Following Keir Starmer’s conference speech last week, patriotism and what it means is being much talked about. This is often seen as a “difficult” topic for those with progressive views. People ranging from liberals through to socialists via social democrats are often, these days, accused of not being patriotic by those of a more conservative disposition and certain overwrought, well-lunched, sections of the media. This is, of course, nonsense. For people who are supposedly not patriotic, progressives spend a great deal of time and energy trying to improve the country they’re all supposed to dislike or even (if you believe certain tabloids) hate.
It is true that progressives can have a problem with patriotism in the way it is often expressed in Britain, especially in England. This is because it is usually very narrowly defined around a few potent symbols such as the monarchy, the flag and the military and can seem hostile to those beyond these shores. This sort of patriotism often demands an unquestioning “my country right or wrong” acquiescence from its subjects (reminder: we are not citizens). Anything less than fulsome support for the country as it is now and, crucially, for the history that brought us to this point (no matter how grim some of that may be) is often twisted and wilfully misconstrued as unpatriotic.
Simply parroting this inadequate “traditional” definition of patriotism is clearly self-defeating for people who want to see meaningful change. It just reinforces the status quo and the narrative that everything is fine when it clearly isn’t. So, what to do about all this if you are a progressive and you do love this country? The best thing is to tackle it head on. Do not give an inch.
Ask those who may accuse you of a lack of patriotism what is so patriotic about growing food insecurity and homelessness, about all the deep structural inequalities and desperate poverty that are now being laid bare by Covid19? How is this a success? How is this anything to be proud of? How can a genuine patriot ignore the widespread injustices and material deprivations that scar too many of our communities and tarnish Britain’s standing in the world.
To not engage with the politics of patriotism, to point blank deny that it is an issue which many people in Britain feel strongly about, is not a credible strategy. Progressives who feel uncomfortable talking about patriotism because it’s “not their issue” or “not their terrain”, or because their political inspirations are more internationalist, are meekly conceding wholly unnecessary ground to their political opponents. And they are missing a huge opportunity to promote their values, views and policies which are desperately needed to influence the debate around what sort of country we really want to be.
Keir Starmer is right to address the issue of patriotism. However, to say we’re all patriots now, and just leave it at that, is woefully insufficient. When talking about patriotism, progressives have to make one very simple case, repeatedly and relentlessly: that to have a country we can all feel rightly proud of we must reduce our shameful level of inequality, we must eliminate poverty and we must not leave anyone behind. This has to be a country of fairness and justice, else it is no country at all worth the name.
Co-founder of The Equality Trust
This is a guest blog and the views of the author are not necessarily those of The Equality Trust