Labour’s Patriotism Test

Photograph Source: August Brill – CC BY 2.0

In the recent UK general election the winning Conservatives managed to convince voters nostalgic for the days of Empire that the repeated slogan “Get Brexit Done” was somehow the guarantee of a “Rule Britannia” resurgence of patriotism.

In addition to “Get Brexit Done”, the Tories had “Take Back Control” as their other election slogan.

Both slogans were of course pure nonsense.

BoJo Johnson, born in New York, was an American citizen until the US tax authorities started to take a prosecutorial interest in his tax-dodging ways last year, and this course of action ensued in an overnight relinquishment of BoJo’s US citizenship.

BoJo can now pose, more or less successfully, as a full-blown “patriot” and Ukanian exceptionalist.

So: no more divided loyalties for BoJo, though he and Trump continue to conduct sporadic “love-ins” for the benefit of a pliant rightwing media in the UK.

The US media, understandably, couldn’t give a rat’s arse about a future trade deal concocted between the two posturing leaders of their respective countries.

Given the vast trade imbalance between them, commerce between the US and China is much more important to the US in financial terms than anything a jaunty BoJo can offer Trump.

“Take Back Control” and “Get Brexit Done” are thus vapid and meaningless until the UK manages to be in a position to conclude, in ways binding and definitive, at least a fraction of the hundreds of post-Brexit trade treaties needed to replace those it previously had by virtue of its EU membership.

Only then will the UK have “cred” as a potential trading partner with something to offer.

But this level of seriousness has never been within BoJo’s compass.

The quintessential chancer and con man, he’s set his store, albeit without saying so, by a failure of any withdrawal deal with the EU, thereby hoping to blame the EU for this– BoJo believes he can then concoct an alibi in the hope of convincing his supporters that the fault for a no-deal Brexit lies with the eurocrats in Brussels.

At the same time, Britain’s technocrats of whatever political persuasion, apart from a few die-hard Europhobes, agree that a no-deal Brexit will be hard for a disordered UK to weather economically.

Since the 2008 financial crash, the UK’s economic recovery has been uneven and tepid: investment has been sub-par, productivity growth almost non-existent, wages adjusted for inflation are still below where they were in 2007, and household debt, while stabilizing since 2013, continues to be at a very high level.

Brexit is reckoned to have a 1-3% drag-effect on this already sluggish economy once it is implemented.

But the key “over-ride” in the face of any such supposedly realistic considerations is “patriotism”.

The myth here, mock-Churchillian in tone, and designed for the consumption of BoJo’s mostly elderly and less educated supporters, is that the Britain which once stood alone against a continental European adversary, must now somehow be able to “do it again” (this time with regard to the EU as a more or less hazy across-the-Channel entity).

The underlying fable here, obviously, is that of a British exceptionalism.

And, in terms of underlying political and philosophical principle, this is probably where Corbyn lost.

Corbyn, in his long political career, has never been an Ukanian exceptionalist.

He’s been opposed all the UK’s neocolonial military ventures (to the extent of saying his government, if elected, will find ways to send Tony Blair to the Hague for his participation in the invasion of Iraq).

Labour campaigners on the doorstep found traditional working-class Labour voters having doubts about Corbyn’s “patriotism”—his failure to bow to the queen at the opening of parliament, or sing the national anthem, or not wearing a big enough poppy badge on his lapel for Remembrance Sunday in November, or wanting a ceasefire with the IRA during the Troubles, or his long history as a peacenik, and so on, were projected to voters craving a more gloriously rose-tinted Ukanian past as evidence that Corbyn was insufficiently “patriotic”.

Britain’s rightwing trash-rags of course added fuel to the sentiment that the “unpatriotic” Corbyn had long disdained any vestige of Ukanian exceptionalism (as did some of Corbyn’s Blairite enemies in his own party).

His “constructive ambiguity” over Brexit was fed into this narrative by being glossed as yet another sign of Corbyn’s weakness— here was a fence-sitter who may not be able to stand-up to the flinty eurocrats the way a jingoistic and chippy BoJo would.

Labour has always faced two challenges posed for it by the Establishment and the rightwing media.

