The notion of ‘patriotism’ has been met by most members of the Labour Party of the last few decades with something between haughty derision and outright revulsion. Yet as the response to the London 2012 Opening Ceremony and subsequent outpouring of pride in our sporting prowess has shown us, attachment to one’s country is a powerful idea. Everything we should be proud of was on show to the world in Danny Boyle’s Olympic masterpiece; our acquisition of labour rights and universal suffrage, a national health system that provides unquestioning support and care to everybody, a picture of multi-cultural Britain that we felt resolutely comfortable showing off to the world, if not the temperamental Member for Cannock Chase.
A very promising addition to the bank of ideas Labour can draw from over the next three years comes from a young Australian thinker, Tim Soutphommasane. Born to refugees who had fled to France from Laos, he has written extensively on the subject of national identity and multiculturalism. Soutphommasane re-imagines patriotism as a sentiment of democratic renewal and national belonging, a chance to make the emotional case for citizens to support those they will never meet through the welfare state. The Right, he argues, has kept tight hold of patriotism and used it to appeal to its own agenda. The idea that the Left can regain control of patriotism in public discourse has excited Jon Cruddas, the head of Labour’s policy review, and Ed Miliband. Both have met Mr Soutphommasane to discuss how his ideas can translate to re-establishing the idea of a State that appeals not to the standard nationalistic catalogue of clichés – Monarchy, military and aristocracy – but to a renewed sense of community and an acknowledgement that as a people, the British have fought the greatest battles not on foreign blood-soaked soils, but at home, where working people have fought to establish a nation that has a powerful social conscience and a collective duty to one other.
If the Left can truly welcome Soutphommasane’s argument, we will have a case that will appeal to far more people than the many who reject it think it will be appreciated by. Recognition that a love of one’s country and its people does not have to be jingoistic nonsense, but something that the people of this country really care about, will show the public that we finally get it. And if we do it right, we will be able to use the powerful case for country as the powerful case for many of the things the Left has striven to do for decades. Just as Great Britain and Northern Ireland has regained a sense of national confidence following the Olympic success story, the Left can regain confidence in arguing for and defending the things that a compassionate country should have no qualms about having.
Soutphommasane quotes the 19th century US senator, Carl Schurz: “My country, right or wrong: if right, to be kept right; if wrong, to be set right.” Whether they like it or not, those on the Left in Britain who react to patriotism with frothing hatred were born in a country that does not question whether they belong there. They belong to a community, and to look at it dispassionately through the brown-tinted glasses of somebody who rejects a country’s shared history, culture and achievements is to reject a sense of collective responsibility – and, crucially, pride – for what we have built and what we are to build in the years ahead.