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How liberals can reclaim patriotism after Brexit

The London Eye and buildings along the South Bank are lit up with the colours of the Union flag - Credit: PA

IAN DUNT on how liberals can redefine national pride and reclaim the flag from nationalists.

Brexit, sold as a commitment to self-government, created an insidious side effect that may yet prove its most damaging legacy. It mutilated British patriotism and turned it into nationalism.

In his 2017 book, The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics, British author and journalist David Goodhart said the success of the Leave campaign represented the triumph of the “somewheres” over the rootless “anywheres”. A day of reckoning delivered by the majority rooted within specific communities over the minority “anywheres”; those whose outlook was expansive, more inclined to enjoy the benefits of globalisation.

Goodhart’s somewheres-vs-anywheres formulation was false. Those who opposed Brexit were not disconnected from the United Kingdom. They were invested in it.
The difference is, their patriotism was compatible with an outward-facing desire for Britain to sit in progressive partnership with its neighbours. Not the style of patriotism necessarily synonymous with vigorous flag-waving, but patriotism all the same.

The last few weeks have seen a further backlash against this idea of progressive patriotism.

An internal Labour presentation, elements of which were published by the Guardian, suggesting the party should embrace the flag in order to win back Red Wall voters, those traditional northern Labour seats so comprehensively demolished by Johnson’s Conservative vote. Activists and MPs portrayed it as a surrender to the politics of UKIP, as if all patriotism was equivalent to nativism.

That view is flawed in several ways. On an electoral basis, it is suicidal.

Upcoming research from the pro-immigration think tank British Future found that pride in Britain was felt by three-quarters of people. Only one in ten said they were “not proud”.

This sentiment is shared across ethnicity, age groups and political opinion. A 2012 survey by the Institute for Social and Economic Research asked respondents how important being British was to them on a scale of zero to ten. Pakistani-origin respondents answered 7.76, Bangladeshis 7.75, Indians 7.68, Black Africans 7.64, Middle Easterners 7.48, Chinese 6.90 and Carribeans 6.89. Right at the bottom were white respondents, with 6.58.

A survey last year by the group More in Common found a clear majority of social liberals felt good when they saw the British flag flying.

Most people have a sense of patriotism. Liberals can either speak to that or they allow the nativist right to hold a monopoly over it.

But one thing is true. Opponents of Brexit failed to effectively counter the somewheres-vs-anywheres narrative. If we’re to prevent it happening again, we need to place our arguments in a patriotic framework.

To articulate a new liberal patriotism, we must go back to the flag itself. It’s written off as the ‘butcher’s apron’ by those who associate it exclusively with colonialism. But if you tilt your head slightly and look at it from a different angle there is something tremendously beautiful in it.

It brings the symbols of different nations together as one. It represents many diverse things operating in common purpose. It is fundamentally multicultural. It contains within it the idea that people with different heritages, ideas and cultures can live together.

The patriotism stoked by the Brexit movement wasn’t diverse. It represented the nation as a homogenous block: uniform and singular. There was one will of the people, instead of a collection of different interests and eccentricities. This will was channelled by political leaders, who insisted it was whatever they said it was. Those who did not share it were enemies of the people.

Liberal patriotism works in the opposite direction. It starts and ends with the individual. It is a personal love story which springs from within, not a slab of uniformity imposed from above. It therefore cares about every individual in the country.

In June 1850, at the height of British imperialism, then prime minister Lord Palmerston delivered a speech in the Commons which defined his approach to foreign policy.
David Pacifico, a Jewish man born in Gibraltar, had asked for assistance as a British citizen in a claim of compensation against the Greek government for damage to his property during anti-Semitic riots. Palmerston decided to act.

“A British subject,” he said, “in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England will protect him against injustice and wrong.”

Like all national myths, it crumbles when you scratch at it. Palmerston didn’t really care about Pacifico. He was just looking for excuses for a military initiative. But there’s still something in that speech which speaks to what liberal patriotism can look like today. It is grounded in the defence of every individual in the country – no matter what they think, no matter how they live, and no matter where they’re from.

What does this brand of patriotism look like in practice? For a start it means that we don’t leave people to die in their tens of thousands because of our ineptitude. We commit to competence in government, because that is what best reflects the moral duties upon which it is based.

It means we protect British businesses. We do not scrape together deals with our trading partners on Christmas Eve and then implement them days later, with no time to prepare. We do not leave companies helpless as a tidal wave of bureaucracy sweeps in. We put the wellbeing of people in this country above ideology, as a patriotic requirement of government.

We do not accuse people of treachery just because they have different opinions to us. We do not bang on about being world-beating or humiliate ourselves by pleading for relevance with America. We operate as an equal partner out of our own enlightened self-interest in a global system of cooperation – in the UN, the WTO, and eventually back in Europe.

Many on the liberal left have accepted the idea that their values are opposed by the majority of British people. The reality is very different. The More in Common survey found clear majorities in the country for progress on gender and racial equality, for closing the gap between the haves and have-nots, for recognising and rewarding the labour of key workers and for action on climate change.

There is no distinction between these campaigns and patriotism. In fact, it is patriotism which provides the best possible frame for promoting them: the protection and advancement of everyone in Britain and the defence of the country’s interests.

We all know the most difficult policy area in this discussion. It is immigration. For years now we’ve allowed the most xenophobic elements of the UK to attack immigrants — to make them afraid, to drive them from Britain, to take away their sense of security and self respect.

In fact, there is an unspoken truth about immigration in this country. Concern about it is plummeting. Recognition of its benefits is soaring. In the early 2010s, surveys typically found immigration was people’s primary political concern. It is now often as low as ninth. In 2011, just 19% of British people thought immigration had been good for the country. It is now around half. People’s views of immigration are much more nuanced than the mainstream debate allows.

There is space for a pragmatic pro-immigration policy agenda. We just have to avoid the cultural wedge issues which the right-wing tabloid press promotes and ground it in a sense of fairness.

This would include giving European citizens in the UK voting rights, making settled status automatic, reducing the costs of citizenship, eradicating the spousal visa income requirement, abolishing detention centres, dismantling the Hostile Environment and allowing foreign students to work here for two years after their study.

This is the hardest area for liberal patriots, but it is one in which we can help tens of thousands of people if we learn how to mould the debate in patriotic terms.

Electoral politics is ultimately about story-telling. We know the story they told during Brexit. It is one of tribal hatred — of true Brits versus wafting cosmopolitans. And we know the consequence of its success. Britain divided, alone in the world, dismantling its own businesses, leaving its population to die from its incompetence.

We have a chance now to tell a different story, one which recognises people’s admiration for their country and translates it into a political programme which secures the liberal ideals held by the majority of the population.

It is a patriotism that does not pit one against the other, but defines itself by helping every individual.

It is a better story. And it has a better ending, if we choose to tell it.


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