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Starmer’s ‘patriotic turn’ – and what it means

Signalling an end to the Corbyn period’s politics of peace and internationalism is obviously part of the new management’s thinking, but how will such vacuous slogan-peddling fare in an era of multiple crises, asks KEVIN OVENDEN

IT WILL “let torturers off the hook.” The verdict of former chief of defence staff Lord Guthrie on the Overseas Operations Bill is damning.

If you feel in need of political cover for opposing this legislation, you cannot find better.

Yet still the Labour Party whipped its MPs merely to abstain, and Keir Starmer sacked three junior frontbenchers for voting against.

You can sense the dismay among Labour Party members. A survey earlier this year found that the Stop the War Coalition remained their favoured campaign.

Signalling an end to the Corbyn period’s politics of peace and internationalism is obviously part of the new management’s thinking.

The failure to vote against a torturers’ charter also went some way to filling out the content of Starmer’s invocation of patriotism in his conference speech. 

We all got the message: “I love my country,” family values and security. 

But he didn’t say much about what it is that he loves and what these things mean. It was left as floating signifiers — meaning to be provided daily by the Tory press.

In emptiness it nearly sank to the government’s ever-mutating three-word Covid slogans.

What are you meant to say in response? I hate my country, want to sunder families across the land and favour a war of all against all?

Two justifications are offered for the patriotic turn. The first is tactical. This is the way to win back voters lost in the Midlands and north of England. Labour is now listening to the working class in those regions.

But the message from voters was already clear, and Labour activists were shouting about it before last December. 

It was that the shift to a continuity-Remain position was alienating not only Labour people who voted Leave but even some who opted to Remain but accepted the result.

There have been some unfeasible statistical conjectures and much obfuscation. 

Still, it is scarcely deniable that the shift in Brexit policy between 2017 and 2019 represented a faith breach for so many. Not the only issue — but the catalysing one.

Now we have architects of that shift towards the People’s Vote gift to Boris Johnson claiming to listen — having learned little and holding to the same wrong assessment they made in 2016. 

The Brexit vote was many things. One of them, which the Corbyn leadership recognised at the time, was a roar against the Establishment and precisely a demand to be listened to. The main issues found in polling were democracy and control.

Instead, far too many in the labour movement characterised that vote — and thus 17 million voters — as socially conservative and simply motivated by chauvinism or racism. That thinking appears to hold still in the Labour leadership.

Thus the Union Jack backdrops and scattering around words like patriotism and family. The mistaken view leads to two bad things at the same time. 

In abandoning an insurgent, anti-Establishment politics it continues not to listen to that roar from so many people. 

In accommodating conservative themes it reinforces that element that was indeed strong in 2016.

Instead of disentangling the class and popular sentiment from the reactionary politics of the leaders of the official Leave campaign, it allows them to fuse. 

It doesn’t cut into the political terrain; it tries to orienteer it. The beneficiaries will likely be the Tories or radical right-wing forces.

The strategic justification for yet another bout of Labour patriotism is more worthy of consideration. 

That said, its loudest proponents are those who thought the path to victory was marching in London with people who sneered at Leave voters as racist “gammons” while promising the benighted folk of Newcastle Nato and nukes.

The left has always faced the challenge of winning majority support and of pulling behind it a bloc of forces capable of asserting “national hegemony.” More deeply, that has raised the question of class and nation.

The Labourite solution has been dominated by the subordination of class and working class interests to nation and fabulated “national interest.” That happened in 1931 with the formation of a national government at the expense of millions unemployed. 

It happened in 1967 during the sterling devaluation when Harold Wilson called on “both sides of industry” to come together to put “Britain first.” 

The trade union movement at that time wisely refused to surrender shop-floor organisation to boost corporate exports.

It is a myth, however, that the radical left opposed to that tradition has paid no regard to popular sentiment and history, instead denouncing them from a cosmopolitan vantage point out of time and place.

