Recourse to patriotism betrays a poverty of ideas. Like the old Yes, Prime Minister scene where Hacker has nothing to say to the party conference so has to resort to “Britain’s place in the world”, “standing up for Britain” waving the flag, etc. It’s no surprise then that as the British left finds itself at its intellectual nadir so many see Labour’s lack of patriotism as the cause of much of its woe. What is somewhat surprising is that clever people like Tristram Hunt are amongst those advocating it.
Labour, nor indeed anyone on the left, can ever win a patriot game. That’s not to say that left wing people aren’t, or shouldn’t be, proud of their national identity (after I write this I’m going out to buy haggis for the Burns Supper I throw every year in Dublin). But patriotism is not a quality that wins the left any elections, nor is it a quality that the left should find remotely attractive in its leaders.
In Scotland, Jim Murphy believed that it was necessary for Scottish Labour to wrap itself in tartan in order to win back voters from the SNP – as though voters whose politics were defined by their Scottishness would ever look anywhere other than the nationalists. We all know how well that worked.
Does anyone seriously think that voters who make their choice on the basis of how patriotic they are will ever look to Labour? Beyond the cynicism of the fact that appeals to patriotism won’t win Labour any votes, there is a more fundamental point. The left should be fundamentally opposed to patriotism as a political virtue.
For individuals, patriotism is a good thing, or at the very least not a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with a belief that the community to which a person belongs is something to be proud of. Emily Thornberry’s sneer at a house with a Flag of St George hanging from it was, arguably rightly, portrayed as the view of a condescending London liberal. There was certainly nothing wrong with that household’s patriotism. We should be respectful of people’s pride in their identity, whatever that may be.
However, at a political level, there is something that sits extremely uncomfortably with this lefty in the view that there’s something intrinsic in Scots or Britons that makes us “special”. How on earth does patriotism as a political position square with the belief that we’re all born fundamentally equal?
For all his failings, I don’t recall Tony Blair doing too much patriotic flag waving, while John Major was romanticising a Britain of “long shadows on cricket grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers.” We all know how well that went for John Major, too.
In Scotland, where nationalism is undoubtedly rampant, the left should be asking nationalists how on earth do we redistribute wealth from the world’s richest to the world’s poorest by erecting political barriers between them? For the left in the rest of the UK we should tell the political patriots to hang flags from their houses – then get on with something more important.