December 14, 2013


The problem of patriotism and the left (GERRY HASSAN, 11 December 2013, OpenDemocracy)

Left-wing patriotism has consistently had a problem and been thrown by the right. They have baulked at the stories and crimes of Empire, imperial wars and militarism.

This leads in one of two directions: the first is the pointless rejection of all things British which does not get you very far. The other is nearly as bad: the disingenuous Gordon Brown approach of stating that 'the British Empire was much better than any other'.

One reason that the left has had such a problem is the power of the continuity story of Britain. The people's Britain, with its struggles and radicalism, the G.D.H. Cole account of 'the common people' with its English and Scottish variants expressed so eloquently by E.P. Thompson and Tom Johnston respectively, never sidelined the Whig account of British history.

There is also the perennial problem the left had with nationalism. British left-wingers have consistently tried to deny that they are British nationalists, witness their age-old cry, 'I am an internationalist not a nationalist'.

So the Michael Foots, Tony Benns, George Galloways and, closer to home, Brian Wilsons of this world, have been comfortable embracing numerous national liberation movements - Vietnamese, Palestinian, Venezuelan - all of which are nationalist, but tied themselves in knots at home. This of course continues in spades in the independence referendum, with unionists in denial that their philosophy is a nationalism. That nasty word is all about the other lot - the 'narrow nationalism' beloved of Labour politicians as a bogey.

There is fortunately another strand on the left: that of the British radical patriot seen in George Orwell and in the present day by the likes of Billy Bragg. This understands that you cannot leave the word patriotism to the right and expect to compete for power and legitimacy.

Orwell grasped that the Union Jack, that was the flag of Empire, slavery and conquest, was also the flag which abolished slavery, oversaw decolonisation, stood alone against the evils of Hitler and Nazism, and built the welfare state. It also gave the world a tradition of standing against state oppression, for liberty and dissent.

It isn't an accident that Bragg doesn't have a problem with the British nationalist tag, has reclaimed past radical currents, and demonstrated a subtlety on the Scottish independence argument. It is just sad that so many British leftists have not shown a similar grasp of history.

Tory MEP Daniel Hannan added his voice to the Vaz/Rusbridger exchange this week, approvingly quoting Herbert Butterfield from the 1930s, 'The study of the past with one eye upon the present is the essence of what we mean by the word 'unhistoric''.

Hannan is author of the just published, 'How We Invented Freedom and Why It Matters' which, despite its title, is a reflective case for a Tory Eurosceptic patriotism. Where is the Labour and left equivalent to this, making the case for progressive Britain as it faces the multiple crises of Osborne's austerity, the independence debate, and how the UK re-interprets its position vis-à-vis Europe? Nowhere.

That silence isn't an accident. It is a product of the British left's problem with British history which has cost it dear through the centuries. 

Orwell was, of course, conservative.
Enhanced by Zemanta

Posted by at December 14, 2013 8:08 AM

blog comments powered by Disqus