Writing in today’s Observer newspaper, Will Hutton considers what the challenges are likely to be in a post-Brexit Britain. Top of his list is the breakup of the United Kingdom with another vote on Scottish independence looking entirely likely. Scotland seems on course to vote for its independence as a nation and secede from the political union with England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
While this might have an air of inevitability about it, according to Will Hutton this is not guaranteed or a certain outcome of the process of constitutional reform that will be inevitable as the UK departs from the political union, and from January, departs from the Single Market and the Customs Union. Hutton suggests that the Labour Party might be the only political force able to counter this disintegration which would leave the UK shattered and diminished.
The Conservatives are generally hated in Scotland, as they represent the rump of English exceptionalism that sees its own interests as those of the interests of the country as a whole. This is despite many people telling them that they are not the same. The English ruling class, however, is unlikely to start to listen to any pluralistic overtures from their opponents, especially after their smash-and-grab win in last years General Election, in which the ineptitude of Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson gifted Boris Johnson, gifted the Brexit/Tory party an eighty seat majority.
The Liberal Democrats in Scotland are a busted flush after they hung themselves on their own hubris. Which leaves the Labour Party under Sir Keir Stamer with a deep threat, but also an opportunity. According to Will Hutton, this might be a moment when Labour come forward as the own party that can heal the breach and maintain the integrity of the United Kingdom.
While the SNP have cornered the grounds of economic competence and social democracy, they have done this by using Scottish Nationalism as a battering ram to divide all other parties. As with any nationalist movement, you are either for or against your country. The result is that Scottish nationalism can only compete with English nationalism by walking away from the political institutions and relationships that have been in place for three hundred years.
What might supersede this destructive pull, however, is if Labour can articulate and express a forward-looking form of patriotism which surpasses the indignation of people who are marginalised from the political decision-making process, and balances patriotic identity with real and lasting political autonomy. The promise of a truly federal United Kingdom that allows for national and regional self-determination, with Westminster as the facilitator of decisions that are taken locally, rather than what it is now, a cabal of interest groups that suit the Tories well, but which annoy everyone else.
Patriotism is often held at a distance by people on the left, and rightly so, given that it is easily used as a jingoistic and chauvinistic marker of perceived exceptionalism. The debate about singing Rule Britannia is a clear example of how toxic a debate that suggests that people might wish to move on from these time-worn concerns might be. Asking people to give something up, without putting something in its place is always going to prove problematic. It’s change management 101. Don’t ask people to stop doing one thing without first figuring out what they might prefer to do instead?
Patriotism, then, has to be seen in this light. Don’t offer people something that they can’t get behind because it is tainted and has toxic associations for many people. Do offer people something that they can build on and shape for themselves, which they can be proud of and develop rituals around.
If Labour wants to be relevant to a debate about patriotism, then it’s going to have to show how British patriotism fits within the multi-polar world of shifting identities and certainties. It’s got to articulate a model of patriotism that that is more than a global PR exercise. Flying the flag for British exports is not enough, when the challenge is to identify what good we can do in the world, and how we can live up to our aspiration to enact that better world.
Patriotism has to be grounded in a strong sense of belonging, and to achieve this we have to build strong communities at home that work for everyone, not just for a lucky few. Labour has to develop social policies that heal the wounds of social divisions, and not just offer aspirational dreams to people, but to clear the path to lasting social equality and engagement. A progressive and socially democratic agenda has to be modelled as the patriotic agenda.
If Labour can model itself in the public’s mind as the party that is looking after the interests, the well-being and the shared wealth of the whole of the United Kingdom, then it can claim the mantle of the patriotic party. Why is it not a patriotic duty to pay people properly? Why is it not a patriotic duty to encourage people to join trade unions? Why is it not a patriotic duty to transform the electoral system and give people fair votes so that their voices matter where they live?
Can the left and the progressive social movements that coalesce around issues of social democracy and fairness not develop a patriotic symbolism that views the British interests as more than a zero-sum game? The Tories are masters at limiting social ambition. They peddle the myth that there are finite resources and capacities within society, and that only a chosen few will be lucky enough to benefit from the wealth that it generates.
A left-formed patriotic symbolism should challenge that myth and offer a politics of the future that looks globalisation squarely in the face, and says ‘there is no need to be afraid of this, if we do it properly!’ Working with our partners internationally we should be able to protect our self-interest and remove the impediments that rob the British people of their chance to prosper – the tax havens, unaccountable global corporations, anti-democratic nationalist systems, the climate crisis, the lack of universal healthcare, the lack of universal education, a universal basic income.
These would be the institutions that a new British patriotism can be formed, and which would keep the United Kingdom together and working closely with our partners in Europe. The challenge is to keep pushing forwards. To keep looking at the questions of what we need to get ready for as technology changes, as global relationships change, as the planet is put on a path of recovery and sustainability. Patriotism, in my mind comes from addressing the real needs of future generations, and not hiding in jingoism or exceptionalism, which are both anti-patriotic in the long term because they will leave people worse off and disconnected when they should be preparing for a world that is interconnected, mutually supportive and open to the views and experiences of all.