Authentic British and Irish patriotisms are needed. They are entirely compatible

Sir Keir Starmer, Labour leader   

“Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”, declared Dr Johnson, in a typically ringing remark that for over two centuries has been deployed against states trailing memories of  glory to repel criticism of today’s foreign adventures.  Remember though that when Johnson died in 1784, Britain was in the throes of expulsion from her North American Colonies. Parliament was divided between the Tories lamenting loss and defeat and Whigs who made no bones about exulting in American independence. Hard to imagine such broadmindedness  from MPs today.

“Patriotism good, nationalism bad”, is a more recent distinction.  Clashing nationalisms in Great Britain  have been on the rise for a generation. In contrast  nationalism in the 26 counties after 100, 300, 800? years has been dying down. One moment spent on Northern Ireland proves what an outlier it is of both. Perhaps the persistence of clashing explains the difference. In Ireland a confident patriotism has arisen buoyed by economic achievement and – whatever the claims of ever closer union –  membership of a looser union with the EU  replacing  dependence on  and enforced union with Great Britain. Ireland seems more set to contemplate unity of some kind through reconciliation than revenge.

Now is the time to test the robustness of the cohesion of the nation state and   the coherence of the ideas that support it. Fragmenting nationalist  forces in Scotland and England are about to face a tentative challenge from a revival of  British patriotism under threat of UK disintegration.  Once so taken for granted, there is quite a difficulty in finding out what British patriotism actually is. The powerful indeed the increasing nostalgia for war time doesn’t seem to produce anything more than a warm bath feeling and respect for great grandad and great grandma. The search for the holy grail of patriotism would have confounded Sir Galahad. It’s dividing the Labour party who have a more acute problem than the Tories.  Forming a Labour  government would be an uphill struggle without Scotland in one form or another.  Keir Starmer has nailed his colours to the UK mast. But he is encountering scathing criticism for calling on his party to “rediscover British patriotism.” from quite a few , not all of them old Corbynites. And here  from one of his brightest centre left MPs, Clive Lewis   

…attempting to distil the complexity of national identity and patriotism into a “brand values” shorthand is not only dangerous but self-defeating. Dangerous, because patriotism has a side that touches on the darkest aspects of our humanity (one need only look at its relationship to the brutality of empire to understand this). Self-defeating, because it simply doesn’t speak to the multi-faceted reality of our lives.

 Of course, there’s a place for brand management in politics; but it cannot fill a policy, values and vision void. But perhaps the single biggest reason for the flag-waving is also the most unpalatable for me. That’s my party’s refusal to unpack our country’s relationship with patriotism, identity and racism. Whether Jim Callaghan’s overtly racist Immigration Act, New Labour’s “war on immigrants” or Gordon Brown’s dog-whistle “British jobs for British workers”, it’s a spectre that has haunted our party for decades.

Black Lives Matter and the public outrage it generated, when the implications of racism in our society were becoming clearer by the day, was a chance for us to begin to address this issue; to unpack difficult conversations surrounding 400 years of slavery, brutal subjugation and exploitation in the name of race superiority; to begin to reconcile that past so we can think about a better future. Old wounds, opened up by Brexit, will not be healed by a union jack sticking plaster.

So why opt for a faux flag-waving brand that’s a cheapened version of patriotism? Perhaps the glaring lack of any kind of political project, as some expressed in the party’s focus groups, is one reason. There’s little vision and even less analysis of why we are where we are as a country: one gripped by one of the world’s worst Covid death tolls; a disintegrating polity; and attacks from an increasingly authoritarian government on our democratic institutions.

 In the Times David Aaronovitch produces  evidence that alienation among BAME a and young voters generally  is not the force Lewis  thinks it is

It’s the possibility that extensive use of symbols like the Union Jack would alienate millions of existing Labour voters, especially the young, ethnic minorities, or Scots and Welsh. They would see in such a patriotic display not pride, but national chauvinism. The strong suggestion is that many of these voters don’t buy into an association with Britishness.

