Thursday 4 February 2021

Politics and the Flag

 That "Patriotism is the last Refuge of the Scoundrel" is probably the best known of the sayings of Dr Johnson.  Apparently an outside advisory body has recommended to the Labour Party that it should become more overtly patriotic by wearing suites and wrapping itself in the Union Jack.

I admit to being rather in favour of formal, or at least, appropriate dress, but have been unhappy for some time about the ostentatious flaunting of Union Jacks by government spokespersons in their "briefings."  Flags may be useful in meetings between international leaders, but we know that Westminster is British - there's no need to spell it out.

As  a youngster I remember bing told that whereas the US, as a nation largely of migrants and relatively new, had to make an effort to instil love of country by such rituals as daily recitations of their "Pledge of Allegiance" in schools and the  ubiquitous  presence of their flag, we, as  a mature nation, established in 829 when Egbert of Wessex became King of "all England" (Wales, Ireland and Scotland were later accretions) and largely born here. didn't need such props.

Nevertheless we were expected to be patriotic, but in a quiet, understated way.  Our patriotism was a "given"

"Pride" and "patriotism" are both difficult concepts. 

 Pride is, of course, one of the seven deadly sins, so should be treated with particular caution. It seems reasonable to be proud of achieving something desirable largely by one's own efforts, such as running a Marathon in a good time (or in my case a half-Marathon in a modest time), climbing all the Munros in Scotland, writing a best seller (or even any novel), gaining the qualifications for a  job or being part of a winning team.  However, such pride should be tempered by awareness of the advantages, such as physical fitness, dexterity, brains or the contritions of others that made the achievement possible

There is not a lot of logic in being proud of something over which one has no control. such as having been born in Britain, or even Yorkshire. Nevertheless I confess to being slightly proud of both, but, I hope, only in a very low key way. If I remember I might wear a White Rose on what somebody has recently invented as Yorkshire Day (1st August) but wouldn't want to make much of a fuss about it.  More of a joke really.

Similarly with patriotism.  which my somewhat outdated dictionary (Concise Oxford  4th edition 1951) defines as being "zealous for the freedoms of one's country."  Given that, you can see why the Brexiteers are fond of it.  A lot depends on what you mean by "freedom."  Making decisions free of parliamentary scrutiny? Freedom to get rich at the expense of others?

We have seen in the nightmare  of the US under Trump how easily excessive nationalism -  "America First," "Make America Great Again" - can imperil  democracy and become the first steps towards fascism.

The progressive left, of which the Labour Party is the major part, needs to concentrate on the more mature virtues of co-operation and caring.  The early socialists were determined internationalists.  I hope the Labour  Party will remember that part of its heritage whilst keeping its undoubted patriotism understated - a given.


  1. There is not a lot of logic in being proud of something over which one has no control

    What has logic to do with it? Would you not be proud if your sister was on the team that had invented the coronavirus vaccine? Or if your school team won the cup? You didn't have anything to do with either of those personally, but you'd be odd if you weren't a little proud. Taking pride in the accomplishments of those with which we have a connection may not be logical but is very human.

    '"…It would surely be much more rational if conversation instead of dancing made the order of the day."

    "Much more rational, my dear Caroline, I dare say, but it would not be near so much like a ball." '

    As for the Labour Party, their problem is that — in many different ways, big and small, from 'image from Rochester' to, well, everything to do with Jeremy Corbyn, their patriotism is now in question. Understated patriotism is all very well, and certainly I prefer it to the American sort, but it only really works if your love of your country really is beyond question. the Conservatives don't need to fly Union Jacks because nobody doubts that they are absolutely one hundred-per-cent dyed-in-the-wool patriotic. But there are clearly a lot of Labour members and activists for whom the sight of a flag makes them feel at the least queasy. And the public know that. Heck, they were in control of the party until less than a year ago.

    [Actually it's worse than that: it's not the sight of 'a flag' that makes them queasy, they don't have a problem with flying, say, Palestinian flags.]

    Which is the real reason why, actually, the 'stick Starmer in front of a flag' strategy is so utterly misguided: people can tell it's not sincere. What's needed is not ostentatious over-the-top displays of visible patriotism, but just something that can be pointed to to communicate to the electorate that Labour has changed, that it's no longer the party of Corbyn, of Thornberry, of Milne.

    What it needs is to look at the only man to lead Labour to a general election victory since Harold Wilson. He showed the way for Labour to regain the trust of the electorate: you visibly do something which is both a symbolic and a real break wit the past, that deliberately alienates the parts of your base that have themselves alienated the electorate. What Labour needs isn't to wrap itself in the flag: what it needs, and what it won't stands a chance of winning until it engineers, is a 'cultural clause 4' moment.

    1. We're not all that far apart on some aspects of this.I have admitted that, although it was nothing of my doing, I am quite proud of being born British (like winning first prize in the lottery of life life, said Cecil Rhodes), English and Yorkshire. Even though I don't know him and don't watch cricket I'm quite chuffed that Joe Root is captain of England, has won 100 caps and just scored a double century. But I don't take it too seriously. Understatement is the key.

      Where I think you are wrong is in your view that "the Conservatives don't need to fly Union Jacks because nobody doubts that they are absolutely one hundred-per-cent dyed-in-the-wool patriotic." That is the result of a successful con-trick. They have shamelessly wrapped themselves in the flag for decades and sing Rule Britannia with gusto, but their recent activities, breaking international law, bashing ahead with Brexit regardless of the harm this is doing to our political reputation, cultural opportunities and economic success. They put self-interest for themselves and for their mates first, as the distribution of contracts during the pandemic demonstrates.

  2. I just wish that there were more things around to make me a proud member of the human race.

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