Hypernationalism is fragmenting Britain. In a post-Brexit landscape, the Tories are touting British exceptionalism to counteract their wider policy failures. Keir Starmer must ensure Labour challenges the rhetoric of division that is weaponised by the Right, by instead championing a progressive form of patriotism.  

Can we have patriotism without prejudice?

The definition of patriotism is hazy. What once implied ‘the loyalty of a person to their own nation’, has now changed meanings across ideologies. To the Right, patriotism is often associated with a romantic vision of the past, which seeks to conserve the cultural heritage of a nation. Modern circles on the Left have been more hesitant to embrace patriotism, seeing it as the root of a form of national chauvinism which contradicts their internationalist values.

Historically speaking, the Left’s fear is not unfounded. From Boris Johnson’s comparison of Muslim women to ‘letterboxes’, to his crass depiction of Black people’s ‘watermelon smiles’, he has maliciously misrepresented minorities to the wider public. Yet these comments are just the tip of the iceberg. Human rights groups consider the ‘Hostile Environmentpolicies introduced by the Tories from 2012 to be unmistakably xenophobic, contributing to a rise in racial discrimination.

Most recently, Priti Patel’s proposed immigration policies are said to radically ‘overhaul the UK’s asylum system’, by stripping asylum seekers who arrive illegally to the UK of many of their entitlements. By potentially curtailing their benefits and family reunion rights, the government is willing to ignore Britain’s international duties under the Refugee Convention, at the cost of maintaining national homogeneity.

Can Labour pull off patriotism?

While this ideological conviction has been mobilised increasingly in the past few years, it had existed long before the Conservative’s return to power in 2010. Rather, hypernationalism has been a complex trend, emerging from the discontent of those who have felt systemically disenfranchised — and this sentiment traces back to the 1990s. A report conducted by The British Social Attitudes Survey detected the rise of English nationalism to go hand-in-hand with increasing frustration about the future role of England following devolution in 1997. Likewise, Johnson’s government has not changed the status quo — they’ve just capitalised on the growing anger that more and more British citizens are voicing, especially as Britain’s demographic landscape changes. Xenophobia is not a new attitude, but an existing challenge that Labour has confronted for many years.

Indeed, Corbyn’s refusal to adopt any given image of patriotism was firm, but it was costly. A poll conducted by the former Chair of the Conservative Party, Lord Ashcroft, revealed how an apparent lack of patriotism drove Labour’s defeat, and loss of the Red Wall, in the 2019 General Election. Undeniably, patriotism is on the rise today. A YouGov survey conducted in February 2021 found that 61 per cent of participants considered themselves to be ‘patriotic regarding the UK’.

The Left must then accept that Labour’s salvation lies in their ability to resonate with the electorate’s sense of national pride. Last year, Rebecca Long-Bailey was wrongly chastised for advocating this — a progressive patriotism, which ties national community with international solidarity.

However, according to a leaked strategy presentation on 2 February, researchers argued for Labour to rebuild their image by reclaiming ‘the [union] flag, veterans, and dressing smartly’. While navigating the optics of patriotism is crucial to the party’s survival, Starmer’s approach should not be limited to superficial gestures, nor should it mirror the intolerant tactics adopted by the Tories.

Labour must understand the distinction between progressive patriotism, and hypernationalism — an ideology grounded in Britain’s assumed superiority to other nations. In order to maintain the values of community and equality that Labour was built upon, Starmer must reframe the definition of patriotism. In 1945, the Labour Party created a post-war consensus based on socialist policies, to unite the nation. The establishment of the welfare state demonstrated how patriotism can be amalgamated with progressive ideals. Starmer can similarly exhibit a love for his country by fortifying its foundations. This means implementing policies that elevate those disempowered by austerity: a commitment to progressive taxation and increased funding for education and healthcare — in stark contrast to the measures announced in Rishi Sunak’s newly-unveiled Budget. At its core, progressive patriotism should unite citizens by promoting a collective vision of an egalitarian society.

Until now, Labour’s blind spot lay in their inability to understand the emotional value of Britishness. Albeit, the situation differs in Scotland where this apparent attachment to Anglocentric values has cumulatively cost Labour the bulk of their seats. But Starmer cannot unify the country and regain the Red Wall by scapegoating immigrants. Instead, he can effectively uplift those disillusioned in the North and the Midlands by investing in regional developments, and easing the party away from its London-centric image.

Parroting the Tories’ flag-waving gestures also risks alienating much of the BAME electorate that Labour has heavily relied on for political support. These communities have shouldered the brunt of xenophobic policies introduced by the Right. They aren’t a safety net that Labour can neglect when convenient. Their interests and welfare deserve to be protected.

Starmer’s first year as Labour leader was insipid. His approval ratings have plummeted to 44 per cent as of 15 March, down from the peak of 71 per cent in June 2020. If he truly wants to prove his commitment to healing the fissures that divide this country, he must forge the bonds of our national community upon a set of shared values, not a shared ethnicity. Because only then will Labour undo the damage that hypernationalism is inflicting across Britain today.

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