, and indeed mixed persons who are the largest after the Scots not to mention all the other types that makes us British. As a mixed person I have more English blood then Ed does but he seems to have the high ground now that he is English and people like myself are not! Give me a break from this routine shit stirring politicians like to get into to please whom a dwindling racist right ! Its time we stopped this confusion, we are all products of 350 years of a British empire who created us all and that should be celebrated not repressed

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