Socialist patriotism

Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of not being patriotic; Owen Jones is concerned that not enough is being done to challenge this. But what should be done — by Corbyn and the left generally? What follows is an attempt to answer this question.

First, a philosophical point. People have many different and overlapping loyalties and senses of belonging. When my little boy climbed a mountain the other day I was proud of him for this achievement. This did not mean that I would disparage any other child’s achievement from a different family. My boy is mine and I would do anything for him — it is entirely natural and right that I should put him first, be proud of him when he succeeds and sometimes ashamed of his bad behaviour. That is what love and loyalty and belonging mean; all families are like that. Extending outwards, we can have similar feelings and connections in relation to our city, supporting our local team; or to our religion or race or region — north versus south for example — or to our country. We should not be scared of our belonging and loyalty just because it maps onto a nation state. Being patriotic about one’s country need not imply that you are bigoted about someone else’s.

Second, a historical point. There is absolutely no reason that patriotism should be more associated with the right than with the left. This is a historical accident to do with the history of England. In France, patriotism is more strongly associated with the left. This is because in the French revolution the radical sans culottes and peasantry fought off the combined might of reactionary invading powers that had been summoned by the Bourbon monarchy. Again, in the second world war, the right were happy to reach an accommodation with the Nazis under Vichy, whereas the left started the French resistance. In Russia the Bolsheviks were the patriotic party defending the motherland against the White Russians — an alliance between the aristocracy and invading imperialist forces. In Britain, the problem is that patriotism is associated with imperialism — with the Jingoistic mass demonstrations in favour of rearmament before the first word war, with the domination of India, Ireland and much of Africa. Joseph Chamberlain promised jobs for all the working poor in the empire, and boosted conservative support among the working classes. The Union Jack became associated with “our empire”; even the downtrodden poor could feel some pride and superiority. But it was not always like this; back in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the progressive and revolutionary forces were associated with patriotic fervour, and the royalist and reactionary Catholic forces were linked to foreign powers and betraying the country to Spain and the Pope. Cromwell was a revolutionary regicide and a patriot who defeated the Dutch in two wars and established British trading and naval supremacy.

So when our pride and loyalty and belonging does map onto a nation state, what exactly is it that we belong to and feel loyal to? For the right this may well be the history of imperial domination, the monarchy, the power of the British state. But there is much to be proud of that does not involve oppressing others, and that resonates far more deeply in our culture. Just to list a few things: football, the English village game that became the world game, and other games such as cricket and snooker; the incredibly rich and diverse tradition of literature — Shakespeare that is so part of the texture of our language and yet is also played the world over; our novelists from the 18th century onwards, many from relatively poor backgrounds, through to JK Rowling; our intellectual enquiry from Newton to Darwin, to the invention of the internet; our incredibly successful music scene rooted in working class culture, influential throughout the world. It is OK to feel good about this stuff!

We can also take pride in English (British?) values, and I do think that a core value is tolerance. Part of the reason for the English revolution was the attempt by the monarchy to bring back conformity to the Catholic church. Cromwell — who did many bad things — Ireland springs to mind — was nevertheless pretty staunch in defending freedom of religion for the different protestant sects, and refused to impose Presbyterian uniformity on Britain as desired by the Scots and a section of parliament. There was an amazing proliferation of different dissenting traditions; in 1689 the Act of Toleration was passed which basically made your religion a matter between you and your God — except for Catholics who had to wait until 1828 as they were still suspected of traitorous foreign allegiances. Cromwell also allowed Jews to re-enter the country. Britain became a haven for persecuted Huguenots from France, and later in the 19th century, a place of refuge for radicals and revolutionaries from all over Europe — including Karl Marx.

British tolerance also relates to British diversity. We have always been diverse — people from all over have washed up here — Celts, Romans, Saxons and assorted other Germans, Danes, Norwegians, Normans, and later on refugees from Spanish and French religious persecution. Our language is a mish-mash; battered fish was brought here by Portuguese Jews, chips by French Huguenots, and the first fish and chip shop was set up in London by a Pole. Our national dish is now chicken tikka masala — or is it spaghetti Bolognese? Our diversity, our openness, the porousness of our culture to outside culinary and cultural traditions is perhaps what defines us most as a nation.

Of course there is a dark side, there is imperialism and racism, but there is and always has been resistance to imperialism and racism. My thesis is that the right, by raking up intolerance and by criticising multi-culturalism, are being profoundly un-British, un-patriotic. Standing up for our country means standing by these values that are deeply rooted in our history.

Socialist patriots can in particular feel proud about our early contribution to trade unionism, such as the Tolpuddle Martyrs; of the communism of the diggers and the democratic impulse of the levellers; of the international co-operative movement which started in Rochdale in 1844; of the friendly societies and the co-operative housing movement and member-owned football clubs; of the Battle of Cable Street, the Kinder Scout mass trespass, the NHS.

Finally, just as the Bourbon monarchy summoned foreign absolutist monarchies to assist them against revolutionaries; just as the White Russians sought assistance from the British empire; so now the neo-liberal elite claims that neo-liberalism is inevitable because it is backed by the power of international financial institutions such as the IMF, and international corporations. The right is quite happy to sell our utilities off to the highest international bidder, for our trains to be run by Abellio and Arriva but not by British Rail, our electricity owned by Electricité de France but not the CEGB (remember that?). Companies close down British factories and open them in south east Asia because it is easier to exploit people there — and Tories support that. Corporations have absolutely no loyalty to any home country and Tories support the right of corporations to do business where they want, move capital from one place to another destroying communities in their wake. The super-rich have no patriotism either; paying less tax to support the welfare state is far more important as they move their money overseas or pretend to live in Monaco or the BVI.

So the advice to Corbyn and his team and to any socialist campaigner on the doorstep is — if someone accuses you of a lack of patriotism, get indignant, get angry! How dare they! The socialist labour party is the patriotic party. Only we are standing up for our traditions of tolerance and diversity. Only we are standing up for British working people against international capital. Only we are truly opposing international tax avoidance by corporations and the rich. And yes, we are proud of our very British radical socialist tradition.