It has become increasingly clear that Ed Miliband is looking to a rediscovered sense of patriotism, whether "mature" or "progressive", as one of his trump cards at the next election. In typical opportunistic fashion Labour have tried to jump onto the post-Olympic patriotic bandwagon. The young Australian, Tim Soutphommasane has been picked to head up Miliband's assault on the bastions of patriotism, after Glassman's Blue-Labour variety fell rapidly out of fashion following his "zero-immigration" proposals which took the edge off New Labour's multicultural agenda. So now it's time for another roll of the dice. Whether or not this 29 year old Australian's variety of progressive patriotism, dreamt up down-under, and born out under specific circumstances in Oz, has any relevance to British society is very much open for debate. But what appears certain; is that Labour will give it a go. The question is, can Labour, burdened with the baggage of their last thirteen years in power, demonstrate a compelling narrative as to how multiculturalism and patriotism can yoked together?
The Labour case
According to Soutphommasane, the Conservative Party is usually associated with patriotism, but, in his view, their type of patriotism driven by small-mindedness, eurospepticism; and xenophobia. Soutphommasane believes that such patriotism pushes against the flow of history and is fuelled by post-imperial nostalgia. This is perhaps why for so many years Soutphommasane's comrades in the Labour movement poured scorn on patriotism and the nation state. This enabled the Labour Party to justify surrendering sovereignty to Brussels without a second thought. To go against such an inevitable transfer of power would put you on the wrong side of history, as Tony Blair used to argue.
While the Tories talk about patriotism, Labour talks about multiculturalism. Conservatives are uncomfortable with society as it exists today, claim Labour protagonists; as a consequence they are "patriotic", with their patriotism being narrowly linked to a desire to turn back the clock to a time when society was not so multicultural. For years; Labour, being the reductionists that they are, saw this as a useful dichotomy, a great dividing line. Being a multicultarist put you on the side of "tolerance and progress", while being patriotic turned you into a bigot. Such a dichotomy has been further sustained by their comrades in Brussels who see patriotism and the nation state as key causes of war on the continent during the twentieth century.
Fast forward to the Miliband leadership; now Labour claims to see patriotism and multiculturalism as two sides of the same coin. Initially this seems to have been motivated by a desire to recapture the old core of the party, the white working class, who may have swung to the Tories, the BNP; or UKIP. However, the post-Olympic patriotic frenzy means that it is being pursued with increasing fervour. Maurice Glassman tried and failed to patch together a patriotic agenda with a multicultural one. This failed and; he lost influence; now Tim is on the scene. This change coincided nicely with the Olympics; and, more specifically, with Danny Boyle's opening ceremony. For Labour, this proved without doubt that multiculturalism and patriotism could go hand in hand. With Mo Farah draped in a Union Jack and, the whole nation coming together, it appeared that multiculturalism and patriotism were simultaneously in vogue. And then comes a flurry of statements from Labour; seeking to capitalise on the patriotic fervour generated by the games.
The great problem for the Labour Party as it attempts to produce a compelling narrative about how things are connected and how different values and beliefs are linked, is that it does not understand how people and systems are interconnected or how multiculturalism and patriotism can be sewn together into one garment. Therefore the current attempt is about as likely to be successful as a penguin operating a sewing machine. Only last November Labour's Shadow Foreign Secretary Douglas Alexander was arguing that Labour's approach to the EU demonstrated "mature patriotism". However, in Ed Miliband's case, it is hard to define his position because he had rarely taken a stand on Europe. How Alexander can see his predecessors' apparent disdain for national sovereignty and, in Blair's, enthusiasm for the Euro as patriotic is quite baffling.
Conservatives do not see any reason why multiculturalism and patriotism cannot sit together comfortably together. Britain has long had an institutional sense of national pride. Whilst some countries on the continent have had more ethnocentric conceptions of patriotism, this hasn't been the case in Great Britain. The citizens of this country already possess multiple identities, (British and English, or Scottish or Welsh etc.) and there is no reason why immigrant communities cannot retain aspects of their previous identity or their forefathers' identity whilst at the same time embracing a British identity. In short, it is perfectly natural that both Mo Farah and Sir Chris Hoy can equally be propelled forward by their pride in our country and we can love them back for it. Tolerance and diversity should be seen as being at the heart of what it means to be a British patriot. British institutions and customs have long demonstrated, when given the chance, that they possess the ability to be amongst the most powerful forces for integration.
As argued by the Conservative immigration Minister this week, passing the Danny Boyle test should be at the heart of what the main British political parties need to achieve if they seek to represent Britain effectively. I think this was is a sound view, amply demonstrating one of the core challenges facing all British political parties.
So what did the Olympic Opening Ceremony demonstrate about the Britain of today? It demonstrated that we are dynamic, diverse, idiosyncratic; and entrepreneurial. It demonstrated that though we are a broad church representing many different communities with their own particular values and identities, there are also many values and institutions that bind us together. In short, it proved that two values that Labour for years saw as being mutually exclusive and contradictory could actually go together quite nicely. We are a diverse people, complicated and internationalist by source and influence, but also, by and large, proud to be British. What also struck me was how far away these very values and characteristics are from the values and characteristics I would most commonly associate with the previous Labour government. In place of dynamic, try lethargic, in place of diverse, try state uniformity, in place of entrepreneurial, try uncompetitive. In short, based on what we have only recently experienced of Labour Government, no Party could be further away from being able to lay claim to what was on offer during the Olympics.
We have the right to ask why a party which throughout its thirteen years in power clung without remorse to an inward looking, bureaucratic, stultifying European project that has sought to vilify patriotism and belief in the nation state, has undergone such a damascene conversion. At one stage the Labour Party even encouraged the formation of a pan-European Olympic team. How has it the right to ever again lay claim to being a party of patriotism?
The words of Dr.Johnson neatly sum up Ed Miliband's sudden conversion to "progressive patriotism". "Patriotism" he wrote, "Is the last refuge of the scoundrel".
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