Celebrating patriotism : How Labour can learn from Danny Boyle

1st August, 2012 11:28 am

By embracing a social democratic patriotism, the Olympic opening ceremony has succeeded where Labour MPs have failed.

When I first sat down to draft an article on the need for a more patriotic Labour party, Andy Murray was still one game away from a Wimbledon final, England’s painfully predictable penalty shootout defeat had just been shrugged off and the jubilee celebrations were fading into distant memory. The call for the Labour Party to promote its own form of social democratic patriotism in order to show that they are the true ‘party of Britain’ was not an easy one to make amidst liberal lefty cynicism.

But on Friday night Britain’s finest film director changed the landscape.

A picture is worth a thousand words, and Friday night’s four-hour extravaganza told a thousand stories. The Olympic opening ceremony saw Britain at its best. Moreover, the Olympic opening ceremony saw Labour at its best.

To put it simply, Danny Boyle succeeded where every modern Labour politician has failed. In this celebration of the NHS, multiculturalism and equality, whether he intended it or not, Boyle embraced a form of social democratic patriotism that Labour has thus far failed to acknowledge.

Low and behold, on Friday night Labour politicians flocked to Twitter. MPs Douglas Alexander, Ed Balls and Andy Burnham were all ‘proud’ to be British and even Twitter’s prominent liberal lefty ‘intellectuals’ were beginning to smile at a few of Britain’s achievements.

Labour now has an opportunity that would be a sin to waste; an opportunity to win back patriotic Brits who see no link between their own love for their country and Labour’s internationalist position.

The key is in the definition. Boyle’s ceremony demonstrates that, with the correct focus, Ed Miliband and his team can and should seek to talk up Britain and reconnect with ‘lost’ voters who no longer feel Labour is the party of Britain.

Labour must shape patriotism around its own values. It need only look to late American author Sydney J. Harris. To paraphrase, Harris states that patriotism is the desire to celebrate a nation’s virtues and wish to correct its deficiencies. Meanwhile, nationalism is the inherent belief that your nation is superior, and thus you have an inherent right to superiority over people from another. To take this further, patriots feel pride in their country, but unlike nationalists, they also feel shame. While patriots acknowledge that their country’s actions may require careful scrutiny, nationalists live in denial that their country can ever be condemned.

From this, crucially Labour can emphasise the coherence between patriotism and social democracy. British patriotism must be centred on a successful economy and society which works for everyone – rather than in the imperial sense of world power. This must be key to Labour’s agenda in order to facilitate its internationalist tendencies. Patriotism must also be moulded in a collaborative sense with each citizen working hard to do their bit for their society and their economy,as well of course, for themselves and their families.

So what does this mean in real terms? And why is this important, and/or helpful?

The figures don’t lie. More than 24 million of us watched the Royal wedding, Almost 17 million watched Murray’s Wimbledon final, and 23 million watched England’s penalty misery. Now, 27 million have watched the Olympic extravaganza. Patriotism is everywhere, and when the occasion arrives almost everyone seems to revel in their Britishness.

But there is one group in particular to target. Labour has failed to connect with the ‘socially conservative working class’, or perhaps ‘lower middle class’, or, if you’d rather, ‘C2 voters’ who flocked to the Conservatives in the Thatcher years. In the past fifteen years, Labour has been afraid to talk too loudly about issues such as national identity, afraid of upsetting their liberal left fanbase and inviting accusations of nationalism. The failure to discuss immigration has cost Labour, as has perceived generosity in welfare payments, so it is important that Labour finds a way to reconnect with the ‘silent majority’ – without pandering – ahead of 2015. In the current climate, there is real scope to win voters back – especially at a time when many are being hit hard by Tory cuts. If structured correctly, Labour can do this in an ethical way which aligns with the party’s values.

National identity is something that many people cling onto in their search for belonging. We shouldn’t sneer at this, this is exactly what Labour must be about – helping people find a sense of community. Labour can’t afford to let the Tories steal their ground.

With a focus on the worth of patriotism, Labour can highlight the ‘unpatriotic’ behaviour in the corners of British society which bring pain upon the the hard working majority. The first group is those failing to recognise and appreciate the freedoms of the liberal democracy which thousands around the world are dying to achieve. Boyle’s focus on equality and multiculturalism are important here. Emphasising how right-wing movements, and religious fundamentalists, who fail to appreciate the democratic virtues of Britain, are not patriotic – along with an emphasis on British values of tolerance and a coherent narrative about Britain’s fight for democracy during the two world wars – could help pacify right-wing groups and support calls for communities to do more to combat potential extremists.

Secondly, Labour needs to show we are serious about ‘making work pay’, and need a clear line which targets those who are unwilling to work, yet praises those who are looking for work to support their nation and society. Those who misuse the benefit system are letting down Britain and we shouldn’t be afraid to attack them.

But Labour’s biggest attack can be launched at those at the other end of the spectrum. Many businessmen, or indeed public figures, channeling money through offshore tax schemes need to be outed and targeted for ‘crimes’ against their country. “How dare they give refuse to give back to the society and economy that has allowed them so much opportunity? There’s nothing patriotic about them and we should question their citizenship,” should be the Labour line, making it clear that we will not be held to ransom by big business. This message of patriotic responsibility can also be woven into Ed Miliband’s ‘predator vs. producer’ rhetoric. Why for instance, would a patriotic exploit fellow citizens? In this case patriotism can be used to demonstrate Labour’s economic competence.

