Patriotism: Enemy Terrain

Starmer shagging a flag
Dave Brown, Independent

Keir Starmer’s consultants have suggested a focus on ‘flag’ and ‘patriotism’. It’s not just the left criticizing Keith’s focus-group gestures – the commentariat is also recognising how lacking in ideas he is.

The sycophants have a ready answer: Labour has to seem patriotic to win, everyone thought Corbyn hates Britain, ordinary people like the flag, etc, etc. This is beside the point. The trouble is how empty of content this is. This flag-shagging is nothing but a gesture on terrain thoroughly owned by the right.

That doesn’t mean the left shouldn’t make any forays on this terrain. Matt Widdowson’s thoughtful article on socialist patriotism argues the need to articulate ‘a genuine love of our country and its people — in opposition to the militarism and imperialism’. I’m still personally uncomfortable with British patriotism while we leach off the third world and so forth, but I can see the need of the narrative in electoral strategy.

The trouble is that nobody I’m aware of has ever came closer to articulating this positive vision than Jeremy Corbyn, and he was lambasted as a Britain-hating nutter despite being a mild socdem. The whole territory of patriotism is occupied by rabid Tory nationalism.

Caring about the nation’s poor – unpatriotic. Wanting our services properly run in-house – unpatriotic. Wanting out of the middle east – unpatriotic. Why? Because he thought people in other countries were also human, dislikes the Empire, etc. Corbyn wasn’t a nationalist, which is why everyone got convinced he wasn’t a patriot. The Tories sell all our stuff off to the lowest bidder and treat our people like shit, but they’re ‘patriotic’ because they love poppies and bombs.

Attempts to articulate progressive patriotism in some form will contradict the nationalist poison inherent in the mainstream view of what patriotism means, and thus be branded Britain-hating. Attempts to hang on the coattails of the symbols will be seen as the empty focus-group tripe it is. Why would flag-shaggers go for fake flag-shaggers when Boris is right there, rutting the thing with wild abandon?

The whole thing is hard, and Keith doesn’t get it. I don’t have an easy answer either. The right has overseen over 100,000 Covid deaths and, before that, similar numbers through austerity. They’re still polling around 40%.

Voters this brainwashed will not go for a watered-down version of revanchist nationalism when the real thing is available. It’s possible to articulate a progressive patriotism, but trying to win the right’s culture war by hanging on the flag’s coattails is a fools’ errand.

Why not go for the people who are reachable, with a meaningful platform to address their material circumstances? The thing that could’ve won in 2017, if it weren’t for backstabbing centrists? By all means have a flag in the background of that speech – but still expect the usual suspects to rant about you hating white people.

Someone will be pissed off regardless, but trying to offend nobody won’t inspire anybody.

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