[This article contains some hyperbole. It is intended as a semi-polemic.]
In the wake of Brexit there has been a reinvigoration of the worst elements of national pride, fuelling Nationalism, xenophobia and racism. During the referendum campaigns the Remain camp struggled to effectively combat the rhetoric and, it seems, attractive claims coming from the Leave campaign, primarily around immigration. Though perhaps not representative of the majority of those who voted leave, a vocal number voted to leave the European Union explicitly because of immigration. And perhaps overegged by the use of social media, there has nevertheless been an increase in the prominence of outwardly xenophobic and racist sentiment, seemingly legitimised by the UK (or perhaps, more accurately, the English and Welsh) electorate’s vote to leave the European Union. The explanations for the prominence of immigration as a major factor in the EU debate have been many. A recurring explanation from the centre-left is that immigration was a hook upon which those in deindustrialised, badly-off, austerity-hit areas could hang their hats. People are worried about the negative impact of immigration on their communities, and all parties must acknowledge this. The implication is that Britain is no longer Great. A party of government, to borrow a phrase from Donald Trump, must make Britain Great again.
Many within Labour have argued for a long time that we must have the debate about the ‘forgotten’ white working class, national pride and the prospects for fostering a progressive sense of patriotism. It is common to hear that Labour’s weak spot is articulating a sense of pride in Britain. I argue that patriotism is, by and large, regressive, especially in the sense it is usually employed in the UK. If the left must have an appeal to patriotism, it must first be redefined wholesale (which is addressed in part in this OL piece).
For me, patriotism – as pride in one’s country – is fundamentally misplaced. By this, I don’t mean that one cannot feel grateful for being born and raised in a certain place, or even proud of some of the achievements of one’s country. But to be proud of one’s nationality through an accident of birth is simply to conform to Shaw’s famous quote: ‘Patriotism is, fundamentally, a conviction that a particular country is the best in the world because you were born in it’. Why is having pride in one’s country of birth any more rational than having pride in one’s county of birth, for example? In Benedict Anderson’s most famous book, Imagined Communities, he argues that the nation is socially constructed; it exists only in the imagination of the populace. This is because ‘members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion’. Nowhere is this more pertinent than in Britain. Successive governments have all faced the difficulty of instilling ‘Britishness’. This is particularly difficult because Britain itself is comprised of three distinct nations (England, Wales and Scotland). Northern Ireland, usually left out of such considerations for a number of reasons, forms the United Kingdom. Because Britain is a container for three nations with separate yet intertwined histories, ‘Britishness’ is usually a synonym for liberal values. Cameron, in 2014, defined British values as ‘A belief in freedom, tolerance of others, accepting personal and social responsibility, respecting and upholding the rule of law’, arguing that these were ‘as British as the Union Flag, as football, as fish and chips’. Of course, he forgot warm beer.
To say that these values are what makes the British British is to suggest that the British have a monopoly on liberal values. A national identity surely must be unique? But how is this different to the values of Ireland, of the United States, or even to the majority of European states? Indeed, The European Parliament itself states that ‘The Union is founded on the values of respect for human dignity, liberty, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights’. A union with which the majority of the British electorate voted to disassociate.
Patriotism is at least in part responsible for Brexit. A sense that in the modern world Britain can go it alone, and in a pinch rely on the Commonwealth – a shrine to the legacy of Empire – for support. A vote to leave, for many, was a vote to get their country back. Nigel Farage declared that the 24th June should be known as ‘Independence Day’. These simple and passionate salvos of hyperbole appeal directly to the imagined community. To Rule Britannia, God Save the Queen, Britain as Great Britain. The UK, as an island nation, has always been separate to Europe rhetorically, and as such has always had a sense of exceptionalism that has allowed it to keep Europe at arm’s length. This can be seen in the referendum debate: on both sides, the question or conversation was never about how the UK can contribute to Europe, or how the UK and Europe can co-operate for the good of the continent. It was always about what’s in it for me? How can I get the biggest return for the smallest investment? Britain, in this sense, has always been ‘special’.
The far right within the UK and across Europe took Brexit as a political victory, and it has opened space for far right politics to occupy. Regardless of the arguments for a left-wing exit of the EU, Brexit has been a vehicle for the right. It is here where a more benign patriotism (in the sense of a more superficial pride in one’s country) is being transformed into a pernicious and dangerous Nationalism. Patriotism and Nationalism are only tacitly separate. Indeed, Nationalism can be understood as the political and ideological codification and enforcement of national pride, in the promotion of national superiority. A salient example is the notion that all incomers to the UK must assimilate and take on ‘our’, supposedly homogenous, way of life. Somewhat ironic, considering that British values at their heart uphold pluralism and the primacy of the individual to pursue their own idea of the ‘good life’.
Nationalism actively needs patriotism. It focuses people’s pride and, more importantly, anger over how they perceive their country has changed. Accepting patriotism without first breaking it down and rebuilding it will always have the left on the back foot because it implies promises the left can’t (or, at least to my mind, shouldn’t) keep. It is through this pride for an imagined and romanticised community of people who are bonded together – in the current example by a struggle against a faceless European bureaucracy that restricts British independence – that more dangerous notions of superiority will grow. ‘Get out, we voted Leave’.
This being said, I can see why it is politically astute to have an appeal to patriotism, particularly in the current climate. So, if we must have a vision of patriotism it needs to avoid appealing to the imagined community, and rather focus on concrete achievements. Rather than being insular and fostering exceptionalism, it must prioritise solidarity and internationalism. We are proud of helping our neighbours. We are proud of being a welcoming and accepting people. We are not ‘tolerant’; one tolerates an annoyance, hoping it will go away. We must, especially in the post-Brexit wilderness, emphasise that in this era of globalisation, Britain (and England, and Yorkshire, and London, and Cornwall etc.) is simply a geographical container, in which reside millions of people who likely have more in common with some of their international neighbours than they may with some people living on the same street.