Celebrating patriotism : How Labour can learn from Danny Boyle

Joe Jervis

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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