Originally published in January 2019 on No Man’s Land.
Emily Thornberry’s 2014 tweet, in the run up to the European Parliamentary Elections summed up perfectly how politics and patriotism seem to interact these days. The tweet which read “Image from #Rochester” accompanied photo of a house donned with the Cross of St George was widely taken as a slur, suggesting the town was a hub of alt-right and anti-immigrant sentiment.
Whether fair on Thornberry or not, the tweet both caused consternation amongst her political opponents and seemed to epitomise the views of many in the mainstream and on the left of British politics on patriotism. That view is one we seem to accept in Britain, that pride in our country is linked with anti-immigrant sentiment, racism and xenophobia and a desire to shut ourselves off from the world. Some further to the left do hold something of this view of patriotism, often coupled with the notion that modern Western (American) Imperialism is the cause of almost all that ails the world. Yet it is strange that mainstream and centre left politics seem so cut off from pride in our country, cut off from the emotion which populists on the right are much better able to exploit.
Fast forward two years to the 2016 EU Referendum and it was conspicuous that the Remain campaign sought to persuade the nation almost solely on the basis of economic self-interest. It accepted, as almost everyone seemed to, that a decision made on a patriotic basis would be one to the leave the EU. It made no real emotional case for the proud British playing our part in the world; or where it did, it did so sporadically and half-heartedly. This goes to the heart of a problem politicians in the centre have in 2019, their language seems black and white compared to populists’ bright colours.
Rethinking patriotism and how we talk about it might help campaigners who are not on the right cut through. This is the reason reclaiming patriotism has started to be talked about. Nick Clegg’s book for example calls for a “modern optimistic patriotism”. Labour’s John Denham now directs the Centre for English Identity at Winchester University and argues for a “progressive patriotism”.
It doesn’t take much examination to remind us that many of our British values are liberal ones. We are the ‘mother of all democracies’ and a place whose rule of law is as respected as anywhere in the world, a nation which champions civil liberties as strongly as any other. Despite Brexit we remain one of the most tolerant nations in the world, and should be proud of our history of welcoming migrants. The centre and the left might start by doing more to celebrate this heritage and less hand wringing and finger pointing. We should also be proud of the positive parts of our legacy on the world stage. The war in Iraq may leave a stain on the recent record of British foreign policy, but perhaps we should be less shy of talking about the role Britain has played at the United Nations, through foreign aid and even in the lives saved by interventions in places such as Sierra Leone.
An emotive appeal to liberal patriotism has two advantages for progressives and centrists. First it allows them to reach out to many in the public who feel pride in the country, its flag and traditions at a time when they feel alienated by so called liberal elites. Second it confronts head on the trends we are seeing which question democracy, tolerance, civil liberties and so on; helping us to make the case for them anew. Importantly it does so not by preaching or sneering, but by connecting traditions and beliefs with a more optimistic politics.