Can we turn St George’s Day red?
In February’s edition of Progress I wrote a piece provocatively entitled England shirt Labour. I called on Labour to embrace positive English patriotism – or at the very least to recognise that it exists. I added the obligatory caveat that, while we can compromise with the electorate, we cannot compromise with the EDL. I bashed the BNP. I referred to Orwell and Attlee (no mean patriots, both of them). Yet still, for some, the notion of Labour as the party of England was deeply troubling. James Macintyre tweeted that embracing the notion of Englishness was the ‘worst place for Labour to be’.
If that is true, then are we saying that a sense of Englishness should not be part of the DNA of our party? If so, then we have a bit of a problem, because it is certainly part of the DNA of many of our supporters, as well as many of those who might vote for us, and many of those who used to vote for us. And this has absolutely nothing to do with race or class. I have been chided just as strongly for my Jubilee year republicanism by middle-class Asian grandmas in my ward as by my own working-class white grandma.
It appears that some in Labour refuse even to admit that most English people feel English, and that feeling English won’t make you flinch like a coward and sneer like a traitor to the red flag. Does a patriotic Irishman have to follow up his declaration of love for the Emerald Isle with, ‘of course, I don’t agree with the IRA’? No, and rightly so. So why do many on the left think that any declaration of affinity for England puts the speaker in a box marked ‘EDL, BNP, racist’?
We should never cede Englishness to the racist part of the rightwing – that gives the racists all the power in the world to appropriate our national symbols and story, and to call them their own. If we should reject Englishness because the EDL is ‘English’, should we also reject competitive sport because the EDL is a ‘League’? The EDL don’t represent England – we know that, and so do most people in England. By rejecting England because the EDL have claimed it, we do their work for them. We also find ourselves in a position of sneering at 90 per cent of people in England. That’s not only rude – it’s political suicide.
A conversation with a liberal leftwing acquaintance last week summed up this attitude. I told them that we were raising the English flag at the town hall in Walthamstow on St George’s Day and that I thought this was a good thing. They made an appalled sound as if I had just passed the port to the right. I then said that, as we have a large Pakistani population in the borough, we raise the Pakistani flag on Pakistan Independence Day and that, again, I thought this was a good thing. After some thought, they declared that, while it was fine to raise the Pakistani flag, raising the English one seemed a bit racist.
Some may agree with this attitude; it should be obvious by now that I do not. It smacks of condescension – exactly the trait that we dislike the most in the Prime Minister. It denies any possibility of a leftwing, progressive patriotism. Just because we hate Nick Griffin’s perversion of patriotism, doesn’t mean that we can’t wrap ourselves in the flag of Orwell’s ‘My country left or right’ (which should be required reading for anyone who uses any service paid for from the public purse). This attitude says that patriotism is fine for other nations (including the Scots, Welsh and Irish) but not for the English. Is this English self-loathing or English self-aggrandisement? Either way, it’s nonsense and, in an era of Scottish and Welsh nationalism, potentially disastrous. And, finally, the attitude rules out any hope for positive, decent, Englishness developing from the devolution of proper power to Labour politicians in English cities and regions.
That attitude really does sound to me like the ‘worst place for Labour to be’. When we sneer at Englishness, we send out a loud signal to the whole country: we don’t represent England, but we think that the EDL do.
Mark Rusling is a Labour and Cooperative councillor in the London borough of Waltham Forest and writes the Changing to Survive column
BNP, England, English Defence League, Labour, Scotland, Wales, Walthamstow