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Opinion Patriotism is good for you

GFTU general secretary DOUG NICHOLLS reflects on this week’s VE Day celebrations and the international significance of socialist patriotism

THE spirit of 1945 endured as a dominant cultural force until the Thatcher regime arrived to demolish all post-war progress.

Globalisation, based on the freedom of capital to roam and speculate, replaced internationalism.

Privatisation replaced public ownership and a powerful sense of the common good.

Foreign control over our political economy, through the European Union directives and treaties, replaced a sovereign Parliament. The US dominated our foreign policy.

So two generations grew up in an environment that all too easily bought into the neoliberal agenda. 

Patriotism was equated with chauvinism, democracy was understood to be what unelected commissioners thought was best for us, national planning and co-ordination in industry, utilities, food production and welfare services was condemned as centralist.

Individual liberties and identity rights replaced a concern for the collective. 

Class, and its durable expression in trade unionism, was seen as old hat and campaigning on a million fragmented causes became all the rage.

This all got reflected within the workers’ movement where there was a moving away from care for the nation.

I remember being secretary of the trade union council in the country’s most manufacturing-based city, Coventry, when some argued that it wasn’t a problem that our jobs were being lost here and investment and factory machinery were going abroad, as this was good for developing countries.

I remember, too, some unions were less confused by what was happening and fought tooth and nail to save every industrial job in Britain. 

When opposing simultaneous factory closures here and massive importation of goods, hosiery and knitwear, workers once livened up a Tolpuddle march with their slogan: “If you’re wearing foreign knickers, get them off.”

Massive importation of goods, massive export of capital, the hollowing out of industry and the break-up of nationalised and public services — these were the hallmarks of a capitalism that did not care for our country.

But deep within the awareness of the majority of the population was the understanding that this set of external impositions and divisions had drained our sense of belonging and shared agendas. 

Our voice had been silenced by those we did not elect. Too much of our country had become a wasteland.

The vote to leave the EU returned us to the unabashed confidence that together we can change things and right wrongs through our own democracy and in the interests of all who live in England, Scotland and Wales — Britain.

The spirit of 1945 had returned. We wanted our nation independent, vibrant and to rid itself of the humiliation on the world stage of the destitution and servitude that EU membership had led to.

In one of the strangest tragedies and ironies of recent political history, it was the Tory Party, so versatile and united when the big issues really loom, that better sensed the mood of the people. 

Unfortunately, many in Labour wanted to go against this mood, either to stop the election of Jeremy Corbyn or to further pander at the Court of Brussels and big business.

Attempts to further divide Britain by resurgent petty nationalisms were illusory. Wales and Scotland cannot be independent inside the EU, nor can they survive outside of Britain as viable entities.

Recent inspiring acts of internationalism, say Cuba providing medical assistance to many other countries in the fight against coronavirus, or Vietnam, still with no virus deaths, exporting PPE to the US, come from nations where patriotism is deeply engrained and integral to the progressive, socialist agenda. 

When the Cubans say “Patria o Muerte,” you know they mean it.

So did our predecessors here in the second world war. Our immediate family members who fought and defended the country, and those who joined them from many countries around the world, were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice in a war against inhuman forces. 

Would the Soviet Union have been so ultimately victorious without that overwhelming sense of saving the Motherland and humanity?

The coronavirus endemic has required a sense of national solidarity, of planning, of appreciation of science, of social responsibility, of public service, of mutual respect. 

The nation only ticks and does what it does because all workers are key workers. Some on the front line against the disease we applaud and recognise for their humbling bravery, skill and dedication to others.

These are socialist values, they are national in form and international in significance.

I was always sceptical in the trade unions when a poorly organised branch asked for impossible action and unaffordable solidarity with this or that very worthy struggle elsewhere in Britain, or overseas. 

I thought the best form of solidarity was to take up the struggle where you worked and be as strong as you were able, to set an example for others.

It is the same with patriotism. When it strengthens the solidarity of a nation in the pursuit of democracy, justice and peace, it is an unstoppable force that inspires others throughout the world.

We should not look back on the history of Britain and reduce it only to the history of robber barons, slave owners, pirates, ruthless mill owners, sadistic imperialists.

Britain is the struggle for progress that firstly the peasantry, shortly after the Black Death, then generations of artisans and then workers and trade unionists and democratic campaigners built. 

Britain is the great democratic radical tradition from the medieval guilds and conventicles, to the dissenting, reforming churches. 

It is the science, technology and secular consciousness that flowed from the first Industrial Revolution. 

It is the traditions of progressive liberties, non-sectarianism, free speech and respect.

This was what was consciously celebrated on VE Day 75 years ago when the nazi regime was crushed. 

And this will be so again this week, beneath all the razzamatazz.

Socialists should welcome and celebrate it too. Britain is only its workers. To say nationalism has no place in the new world order, is to say workers do not have a place.

In the name of internationalism, some wouldn’t have a word said against the EU for years while workers throughout the continent suffered the most horrendous deprivations. 

In the name of internationalism some say we can’t do much until workers throughout the world have simultaneously risen to throw off their chains.

I say, don’t expect others to do it if you can’t do it yourself. We should expect to make a truly independent Britain with an internationalist outlook seeking peace in the world and a self-reliant, green, high-tech economy with a new integrated food production and distribution policy on land and fishing waters in our national ownership, serviced by a completely nationalised finance sector.

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