Smudger must be on the rocks, and seriously rattled. Mike today posted up a piece reporting that the Pontypridd Pratt was in the Mirror, claiming that Corbyn did not understand British, that is, Scots, Welsh and English patriotism. Instead, he claimed that he had a ‘liberal’, left-wing, ‘metropolitan’ perspective that is not part of the Labour tradition. By which Smiffy means that ‘nationhood, nationalism and patriotism aren’t really part of his makeup.’
Someone once said that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel. And someone else declared that patriotism was the position of the man, who had nothing else to say. Corbyn is massively more popular than Smudger, and so Smiffy is revealed for what he is – an empty politico sniping at his rival from a last, desperate fallback position, trying to bang the nationalist drum to oust someone, who is both more popular and who has much more substance politically.
Corbyn’s Genuinely Patriotic Policies
Mike also points out that it’s not fair on Corbyn to claim that he’s unpatriotic, and includes a meme to show how patriotic he is. This is through real, substantial policies that will make a positive difference to the welfare of the country and its great peoples. It is not through empty gestures, like grovelling deference to the monarchy, or standing with your shoulders back, and your tie straight to sing the national anthem, as the departing, unlamented former occupant of No 10 told him.
Corbyn wants UK utilities to be owned by the British people through the British state. This is patriotic. Profits made in the UK, should be taxed for the benefit of the British people. Patriotic. British men and women should not be sent to fight in illegal wars. Hence his opposition to the bombing of Syria. This is, again, patriotic. It shows a concern for Britain’s children, her sons and daughters, who have to do the duty of fighting and dying. It is also patriotic in the sense that it is concerned with upholding morality and the British tradition of fair play. He believes in protecting British Steel. Patriotic. He does not want British companies to be taken over by US or other foreign firms. Patriotic. He wants to stop the privatisation of the NHS, so that it is run for the benefit of British patients, not US corporations. Very patriotic. And lastly, he feels that British trade should benefit us Brits, so he will veto the TTIP. Again, patriotic.
Tories and the Right Unpatriotic in Selling Off Britain
Jeremy Corbyn is thus, in terms of policy, far more patriotic than the Right. Thanks to Thatcherite neoliberalism and the craze for foreign investment, our utilities are in the hands of foreign countries, as is much of our industry, including the City of London, so dear to the heart of Thatcher, Cameron and the rest of the Tories, including Tony Blair and New Labour. Cameron wanted British nuclear power stations built by the Chinese, as well as new roads. The privatisation of the health service carried out by Blair and Cameron has been at the behest and benefit of American firms such as Unum and Kaiser Medical. Atos, who administered the work capability assessment, was French. Maximus, who have replaced them, are American. And the mega rich, who make their profits over here, are squirreling them all away offshore in places like the Cayman Islands or Luxemburg.
By this standard, the neoliberal administrations Smiffy admires – Thatcher, Major, Blair and Cameron, are definitely unpatriotic. In fact, downright treasonous. But they got away with it because, following Thatcher, the Tory party became the Patriotic Party. You couldn’t get away from her and her chorus of sycophants yakking about patriotism. She was bolstered in this through her use of the symbolism surrounding Winston Churchill, the Second World War, and indeed through her unrestrained militarism. She had to be patriotic, ’cause we won the Falklands War. Well, just about, thanks to the Americans and Chileans. See, there’s another invocation of Winston Churchill, the great war leader and iconographic figure of British patriotism and pluck under foreign aggression. And then there was all the images of Spitfires racing across the skies in the 1987 general election. This was so blatant that Alan Coren dubbed it ‘the Royal Conservative Airforce’ on the News Quiz on Radio 4.
