McGovern: Labour needs to reclaim patriotism from the narrow nationalists

Alison McGovern
© THOR on Flickr/CC by 2.0

In this Brexit row, the dead-end rhetoric of futile nationalism is ruining our country. It is up to us to resist it.

What is the point of Labour in this fight? It’s time for us to be clear. We are a patriotic bunch of people. We think that the best future – and for the majority of people who make up our country – is secured by power, wealth and opportunity being in the hands of the many, not the few. We are the ones who see Britain not as a country of old empire and dusty establishment, but of a modern-day union jack, emblazoned on the running vest of Mo Farah, painted on the side of HMS Enterprise as it rescues people from drowning in the Mediterranean waters, and stamped on the UK Aid packages as they wait to be carried into war-torn Syria, Yemen, and Sudan.

We know, though, that Brexit is turning point for Britain. We must choose between the isolationism of our current Government, and a co-operative, active Britain that wants to be a part of the world to change it. And the choice is easy, because every Labour person I know has a picture of our country in their mind that is kind, generous, and strong enough to give the next generation a chance. We want our country to be powerful and prosperous not because power is a purpose by itself, but rather, because of the good power can do.

From every trade union representative, to every Labour council leader, and every activist on every street, there are people campaigning for a better deal for British people. Unlike the SNP, our progressive ideals are not simply a cloak to disguise a cynical nationalist agenda. And unlike UKIP, the idea that guides us isn’t jingoistic patriotism. It’s our values. Even more, it is the practical need to bargain better rules that serve the majority, and make sure that in the face of new technology and new global markets, people see more money in their pockets, and not less.

That is why, along with many others in the Labour family, I have argued that we must campaign to stay in the single market.

Though, like any deal you make, there will be give as well as take, I think being part of the largest trading bloc in the world is worth it. For the freedoms it gives people to live and work elsewhere if they need to, the ability it allows to manufacture goods across specialist locations in Europe, and the common protection it offers consumers, I think this is the better deal to be made, and very many in the Labour movement agree. Unsurprising, really, given that most of them spend their days making deals on behalf of working people, that they would recognise the value in making a deal across borders as part of the single market. Ask your average trade union representative in a multinational company if they think their union activity is strengthened by collectively working with trade unions elsewhere in Europe. I bet they say yes. The same logic applies to governments. Work together, you get more out of big business. Unity, after all, is strength.

As members of the British Labour family, though, we are being attacked on all sides by nationalists. We have the SNP telling us that Scotland’s future will only be secured by ripping the United Kingdom apart, and Theresa May, with the applause of UKIP and their newspaper cheerleaders telling us that Britain will only become a self-governing country once we have shredded the treaties we signed up to that have provided prosperity for generations.

And the purpose of nationalists is the precise reverse of Labour’s values. In the case of the SNP, they don’t want power for Scotland for a purpose. It’s Scottish independence for its own sake. It doesn’t matter how much  the SNP put Scottish prosperity at risk or gamble with Scotland’s power to lift people up and do good in the world. All that matters is independence for its own sake. Division over collective action, nationalism over the national interest.

Theresa May and her UKIP friends fail the same test.

Liam Fox gave it away with his empire 2.0 nonsense. Exercising power and influence in the world, for them, is some grandiose idiocy, divorced from the realities of modern British life. The power that British people need is investment in our industry and strong schools and healthcare so that no one is left out of Britain’s prosperity. The idea that Tory ministers are galivanting around the Commonwealth pretending the world hasn’t moved on since 1945 is maddening to those who are struggling with wages that are too slow to rise, and public services that even the National Audit Office now say are on their knees. This isn’t patriotism. It is pathetic.

Both kinds of narrow, petty, nationalism are wrong and self-defeating. Being part of a deal with others in Europe doesn’t diminish our ability to govern ourselves. It is a choice we can make because we have the autonomy to do so. And in any case, should we sign up to any free trade deal, like any bargain, there will be give and take involved. There will be rules we have to stick to that we may not like. So Theresa May is sacrificing one well understood set of rules, in which we have had power and influence, only to seek desperately to engage us in a new set of rules. So much disruption and risk, for so very little gain. All because the prime minister has let Nigel Farage call the shots.

But worse. Because of the rise of nationalism in our country, we risk decades of slow growth, economic decline, and the compounding of social problems that will drag us back to the worst of the Thatcher years, and cause pain for many people. Whilst the government are being understandably coy about the economic impacts of leaving the single market, academics argue that it will be precisely the areas that suffered de-industrialisation in the past that will suffer again.

The answer to all this purposeless, damaging, nonsensical, nationalism is for the Labour movement to do its job. We should represent working people (and those who rely on them for their pensions) and fight for the best deal we can get. That means arguing for staying in the single market and standing up for the common sense idea that working with others, within our country and internationally, is the way we serve our own interest. It means taking on the nationalists in England and in Scotland and wherever else we find them. They are only interested in antagonism and division, preaching simplistic notions of identity and national interest that deny the reality of people’s lives and seek to play on their worst instincts. And all the while, as both the SNP and Tory governments have demonstrated, public services, which should serve English and Scottish people, go to the wall.

The nationalists on our island are not interested in the national interest, they care only about breaking people apart. We are the ones really prepared to fight for our country and now more than ever before, that is what we need to do.

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