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Political Manipulation has Made ‘Patriotism’ a Dirty Word

The Labour Party is attempting to recapture patriotism from closed-border populists – a move that should be welcomed not condemned, argues Eleanor Longman-Rood

Labour leader Keir Starmer delivers his keynote speech during the party’s online conference in September 2020. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

Political Manipulation has Made ‘Patriotism’ a Dirty Word

The Labour Party is attempting to recapture patriotism from closed-border populists – a move that should be welcomed not condemned, argues Eleanor Longman-Rood

Patriotism has become a battleground in British politics. The ‘culture war’ has pitted two groups against each other: one that obstinately refuses to criticise Britain’s past; and one that would like to see historic crimes recognised and, to some extent, atoned for. The former claims that the latter is unpatriotic; that it hates Britain and its history.

To talk of ideas of a nation, its place in the world and history seems now to invite social ostracism. While angry Twitter commentators wage a one-dimensional war about Britishness, the rest of us are left in awkward silence.

For me, however, nationality is personal.

Britain is the country that welcomed my great-grandmother as she fled Nazi Germany, journeying back and fourth five times – each time ferrying a different one of her children – in order to give them a safe haven. All the while, my great-grandfather endeavoured to report the truth during his time as a journalist back in his home country.

Just over half a century later, this sentiment and source of national pride for me was flipped on its head through the Brexit campaign. The word ‘refugee’ was seldom used without being paired with the word ‘crisis’. There was a sharply rising attitude that patriotism was associated with the shutting of borders and closing our minds to the problems of the outside world.

Fast forward to this week and the Labour Party is now trying to challenge this idea. At its virtual conference, leader Keir Starmer attempted to recapture the principle of patriotism from the right, with his Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy telling BBC Radio 4 that Labour would now “stand up for Britain, British people, British interests” and “will always put that first”.

Some have branded Nandy’s comments as ‘Britain First’ rhetoric – in reference to the far-right party. Yet, Labour is a British political party, with British politicians seeking to lead the British people. Surely it would be strange to say anything else?

The Nuance of National Pride

The left seems fearful of attaching itself to patriotism, scared of being associated with national socialism. Indeed, history has many examples of extreme patriotism leading to fascism, racism, death and destruction.

As the American dramatist Eugene O’Neill observed, there is no future only the past repeating itself – and so we can rightly fear that its ugly head will emerge whenever British pride gains a lever over national politics. However, such a reflexive association is highly problematic.

Being patriotic does not have to involve expressing adoration for all of Britain’s past. Being a patriot should mean fighting to improve one’s nation and the lives of all those who live in it. In that sense, every Labour MP should embrace the concept.

My identity as a British citizen is something I am grateful for and proud of. For all its flaws, it is a nation that offered my family sanctuary, without which it is very unlikely I would be able to write this article at all.

I have pride in my story, as the descendant of refugees, and my patriotism. Patriotism is not a dirty word, and it is only society – and political manipulation – that has made it so.

I love my home country in spite of all its flaws, not because of them. And that is perfectly legitimate.

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