And even there, Thatcher’s patriotism was much less than it seemed. She sold off Westland Helicopters here in the West Country to the Americans. She made massive cuts to the armed forces. The Falklands War was partly caused by the ship defending the islands being recalled by her defence minister, John Nott. The Argentinians seized their chance, and invaded. Then there were the celebrations in the Tory right over 1992, and the closer integration with Europe that came about in that year. That was being celebrated and anticipated even under Thatcher. I can remember that in the late 1980s, a wine bar opened on the Promenade in Cheltenham with that very date as its name: 1992. Denis Skinner in his autobiography makes the point that Thatcher was far less Eurosceptic than she appeared to be. Skinner also supports us leaving the European Union, but for left-wing reasons, rather than those of the ‘turbo-charged’ Tories, Nigel Farage and the rest of UKIP. He points out that while she constantly wrangled with them over our contribution to the EU budget, she never actually threatened to leave. And it was Ted Heath, who took us in. And then in the 1990s there was all the fuss about ‘globalisation’, which meant that capital became international, and the nation state was to be gradually dissolved as more companies established themselves around the world.
So by the standards of economic policies and the practical effects of their ideologies, the Tories weren’t patriots. They advocated selling Britain and its people off to whoever would give them money. They convinced millions of impressionable voters that they were doing the opposite through manipulating the pageantry of the monarchy and the iconography of the Second World War.
Why Socialists Distrust Patriotism
But let’s examine the wider problems of Smiffy’s criticism of Corbyn’s alleged indifference to ‘patriotism’.
Firstly, a supposed ‘liberal’, ‘left-wing’ indifference to patriotism and nationalism is very much a part of the Labour tradition. Or at least, parts of it. In line with the rest of the European Socialist parties, many members of the Labour party opposed the wars between European powers in the 19th century, because it was felt – and not just by Marxists – that the working class of all nations had more in common with each other than with their rulers in the middle and upper classes. Socialists from all over Europe objected to the prospect of a war in Europe, because they felt that it would be carried out for the profit of the industrialists and the feudal aristocracy. This was shattered when the First World War broke out, and most of the Socialist parties showed themselves only too eager to vote war credits in support of the conflagration. But individual Socialists, including members of the Labour party, did protest against it, along with their counterparts in France and the German SPD.
Looking along the magazine racks in the newsagents in Bristol’s Temple Meads Station last Friday, I found among the current affairs magazines the New Internationalist. I can remember copies of that lying around my sixth form common room when I was at school. From what I remember, it’s another left-liberal magazine devoted to international social justice, particularly in the Developing Nations. Back in the 1980s, it was firmly behind the Greenham Women. I also seem to recall one of Paul Weller’s songs having the refrain, ‘Internationalists’, although I can’t remember which one.
British patriotism has also been intimately connected to imperialism. From the 19th century one of the holidays celebrated was ‘Empire Day’. David Dimbleby in one edition of his art history series, The Seven Ages of Britain, dug out a Victorian children’s book called, The ABC for Baby Patriots. Under ‘E’, the book had ‘Empire’, for wherever the British citizen went, they would be safe and free. Except for the indigenes, who were expected to work for us. While that book expressed the attitude of the imperialists, the Labour Party in the 1920s passed resolutions committing itself to giving the colonies their independence. I even found it discussed in the autobiography of another Labour politician from that period, called Benn, though I don’t know if there was a connection to Tony. This particular Benn made it very clear he stood for granting the peoples of the British Empire the right to run their own countries. And George Orwell came to Socialism through his hatred of imperialism.
Smiffy also claims that working class patriotism is often socially conservative. He’s right, which is why so many left-wingers have been intensely suspicious of it. The national symbols it embraces are those of the ruling classes, such as the monarchy, the stately homes of the rich and powerful, and so forth. In the 1960s there was considerable controversy over a history programme called The World We Have Lost. Or rather, over its title. Some historians objected to it because it expressed a nostalgic support for the good old days of aristocratic rule, when proles and tradesmen knew their place. This kind of patriotism is bound up with Michael Gove’s view of history – that it should all be very Conservative, patriotic, and reinforce Tory values.
