This article was published on the now defunct Labour Vision site in 2017.
By Will Barber Taylor
To be patriotic is seen, in the era of Trump and Brexit, as a negative position for the left. The connotation is one of right wing nationalism, of fear and suspicion of “foreigners” and a pseudo historically illiterate reading of a nation’s past. Whilst this description may apply to some “patriots” on both the left and right, it is not the definition of patriotism. The Cambridge Online Dictionary defines patriotism as:
“The feeling of loving your country more than any others and being proud of it”
The first part of this statement is probably the most problematic for the left – “loving your country more than any other” brings on suggestions of crude slogans like “America First” or “England for the English”. Yet this is down to the willingness of some on the left to let hard line conservatives take the idea of patriotism – loving the country you live in and being proud of it – and transforming it into degenerate rhetoric to fuel hate crimes. Loving one’s country above others does not mean that you must hate all others; loving your family more than other people does not mean you turn your back on others when they are in need – it is basic human instinct to love one’s own above all else.
Yet this love should never be turned into the putrid nationalistic fervour that is portrayed by Trump’s most ardent supporters. I love Britain – I love its history, its landscape, its arts and its people. This does not mean that I think we should wall up the channel tunnel or ban Wagner from the BBC; it simply means that I feel proud of what Britain has to offer the world. Here, of course, is the rub. Patriotism is so often expressed as isolationist – it is seen as the cushion for the right to comfort themselves from the encroachment of internationalist policies. Both Trump and Brexit as used as prime examples of this; they both happened because the internationalist polices of successive governments caused the loss of jobs and a growing sense of discontentment in both Britain and America being “left behind” and “not put first”.
To blame this wholly on patriotism is to see both votes in unapologetically liberal terms. We should, the argument therefore goes, abandon all forms of patriotism as they inevitably lead to isolationist nationalism which causes more bad than good. Yet patriotism is simply an excuse; it is the watchword that can easily be applied to the cracks in the political spectrum which have yet to be repaired. The failure of both the Remain and Clinton campaigns was not solely down to the fall of internationalism and the rise of nationalism; it was a failure of the political elites to understand that the only way to win it to provide hope that things can change for the better. Throughout the northwest, in places like Oldham and Bolton, the message of hope was not received – nor did they see any great patriotic stance from the two main Remain parties, The Liberal Democrats and Labour. How, you might ask, could such a stance have been adopted as patriotism and internationalism are so disparate?
This is a fallacy. To be patriotic is to embrace the culture, history and people of one’s nation but it does not mean you should ignore the rest of the world. To have an internationalist outlook is to try and create great cohesions between countries, to widen the sphere of influence of the nation you inhabit. This does not preclude a patriotic outlook however. The 2012 London Olympic games are perhaps the best example of this; the games both celebrated British culture, British talent and “Britishness” (to use an often-misused term) but to couple that with a celebration of sporting achievements from around the world. Only through combining these two aspects of political thinking can the left and Labour hope to maintain an impact on the lives of ordinary people.
Indeed, this patriotic internationalism is best demonstrated in perhaps our greatest leader, Clement Attlee. Attlee was a committed internationalist because of his commitment to NATO and the special relationship with American but he was also deeply patriotic; it was his experiences in the slums of London during the early 20th century that fired his desire to join the Labour party. Attlee’s message was always to embody patriotism and internationalism and his message is one that the current Labour party would be wise to repeat.