This is a tough one and potentially controversial and I’m still trying to work out if I really think what I really really think I think about this.
A very noticeable shift in rhetoric of Starmer’s LP is towards an attempt to co-opt English ‘patriotism’ to the Labour cause. The way it is being done is pathetically and transparently politically empty and will convince no one, but, though it pains me to say it, I have to say that I think any LP, under any leader, that wishes to regain the ‘Labour Wall’ is going to have address the issue of how the left engages with patriotism and nationalism.
Many of the old school, old Labour, working class activists I met in the 80’s had served in WW2 are were very patriotic. Indeed, ‘patriotism’ is a very important working class value. Proportionally many more working class young people join the military than average and being English or Scottish, Welsh or Irish is a source of pride for many millions. Yet we on the left seem to despise our own birthright… especially if we are English. This arises of course from the left wing values of peace and anti-imperialism. Yet this pacifist, anti-imperialism is often read by working class people as a sort of hypocritical self-hatred and dismissing ‘patriotism’ as a sign of ignorance and stupidity has been a big mistake of left rhetoric since the mid 60’s.
I am a lifelong, old Labour, left social democrat (which is sometimes called a democratic socialist), with a modicum of understanding of Marxist theory. I have considerable knowledge of the brutal history of imperialism and slavery and I am NOT claiming that the people of the UK are in fact ‘united’ by our common nationalist interests and I understand that a working class person from England has far more economic interests in common with a working class man of France than they do with an aristocrat from the UK. I get it. Okay.
But in order to fight the elite ‘patriotism’ that led millions of workers to fight and die for kings, aristocrats and rulers, the left has for 80 years bashed ‘us’ the people who live on this Island and valorised ‘them’, people of various other countries. We oppose Suez or the Falklands War but we support wars of independence in former colonies. We think Scottish, Welsh or Irish nationalism are forces of freedom and progression and yet condemn English nationalism as ignorant and racist. We characterise the English as being uniquely evil in this regard and that racism is a default characteristic of the English.
This simply doesn’t make sense to most of the country. To recognise the evils of imperialism, colonialism and racism does not necessarily mean that we need to condemn ourselves as being inherently evil; and this is how left wing anti-imperialism is often read by ordinary people. We on the left need to develop a way of expressing our anti-imperialism while also being proud of the things in our English history that are to be celebrated.
Before the Industrial Revolution England was renowned throughout Europe as the ‘land of the free’ and refuge of dissenters both religious and political. Even in the 19th C Marx and Lenin found refuge in England. In WW2 black American troops were welcomed in working class England like nowhere else in the world… including the USA. The fight against fascism in WW2; the post war social democratic consensus; the NHS… There is a progressive story of Englishness and we on the left need to tell that story if we want/need the support of the working class.
I belonged to perhaps the last generation taught geography with the world map two thirds coloured in pink to illustrate extent of the British Empire. And we were taught a fundamental lie about this Empire, i.e. that it was built to prosper the world, rather than enrich a tiny capitalist class. But it can be argued that the working class English of Dickensian London were just as much victims of the Empire as the peasants of the Indian sub-continent.
In the 17th and 18th Century the idea of a British ‘Empire’ developed slowly as territories expanded. But until the defeat of Napoleon France and to a lesser extent Spain, were serious rivals to British hegemony and the Empire of the pink map only lasted about 70 years and was rapidly falling apart by the time I went to school in the early 60’s.
It is also worth pointing out that imperialism is not a uniquely English or even European characteristic. The Spanish were murdering , raping and robbing in South America for 250 years. The Italians were all over Europe and the Mediterranean for 500 years (Roman Empire). The Mongols brutally dominated Asia for years from Moscow to Bejing. Even the Aztecs and Myans violently conquered neighbouring kingdoms to create their Empires. The ancient Egyptians conquered to create greater Egypt. The USSR and Russia before it had conquered and colonised for centuries. Babylon, Assyria, Persia, the Holy Roman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Zulu’s, Benin… the list goes on and on and on. In the Levant the Arab Muslims mounted a colonial war that led to the violent conquest of the two thirds of the Mediterranean basin. The Arab Muslims ruling the Levant during the 10th-12th Centuries were colonial conquerers just as much as the Crusaders! Oh so civilised Europe has had 3 fascist dictatorships in my lifetime and even little European countries such as Belgium have committed astounding acts of butchery. EVERY nation, country or Empire has done such things. There is no history of any nation or culture, anywhere, ever, that does not involve brutal, violent conquest… including the British Empire. But to suggest that the British Empire was uniquely evil is frankly historically illiterate. It was one of the most recent Empire certainly and may have been the last of its kind because the USA and probably China to come, can dominate the world without physically taking control of territories.
I do not deny the problems of Imperialism but we often talk as if ONLY the English did such things. Anti-imperial British Exceptionalism is as misguided as nationalist British Exceptionalism. The truth is we are as a bad as everyone else but no worse. England and the English are not particularly evil and to claim so is to misrepresent history.
I have also always had issues with the Marxist concept of ‘Internationalism’ that seems to argue for one global communist state… history tells us how that is likely to go! It also seems striven by contradictions – the liberal left valorises religious and ethnic ‘culture’ as long as it is not English but condemns the same valorisation of English ‘culture’ as being inherently racist.
So when working class people see us on the left constantly and seemingly particularly attacking our own country they find it unintelligible. England as a collective has lots to be proud of and lots to be ashamed of… just like everyone else and we on the left need to proclaim it as loudly as the right.