The first has to do with socialism, every significant form of which is branded in the rightwing media (which of course monopolizes the UK’s mediascape) as “loony leftism”, “Marxism”, “a revolutionary cult”, etc.

All that Corbyn’s Labour presented to voters this time round was the prospectus for a UK version of Scandinavian social democracy.

But the outcome here has been obvious, even without hindsight: in its frantic (past) efforts to convince voters that it is absolutely committed to a perceived non-revolutionary politics, Labour had to eschew socialism.

Corbyn and his leadership group were the first Labour team in decades not to treat “socialism” as a dirty word, and the outcome was Labour’s worst electoral performance since 1935.

Brexit was of course the dominant factor in contributing to this dismal outcome, but here the second challenge materialized, namely, Labour having always to deal with the charge that it is constitutively “unpatriotic”.

Labour politicians were the prime targets of the “red scares” during the Cold War. “Red scares” can no longer be mobilized politically, but the “patriotism” motif has now morphed into something more generalized, that is, an intrinsic connectedness with Ukanian exceptionalism.

Europhobia, and an accompanying Little Englanderism, showed themselves in the cluster of issues surrounding Brexit.

But we can be critical of, or indeed hostile to, the EU without succumbing to any kind of europhobia or Ukanian exceptionalism.

The EU is after all a staunch supporter of big business and the multinationals (“What is good for Bayer and Daimler Benz is good for Europe”), doesn’t even pretend to represent the interests of working people (except where health and safety measures are concerned), and is profoundly undemocratic (the European parliament is just a debating chamber with no legislative function). And let’s not forget the EU’s part in the fiscal waterboarding of the Greek people during that country’s 2009 financial crash in order to protect the French and German banks from the risky loans they made to the Greek elite.

Corbyn, like many in Labour—the so-called Lexiters– has always been sceptical of the EU for the above reasons.

But as a staunch internationalist, and thus lacking credentials as an Ukanian exceptionalist, the “unpatriotic” card could be played against Corbyn by Brexiter exceptionalists like BoJo.

So someone who grabbed a journalist’s phone and put it in his pocket rather than look at a photo of a young child lying on a hospital floor, who ran and hid in a fridge rather than be questioned by Piers Morgan on his morning TV show, and whose “deal of the century” was precisely the crap one he voted against as an MP 18 months before, got virtually no negative publicity, while Corbyn copped most of it.

The Independent commented on this disparity by citing a report produced by Loughborough University’s Centre for Research in Communication and Culture:

“Because the largest newspapers were more friendly to the Conservatives, when weighted by circulation, the final week of the 2019 election gave the Tories a positive score of 30.17 while Labour’s was minus 96.66 – a vast gulf in treatment.

All opposition parties were portrayed negatively, with only the ruling Tories portrayed in a positive light”.

The Labour leader taking-over from Corbyn will therefore face not just the two challenges just mentioned (being branded as “unpatriotic” because shunning Ukanian exceptionalism, and being “a loony leftist” for espousing social democracy), but also a hostile media campaign of unremitting ferocity and character assassination— unless of course they come across as “patriots” and commit themselves to a non-socialist politics.

Only then will Labour be deemed “electable” by Rupert Murdoch and his ilk.

Already Rebecca Long-Bailey, the Corbynite frontrunner in the contest to find Corbyn’s successor, has called for a “progressive patriotism” in an attempt to obviate the charge directed at him (though she has refrained from criticizing Corbyn). To quote The Guardian:

“Long-Bailey differentiates herself from Corbyn by saying that as Labour leader she would champion “progressive patriotism”. She says: “From ex-miners in Blyth Valley to migrant cleaners in Brixton, from small businesses in Stoke-on-Trent to the self-employed in Salford, we have to unite our communities. Britain has a long history of patriotism rooted in working life, built upon unity and pride in the common interests and shared life of everyone”.

The problem of course is detaching this “progressive patriotism” from any kind of Ukanian exceptionalism.

This may seem equivalent to squaring the circle, but look for Long-Bailey and her strategists to move the terms of the patriotism-debate, should it become significant, from a patriotism based on ethno-nationalist fantasies to one based on a version of “civic” patriotism.

Kenneth Surin teaches at Duke University, North Carolina.  He lives in Blacksburg, Virginia.