On Labour, the working classes and St George’s Day

This past Saturday marked St George’s Day. A day with which the liberal left in Britain are still trying to come to terms. I say the liberal left advisedly, for the Socialistic and communitarian left historically always had more time for patriotism in general than did the liberals. And come to terms with such outpourings of patriotism the left really must if it is to reconnect with its working class base again.

This twitter thread from a couple of years ago strikes at the heart of the matter:

The fact is, the left need to recognise that people are ultimately patriotic and that such patriotism is always likely to engender strong feelings. Rather than dismiss it as jingoism, or worse, inherently racist (whilst happily allowing everyone else to fly whatever flags they will), we would do much better to listen to Socialists of the past and seek to reconnect meaningfully.

George Orwell understood this better than most. In The Lion and the Unicorn, he states:

I have spoken all the while of “the nation”, “England”, “Britain’”, as though 45 million souls could somehow be treated as a unit. But is not England notoriously two nations, the rich and the poor? Dare one pretend that there is anything in common between people with £100,000 a year and people with £1 a week? And even Welsh and Scottish readers are likely to have been offended because I have used the word “England” oftener than “Britain”, as though the whole population dwelt in London and the Home Counties and neither north nor west possessed a culture of its own.

One gets a better view of this question if one considers the minor point first. It is quite true that the so-called races of Britain feel themselves to be very different from one another. A Scotsman, for instance, does not thank you if you call him an Englishman. You can see the hesitation we feel on this point by the fact that we call our islands by no less than six different names, England, Britain, Great Britain, the British Isles, the United Kingdom and, in very exalted moments, Albion. Even the differences between north and south England loom large in our own eyes. But somehow these differences fade away the moment that any two Britons are confronted by a European. It is very rare to meet a foreigner, other than an American, who can distinguish between English and Scots or even English and Irish. To a Frenchman, the Breton and the Auvergnat seem very different beings, and the accent of Marseilles is a stock joke in Paris. Yet we speak of “France” and “the French”, recognizing France as an entity, a single civilization, which in fact it is. So also with ourselves. Looked at from the outside, even the cockney and the Yorkshireman have a strong family resemblance.

And even the distinction between rich and poor dwindles somewhat when one regards the nation from the outside. There is no question about the inequality of wealth in England. It is grosser than in any European country, and you have only to look down the nearest street to see it. Economically, England is certainly two nations, if not three or four. But at the same time the vast majority of the people feel themselves to be a single nation and are conscious of resembling one another more than they resemble foreigners. Patriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred, and always stronger than any kind of internationalism. Except for a brief moment in 1920 (the “Hands off Russia” movement) the British working class have never thought or acted internationally. For two and a half years they watched their comrades in Spain slowly strangled, and never aided them by even a single strike.[2] But when their own country (the country of Lord Nuffield and Mr Montagu Norman) was in danger, their attitude was very different. At the moment when it seemed likely that England might be invaded, Anthony Eden appealed over the radio for Local Defence Volunteers. He got a quarter of a million men in the first twenty-four hours, and another million in the subsequent month. One has only to compare these figures with, for instance, the number of Conscientious Objectors to see how vast is the strength of traditional loyalties compared with new ones.

In England patriotism takes different forms in different classes, but it runs like a connecting thread through nearly all of them. Only the Europeanized intelligentsia are really immune to it. As a positive emotion it is stronger in the middle class than in the upper class – the cheap public schools, for instance, are more given to patriotic demonstrations than the expensive ones – but the number of definitely treacherous rich men, the Laval-Quisling type, is probably very small. In the working class patriotism is profound, but it is unconscious. The working man’s heart does not leap when he sees a Union Jack. But the famous “insularity” and “xenophobia” of the English is far stronger in the working class than in the bourgeoisie. In all countries the poor are more national than the rich, but the English working class are outstanding in their abhorrence of foreign habits. Even when they are obliged to live abroad for years they refuse either to accustom themselves to foreign food or to learn foreign languages. Nearly every Englishman of working-class origin considers it effeminate to pronounce a foreign word correctly. During the war of 1914-18 the English working class were in contact with foreigners to an extent that is rarely possible. The sole result was that they brought back a hatred of all Europeans, except the Germans, whose courage they admired. In four years on French soil they did not even acquire a liking for wine. The insularity of the English, their refusal to take foreigners seriously, is a folly that has to be paid for very heavily from time to time. But it plays its part in the English mystique, and the intellectuals who have tried to break it down have generally done more harm than good. At bottom it is the same quality in the English character that repels the tourist and keeps out the invader.

…Up to a point, the sense of national unity is a substitute for a “world-view”. Just because patriotism is all but universal and not even the rich are uninfluenced by it, there can come moments when the whole nation suddenly swings together and does the same thing, like a herd of cattle facing a wolf. There was such a moment, unmistakably, at the time of the disaster in France. After eight months of vaguely wondering what the war was about, the people suddenly knew what they had got to do: first, to get the army away from Dunkirk, and secondly to prevent invasion. It was like the awakening of a giant. Quick! Danger! The Philistines be upon thee, Samson! And then the swift unanimous action – and then, alas, the prompt relapse into sleep. In a divided nation that would have been exactly the moment for a big peace movement to arise. But does this mean that the instinct of the English will always tell them to do the right thing? Not at all, merely that it will tell them to do the same thing. In the 1931 General Election, for instance, we all did the wrong thing in perfect unison. We were as single-minded as the Gadarene swine. But I honestly doubt whether we can say that we were shoved down the slope against our will.