Two cliches appear every time there is a labour “patriotic” debate — and it is almost perennial. 

Samuel Johnson’s (often misunderstood) “last refuge of the scoundrel” does have the virtue of signalling what remains a strong sentiment in all parts of Britain against gaudy and nasty chauvinism deployed to distract.

Then there is George Orwell’s distinction between patriotism and nationalism, and championing of an “English socialism.”

Orwell’s is, in my view, one of those distinctions with little or no difference. In any case, I do wonder how many who wrap themselves in it have actually read his The Lion and the Unicorn written under the London Blitz.

For it is not so much an idyllic portrait of “old maids bicycling to Holy Communion through morning mist” but an argument marshalled towards: arming the working class; storming the Ritz (as working-class Londoners did to highlight class inequality in air-raid provision); and seizing power from the Tory ruling class in order to fight a revolutionary anti-fascist war of liberation.

Make what you will of Orwell’s argument — or of the man himself — but I missed that strand of thinking in Starmer’s speech and the left apologetics for it.

Absent also was even a nod to the popular history of England and the other nations of Britain tracing the thread of a radical counter national story, as developed by EP Thompson, Gwyn Williams and other great intellectuals of the left. 

Predictably, no mention either of the hidden history of women as excavated by Sheila Rowbotham and so many more. Nor of the peopling of Britain — a history of reactionary exclusion but also of the insurgent creation of a multicultural reality.

Whatever gloss some leftists may put on it, we are not being offered a “left patriotism” of the kind various thinkers and parties have explored in southern Europe down the decades. 

However mistaken that was, it at least spoke of democratic national revolution against oligarchic interests.

All that is happening is a traditional adaptation to British nationalism under the honeyed word patriotism. And vapid — I love my country, but I’m not going to talk about its complex and stormy history or of its culture.

Instead of drawing on the popular-democratic history to tell an alternative national story, it simply apes the golf-club-bore Tory account. 

Even Ed Miliband’s evisceration of Johnson in Parliament skipped from Magna Carta to the 19th-century imperialist conceit of England as “mother of parliaments.”

Nothing in the intervening 650 years. No Peasants’ Revolt, no English Revolution, no Levellers, no Peterloo, no Chartists? And that is just England.

Instead of a grand counter-hegemonic narrative (no — there is nothing Gramscian in Labour’s approach) drawing on the better side of history and tradition, there is desiccated technocracy leavened with poundshop patriotism. 

Such a contrast to that massive Corbyn rally in Gateshead that wove a sense of real community and place with the contemporary — a local black female MP trained as an engineer — and a transformed future. 

The left is invited to go along with this — or even prettify it — in return for future modest policies and words about breaking from the austerity of 10 years ago. 

But in words just about everybody, from the Bank of England to the Treasury, disavows the austerity period. (It’ll have to come back in a different form.)

The Labour leadership is also strategically avoiding sweeping policy proposals, just responding hand to mouth. 

And the biggest problem is what you might call policy-itis. The idea that politics is reducible to a bundle of policies. That was a weakness of Labour’s approach last year.

The cascade of crises means politics is back globally. It is not a series of policy pronouncements but about the great questions facing all of us. 

Class is also back. It is the underlying big story that people’s everyday lives open them to, if it is told. 

It is more than sermons on poverty and inequality. It is an overarching standpoint informing our view of history, culture, nation and politics.

Nothing repeats exactly. But Starmer’s patriotic turn this week reminded me of nothing more than the Blair-Brown embrace of a “post-class,” communitarian invention of “British values” 25 years ago. 

The lauded values — democracy, tolerance and fairness — are in fact universal. And a cursory glance at history shows they are far from universally adhered to in a Britain of bitter class division.

The left does have a story to tell in every region and nation in Britain. It is not trying to appear more Catholic than the Pope. 

Nor is it one that ends up appearing to have less regard for human rights in warfare than the former head of the British army.

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