Is that right? I asked my old friend Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, a think tank that researches questions of identity and integration. He was looking at new research, based partly on polling done in the autumn. The full findings aren’t out yet but in summary they show, in his words, that “pride in being British is a cross-ethnic norm — shared by over three quarters of British ethnic minorities and the white British. [Only] around one in ten say they are not proud.”

What’s really going on here is a belief on the left that the symbols used by their political enemies have been contaminated. Nigel Farage and his cohorts use the Union Jack as a backdrop to their migrant-bashing, goes the theory, so if we use the same symbols then pretty soon we’ll be migrant-bashing.

Here’s my counter-proposal. The Union Jack is my flag. Patriotism is love of country and I am therefore a patriot. I’ve camped in it and canoed through it, worn out shoe leather in its streets. There aren’t many parts of the country I’ve not been to, and I know a fair amount about its history and am always happy to learn more. I feel fortunate to be British.

I don’t believe Nigel Farage feels the same. I detect in him and his biggest supporters a distaste for modern Britain. The Britain they like, if it ever existed, disappeared half a century ago. 

I’ve disinterred as vivid and authoritative version of modern Irish patriotism as you’re likely to find. It comes from that son of GPO veterans and prophet of a New Ireland the late Garret FitzGerald. What distinguishes patriotism from nationalism?  An absence of rage and the presence of generosity. You can feel it in Garret’s every word.  Here writing in 1991  he argues in favour of that well roasted chestnut, the appropriate commemoration of the Easter Rising,

I put forward a case for the necessity and opportuneness of the Rising. Of course, I am well aware that there is a case to be made for the opposite thesis: that events might have turned out better for Ireland if the Rising had not happened and Home Rule had been allowed to take its course, as a stage in the process of a movement to an independent Irish State that might conceivably, if improbably, in time have included Northern Ireland.

I had, indeed, adverted to this alternative view when writing in The Irish Times on the occasion of the 50th anniversary in 1966, at a time when such a reflection was regarded as heretical.

But by 1991 it almost seemed as if it was the positive view of 1916 that had in turn become heretical, its commemoration being left most dangerously in my view almost exclusively to the Provisional IRA and its hangers on and sympathisers.

DANGEROUS, and also unhistorical. For the reluctance to commemorate the Rising five years ago was clearly based on a retrospective view that was determined by current events in 1991, rather than by an understanding of the totally different context in which the Rising took place.

Like everyone else, I suppose, I come to these issues bringing my own baggage with me. I was brought up to respect and admire the courage and self sacrifice of the 1916 leaders, which both my parents had observed at first hang in the GPO during that traumatic week.

n the fragment of autobiography that my father wrote in the early 1940s, covering the three years from April 1913 to April 1916, he showed his respect by unself consciously referring to the leaders as Mr Pearse and Mr Connolly. There he recorded also the self doubts of Pearse and Plunkett in their discussions with him about the morality of a Rising that had little or no hope of success.

He also wrote of their forlorn hope that even at that stage German help might turn the tide, and, of their realistic recognition, following Plunkett’s visit to Germany a year earlier, that if there were a German victory it would inevitably – given the international customs of that time – involve the replacement of the Republic they had just declared in noble terms by an Irish Hohenzollern monarchy, which Pearse believed and hoped would lead the way to an Irish speaking Ireland.

 And from my mother I learnt of how – after she had returned from an abortive mission to bring an inadequately wrapped Tricolour to be flown over a Dublin Castle falsely rumoured to have been captured by the Volunteers – Pearse insisted that she return home to look after my two eldest brothers, so that they might not become orphans of the Rising.

Reared on such tales, and on the later history of the War of Independence – usually laced with humorous anecdotes, for revolutions, too, have their funny sides – I make no claim to objectivity about these events.

Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA


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