THIS week Keith Vaz, chair of the House of Commons home affairs select committee, asked the Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, “Do you love your country?”
This was in relation to the Guardian’s publication of some of Edward Snowden’s leaked documents on the activities of the US-UK surveillance state. Rusbridger, clearly surprised by the question, answered in the affirmative: “We are patriots. One of the things we are patriotic about is the nature of democracy and a free press.”
Patriotism, for all the uses and misuses of Dr Johnson’s quote about it being “the last refuge of the scoundrel”, has proved a messy battleground. Many on the right in Britain view it unconditionally, while large parts of the left see it as reactionary and to be resisted. To add to this many on the right have used it down the years to smear and undermine the left.
Vaz has yet to explain his comments, but even elements of the right-wing press found them hard to defend. The Daily Telegraph’s Dan Hodges called it a straightforward “definition of McCarthyism”; while the usually pugnaciously right-wing Daily Mail columnist Quentin Letts found it an uneasy, uncomfortable use of words.
Right-wing patriotism has embraced respect for British traditions, history and institutions such as the monarchy. It has articulated the seamless version of the history of the four nations of the UK: one that talks about continuity and conservation and downplays all the ruptures and upheavals.
Left-wing patriotism has consistently had a problem and been thrown by the right. They have baulked at the stories and crimes of Empire, imperial wars and militarism.This leads in one of two directions: the first is the pointless rejection of all things British which does not get you very far. The other is nearly as bad: the disingenuous Gordon Brown approach of stating that “the British Empire was much better than any other”.
One reason that the left has had such a problem is the power of the continuity story of Britain. The people’s Britain, with its struggles and radicalism, the G.D.H. Cole account of “the common people” with its English and Scottish variants expressed so eloquently by E.P. Thompson and Tom Johnston respectively, never sidelined the Whig account of British history.
There is also the perennial problem the left had with nationalism. British left-wingers have consistently tried to deny that they are British nationalists, witness their age-old cry, “I am an internationalist not a nationalist”.
So the Michael Foots, Tony Benns and George Galloways of this world have been comfortable embracing numerous national liberation movements – Vietnamese, Palestinian, Venezuelan – all of which are nationalist, but tied themselves in knots at home. This, of course, continues in spades in the independence referendum, with Unionists in denial that their philosophy is a nationalism. That nasty word is all about the other lot – the “narrow nationalism” beloved of Labour politicians as a bogey.
There is fortunately another strand on the left: that of the British radical patriot seen in George Orwell and in the present day by the likes of Billy Bragg. This understands that you cannot leave the word patriotism to the right and expect to compete for power and legitimacy.
Orwell grasped that the Union Jack, that was the flag of Empire, slavery and conquest, was also the flag which abolished slavery, oversaw decolonisation, stood alone against the evils of Hitler and Nazism and built the welfare state. It also gave the world a tradition of standing against state oppression, for liberty and dissent.
It isn’t an accident that Bragg doesn’t have a problem with the British nationalist tag, has reclaimed past radical currents and demonstrated a subtlety on the Scottish independence argument. It is just sad that so many British leftists have not shown a similar grasp of history.
Tory MEP Daniel Hannan added his voice to the Vaz/Rusbridger exchange this week, approvingly quoting Herbert Butterfield from the 1930s: “The study of the past with one eye upon the present is the essence of what we mean by the word ‘unhistoric’.” Hannan is author of the just published How We Invented Freedom and Why It Matters which, despite its title, is a reflective case for a Tory Eurosceptic patriotism. Where is the Labour and left equivalent to this, making the case for progressive Britain as it faces the multiple crises of Osborne’s austerity, the independence debate and how the UK re-interprets its position vis-à-vis Europe? Nowhere.
That silence isn’t an accident. It is a product of the British left’s problem with British history which has cost it dear through the centuries. An alternative left version of Britain would invoke John Wilkes, Tom Paine, Mary Wollstonecraft, the Chartists, Suffragettes, the defeat of Nazism, the end of Empire and the rise of the welfare state. It would understand that there is never a final version of a country’s history – what the French writer Ernest Renan called “a daily plebiscite”. For too long the left assumed that there was a continuous march of the people through history, tearing down deference and authority.
The mainstream left made the mistake of thinking that the Attlee high tide was irreversible and immune to criticism, and then along came the crises of the 1970s and Thatcherism. It is still struggling with the consequences of that turn and Thatcher’s English nationalism and patriotism wrapped up in free marketism and authoritarianism.
No wonder the British left and anti-independence part of the Scottish left are in a state about the coming debates on the future of the UK in relation to independence and Europe. They seem to have little to say beyond have faith in a return to a Britain of pre-1979, as if Thatcher never happened, and our continual invoking of 1945.
It is a bit late in the day to hope for any better, but the outcome of current debates: of George Osborne’s want to return to the Britain of 1948 spending levels, Scottish independence, the simmering English question and the coming European debate and eventual referendum, may just force a different kind of British left to emerge, with new Scottish and English variants.