Tucked away in the BBC News website on Thursday (4 February) there appeared an article by Jennifer Scott, online political reporter. It is entitled: “Labour: Historic divisions over patriotism pose challenge for Starmer”. I had considered, and initially rejected, the notion of commenting but my Friday morning read of the Source Direct newsletter convinced me.
Today’s issue has a link to a piece by David Jamieson entitled: “Starmer’s ‘national’ turn makes little sense in a fractured Union”. He provides a link to the Guardian of 2 February 2021 and the headline: “Leak reveals Labour plan to focus on flag and patriotism to win back voters – leaked internal strategy presentation reveals plan to ‘change the party’s body language’.” The Guardian reveals: “Labour must make ‘use of the [union] flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly’ as part of a radical rebranding to help it win back the trust of disillusioned voters, according to a leaked internal strategy presentation.”
What struck me on reading Jamieson’s piece was that never once did he refer to the ‘p’ word – ‘patriotism’. He makes multiple references to ‘nationalism’ and British Labour but note, ‘patriotism’ is the word in the Guardian headline. And patriotism is the word now much in use by Keir Starmer, evidence already of the party’s re-branding being implemented.
Words mean what British Labour decide they mean
Which brings me back to the BBC article. It begins by reminding us that early in his tenure the Labour leader said he wanted the party to be “proud of being patriotic”. (Maybe ‘loud and proud‘ is next?)
Ms Scott writes a good piece. She tells something of the Labour Party’s history and its attitudes towards patriotism over time. For example, we learn of an incident involving Keir Hardie: “.. Hardie was against World War One and spoke out about it in the Commons. But some Labour backbenchers defied him by quietly singing the national anthem ‘like a cold, cold wind’ from behind, in a stunt to discredit him as anti-patriotic.” On learning this, we’re told present Labour peer, Baroness Chakrabarti: “was shocked, not just that Labour MPs could be so wrong about that tragic imperialist war, but that they were so nasty to their first leader who brought them into being.”
We also get an insight into Labour patriotism now from Chakrabarti. She states that Starmer’s task is to redefine what patriotism means. “I personally have no problem calling myself a patriot,” she said. “I am a universalist, an internationalist, a human rights activist, but I also understand that people are rooted in place, language, culture and stories.” (my emphasis) Seems to me a case here of assigning to oneself a collection of labels and having to redefining meaning selectively in order better to fit the times and/or your party’s campaigning needs.
Chakrabarti wants Labour to focus its patriotism on sources of pride and not on the more traditional, flag-waving patriotism of the right. (Has she not noticed yet? To be fair, her party leader’s flag accessory doesn’t flap.) She adds: “We should be patriotic about the NHS, not looking for more wars or trying to compete with the right wing populism of Johnson and Trump.” In short, Labour should and will (of course) do ‘good’ patriotism not that ‘bad’ patriotism of others! Chakrabarti then calls Labour’s version: ‘contemporary patriotism’.
The BBC article wheels out Ed Balls (remember him?) for further insight into Labour’s – what I suppose we must call – ‘contemporary patriotism’. For Balls, the “right balance” here is one that brings together an internationalist view with the country’s national interest.
National pride and national interest together
Did you spot the focus on ‘sources of pride’ can be linked to a country’s ‘national interest’? I wonder if that’s the kind of ‘national interest’ pursued in politics by a ‘national party’? Or is Labour’s patriotic British national interest – using Labour’s definition of ‘patriotic’ of course – the only good kind of national interest? Balls advises that campaigning for “change” will not be enough to win back red wall (i.e. so called ‘traditional Labour’) seats: “Standing up for that combination of change and national pride is vital if Labour is to succeed”.
How many types of patriotism?
The BBC article helpfully provides a link to a January 2020 survey of 1,005 Labour Party members at the time of the leadership contest conducted by YouGov. It asked questions about patriotism. Specifically it asked: “Do you think it is possible for there to be a ‘progressive’ form of patriotism that you would find acceptable?” Alert readers will note the appearance here of another adjective: there is now something called ‘progressive patriotism’ being put to Labour members to add to that other term we’ve learned, ‘contemporary patriotism’.
The ProudScotbut British Labour (progressive/contemporary) Patriot
Now here in Scotland we are used to a certain prominent Labour politician, who presumably we can characterise now as a ProudScotbut British (progressive/contemporary) Patriot (the ordering of the words is probably not fixed), telling us in terms that ‘nationalists’ and ‘nationalism’ are very, very, always (well certainly in Scotland) just irredeemably bad!
But hang on: Labour is re-defining ‘patriotism’ to suit its purpose, encompassing ‘pride’, ‘national interest’ with ‘internationalism’. However, in Scotland the term ‘nationalism’ is incapable of qualification according to Labour as it dismisses progressive or civic nationalism as the same bad nationalism as every other nationalism. And the leaders of British Labour in Scotland promote this ‘all nationalism is bad’ slur towards the remaining, naturally left of centre, social democratic Labour voters in the hope they are (still) less than well-informed whilst at the same time the party is embracing ‘patriotism’ that has to be re-defined as ‘contemporary’ or ‘progressive’.
And finally – and of course – Scotland’s Labour MP and British Labour more generally seem conveniently to forget about their sister party in Northern Ireland, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). That is the party British Labour still chooses not to compete against in elections. Do they hope we don’t know that the current SDLP leadership explicitly espouses ‘progressive nationalism’ (see https://www.irishnews.com/news/2015/09/29/news/sdlp-leadership-contender-promises-new-brand-of-progressive-nationalism–276171/ ).
But to repeat: words mean what British Labour decides they must mean, regardless!