And finally, Labour should be clear that patriotism can still fit with internationalism. “A great country such as our own also has the resources to help others and shouldn’t shun its responsibilities,” Miliband should say.

Patriotism can cohere to both Labour’s economic vision and its vision for a socially liberal yet communitarian and responsible society. Unfortunately, only one leading figure has truly identified the scope for Labour to set the agenda. Ivan Lewis’ One Nation Labour, the most important chapter in Progress Online’s Purple Book, pinpoints Labour’s need to address issues of identity and belonging, rather than solely prove economic credibility. His fellow MPs should take heed.

Danny Boyle has shown Labour the way. If Labour politicians can seize their moment, this may just help them seize power in 2015.

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  • Yes, wave some red flags. That usually works.

    • treborc

      Well why not the blue ones seem to be  in the dirt at the moment.

    • Tiptree

      Trying to drum up some rough trade for your own dying blog, OH. It figures.

  • As I enjoyed the Olympic opening ceremony never once did it occur to me that I was, in fact, enjoying a 
    celebration of “social democratic patriotism” – it’s a funny old world.

    Two words of advice for politicians hoping gain advantage by latching onto the panache and success of others: snout out.

    • Winston_from_the_Ministry


  • I don’t really go much on patriotism, but I think there is a case for saying clear and loud that some of the things we believe in are the good things about Britain, and they are the very things the Tories want to destroy.

    I find the constant emphasis on ‘reform’ tiresome – because it rarely seems to point to any improvement

    Identity and belonging is complicated. I don’t think it is something which necessarily unites

    • ThePurpleBooker

      You exemplify the real conservatism that goes on. You do not want things to change but you want the super-powerful State but no real rejoicing – which is apart from party politics – of our country. Not surprising since you Red Bookers, think any debate within the party is a distraction, “Non-Labour” and rightwing. What you show is something which is Not Labour but a leftwing statism which in many ways is conservative in itself. That is why Labour Left will fail.

      • treborc

         You really are in the wrong party mate, you and those other  tiresome new labour Blue hookers really do need to look at the political party, I’m sure the Liberals will take you back, well maybe not

      • I want change where its necessary. But unlike you and Progress, I oppose the Conservative idea of localism, which institutionalises inequality. That is not the sort of change which Labour should, or will, promote. 

        We are quite prepared to debate issues and, indeed, we have done so, but we are also clear that our left-wing ethical approach does not include neo-liberalism and believes that Government has an active role,  not just that of enabler – again, a Conservative approach.

        Labour believes in the role of the public sector – indeed, the successes of the last Government were based on that belief. 

  • ThePurpleBooker

    I completely agree with this article but I think it is unfair to that Labour people don’t acknowledge this. Jim Murphy launched Labour Friends of the Forces for example, Jon Cruddas has been doing excellent work on opening up a debate on Englishness, James Purnell and Nick Pearce did an article in The Guardian talking about issues like crime, immigration, national identity and defence but also Blue Labour has led the way on this issue notwithstanding Ivan Lewis’ chapter. I think we should continue to celebrate the Monarchy, the armed forces, our great institutions and our traditions alongside social changes such as gay rights, multiculturalism and modern music for example. I think Labour should start leading the way on a national athem for Britain and possibly legislation on that. A good suggestion would be for us to change our own party anthem from the Red Flag to Jerusalem. The Red Flag is a very old fashioned song which has been hijacked by those on the hard-Left and what it represents might be out of sync with people however Jerusalem is patriotic socialist hymn which derives from an English radical tradition – like the Labour movement itself and therefore I think it is fair to say Jerusalem best represents Labour as a song than the Red Flag.

    • treborc

      What a  silly ho0oker you are…

    • Thanks for the feedback. Yeah, so a few figures in and around the party have spoken about identity and belonging, but to be honest 99% of the population don’t who Jim Murphy or Jon Cruddas are, so a few articles here and there aren’t going to help. (Ok, so on this note perhaps I’m clutching at straws with Ivan Lewis being a ‘leading figure’!)

      What we need is for Miliband & co to talk up duty to country/fellow citizens when attacking benefit cheats and offshore tax avoiders as these big stories come up in the news, so that people down the Dog ‘n’ Duck seize on this sentiment, talk about it and link it to Labour’s rhetoric when voting at the next election. ‘Hang on, they’re the ones saying what I’ve been saying for the past two years’ etc.

      As for Blue Labour, my worry is there has been some chat from that camp about patriotism and nationalism being the same thing – so I worry that strand of Blue Labour goes too far the other way. But I completely agree that Glasman has played a very important part in that debate, and hopefully he still has a role to play in the party over the next couple of years

      • ThePurpleBooker

        I think you are completely right. Ed Miliband’s speech on Englishness was good though and I the Better Together campaign will be an acceptable where a Labour-led campaign will be able to preserve the Act of Union.
        On Blue Labour, I get your point but I think many in Blue Labour know there is a line between nationalism and patriotism. We need a national anthem for England, though and I hope someone will start a campaign to change the party’s anthem too.

  • Mickelmas

     Ed Miliband must be green with envy that his failure over two years to tap into voters patriotism took only hours by Danny Boyle. Observe and learn!


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