And what really worries left-wingers is the racism that can lurk underneath this kind of patriotism. Alf Garnett was a parody of working class Conservatives, people with dirty, broken windows, living in poverty, for whom the Tories had done absolutely nothing, but nevertheless doggedly supported them. As well as generally reactionary and ignorant, Garnett was virulently racist. Johnny Speight, the writer, intended the character to show up and lampoon that aspect of Conservativism. But he was dismayed by the failure of many viewers to see the joke, and there were all too many ready to agree with him about non-White immigration.
London is a multicultural world city, far more so than much of the rest of the country, although many cities nevertheless may have sizable populations of ethnic minorities. I feel uneasy when Smudger attacks Corbyn for being ‘too metropolitan’, because it suggests that he thinks Labour should reflect the growing racism and xenophobia of the Brexit campaign. One of the criticisms the political scientist Guy Standing makes of New Labour in his book, A Precariat Charter, is that they did try to harness the growing resentment of immigrants by pushing policies that increasingly denied them their rights, such as to welfare benefits and employment legislation. Smudger’s a New Labour neoliberal, and it seems to me that with his attack on Corbyn for his ‘metropolitan’ attitudes to patriotism, there’s a concealed racism and determinism to inflict more precarity on refugees and asylum seekers, the poorest and most vulnerable in our society.
Patriotism and Working Class Culture
But patriotism can also include left-wing elements, which would no doubt also horrify Smiff. If you think of Wales, for example, there’s not only Owen Glendower, and medieval Welsh kings like Hywel Dda, there’s also the images of working class radicalism – the Welsh miners, and their leaders like Nye Bevan. Scotland has Red Clydeside, Devon in England the Tolpuddle Martyrs, without forgetting the Yorkshire Miners. These are also part of British nationalism and national identity, along with heroes like Tom Paine, Thomas Spence, Keir Hardie, Feargus O’Connor and the Chartists, and other heroes and heroines of working and lower middle class history. The British folk revival of the 1950s was inspired by Black American blues music, much of which had been collected by researchers as part of F.D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. British musicians and musicologists began exploring their own traditional music, to find the traditional British counterparts to this American working class music. And it exists. Paine’s The Rights of Man was celebrated in song in the 18th century, and it can be found in sheet music even now. Thomas Spence and the Chartists also composed songs to put their message across. Chumbawumba did a version of at least one of these songs a little while ago. It’s on the Net, if you care to look. This is all part of our national identity and culture, but one which I suspect Smiffy isn’t easy with, and which Thatcher and the Tories positively wanted to suppress or dismiss. But these heroes and heroines did inspire Clement Atlee’s Labour party, when they one the 1945 election, and introduced the welfare state.
Smith’s comments about Jeremy Corbyn and patriotism are therefore both wrong, and potentially dangerous. Corbyn is patriotic in the matter that counts – doing your political duty to improve the lives of one’s fellow citizens. Thatcher and the neoliberals betrayed the British people, plunging them into poverty and selling off Britain, all while maintaining the illusion of British imperial power, and maintaining and expanding their class privileges. And Britain also has a rich, working class traditional culture, that also forms part of our national identity, in opposition to the approved culture promoted by Gove. And when Labour members and supporters were critical and uncomfortable with nationalism and patriotism, it’s because it all too often leads to imperialism and racism. A racism that it seems Smudger would like to harness once again, as part of New Labour policy.
A few years ago, Lobster published a unique and fascinating article by a southern Irish Roman Catholic Ulster Unionist. This particular contributor wanted working class radicals from both the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities to unite to do something positive for the working people of Northern Ireland as a whole, regardless of their faith or national loyalties. The piece also criticised Tony Blair for embracing the politics of culture. The author explained that this was dangerous, because in Ireland it usually meant there was a man with a gun behind it. It was a danger then, and I don’t think the danger has disappeared in the decade or so since that piece was written. And it shows how dangerous nationalism and patriotism can be at their most extreme.
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