The whole essay is worth reading, but Orwell rightly concludes, ‘The only approach to them is through their patriotism. An intelligent Socialist movement will use their patriotism, instead of merely insulting it, as hitherto.’ This is a lesson that the current Labour Party would do well to heed. He goes on, ‘During the past twenty years the negative, fainéant outlook which has been fashionable among English left-wingers, the sniggering of the intellectuals at patriotism and physical courage, the persistent effort to chip away English morale and spread a hedonistic, what-do-I-get-out-of-it attitude to life, has done nothing but harm.’

As I noted in my earlier post regarding VE Day celebrations:

[T]he same sneering comments about jingoism, ‘Little Englanders’ and smears of ‘far-right’ will be levelled at those who dare to fly a Union Jack. It is this contempt in which the Labour Party holds large swathes of society that means the issues to which it speaks say very little to the experience of many working class people and the sneering attitude many sense is aimed towards them mean they have drifted away from the party in droves.

It is amazing to me that anybody would think throwing the label ‘fascist’ at people and sneering at their culture, lifestyle and values would still lead you to expect them to vote for you.

I am reminded of this as I see our area bedecked in St George Flags and an outpouring of English patriotism on local message boards and Facebook groups. Unless Labour tap into this sort of English patriotism, they will lose the votes of those in areas like mine that they had – until their so-called Red Wall came crashing down – taken for granted.

That does not, of course, mean that far-right nationalism or UKIPpy tub-thumping is in order. It just means the left need to present a positive vision of what it means to be English. A vision that is not embarrassed at the sight of the George Cross. A vision that does not imply if you are white and English – and wish to say so – that you are inherently racist for wanting what is quite reasonably encourage and applauded in others. Indeed, it is the discrepancy between those encouraging our South Asian friends to fly their flags with pride (as well they should be able) and those selfsame people dissuading their English compatriots from daring to do the same. Indeed, they will laud St Patrick’s, David’s and Andrew’s Days – happily encouraging the relevant flags to be flown – whilst shrinking back from anything that might be linked with English overtones.

For the left to reconnect with the working classes, it must tap into patriotism again. It must stop being embarrassed of our nation, flag and – most importantly of all – those who actually live here, and instead present a positive patriotism that delights in Englishness without any of the far-right nationalist overtones that bedevilled such thoughts throughout the 70s and 80s. The demonisation of the working classes is well documented, and this sort of sneering towards patriotic acts of Englishness is just another stick with which to beat those most inclined toward it. Labour would do well to ensure that it no longer acts as though it is scared of the working classes and actually looks to represent them as they were originally setup to do. And that, dear friends, will include accepting the flag that many hold dear and imbuing it with a legitimate sense of national pride around which the English (not just the working classes) can gladly unite.

I have never been a fan of an English parliament per se (though I would prefer one to the current situation that has never addressed the West Lothian question). I am, however, convinced that regional parliaments would help to unite the United Kingdom. Just as Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own parliaments and assemblies, I think the rest of the regions of the UK would do well to have them too. A national parliament would serve to address truly UK-wide issues and potentially create a greater sense of national unity than we have at present.

Be that as it may, the point is simply that patriotism need not be a dirty word. As Orwell rightly pointed out 80 or so years ago, the working classes are typically not internationalist. Which causes a problem for the Labour Party who clearly wish to be. This goes some considerable way to explaining their obsession with Palestine while most Labour voters in Oldham are more concerned about having a working bus service. Unless they start to speak into the issues that truly concern those they are supposed to represent again, they will be on a hiding to nothing. Along with wanting to know how they will heat their homes, whether they have a job to go to and a working transport system that will get them there – all things that seem pretty basic things to speak about – most people also don’t want you to talk about them and their values as though they are something that you stepped in.

That necessarily means not sneering at their patriotism, or only talking about it through gritted teeth, but genuinely listening to them and creating a positive vision for the country around which people can unite. It means not dismissing the genuine problems that exist in multicultural areas (for people of all ethnic backgrounds), that have experienced such speed of change so as to destabilise many people’s sense of place and order, and insist with a wave of the hand that to notice such things, and wish something could be done, is inherently racist. It is to listen to people, hear their issues and concerns and to not suggest or imply that their very person is the problem.

If Labour ever want to see government again, they must root themselves in a progressive, positive patriotism. They must speak into the values of the English and make clear that they, too, have a sense of national pride. They have to speak to the values that people hold and actively represent them; values of faith, family and flag. Unless they can get over their aversion to these things, they will forever be a party whose raison d’etre is to sneer at those they are supposed to represent and hold in contempt those whom they hope will vote them into power. And that is not a winning electoral formula.