It’s no coincidence that Labour’s most successful leaders were proud to be British because that’s how most voters feel
When the mourners sat in the pews at Clement Attlee’s funeral in Westminster Abbey in November 1967 they were played, at the request of the deceased, the musical setting of a poem by Cecil Spring Rice. I Vow To Thee, My Country is a fitting testament to Major Attlee, the Gallipoli veteran who was as patriotic, almost as stereotypical, an Englishman of the first half of the 20th century as one could imagine. The congregation went on to sing Hubert Parry’s setting of Blake’s Jerusalem and John Bunyan’s To Be A Pilgrim in a festival that commemorated a successful prime minister and a great patriot.
As the dust settles on the 2019 general election let us take a moment to salute the wisdom of the British working class. Presented with a man who could not bring himself to sing the national anthem, who seldom had a good word to say about the armed forces, who thought the Queen’s Christmas broadcast was in the morning and who refused to single out the bombing campaign of the IRA for condemnation, they returned a resounding “no thank you very much”. Polling suggests that the Russian poison attack in Salisbury last year was a pivotal moment in the public’s assessment of Mr Corbyn. That incident, in which he seemed reluctant to accept that the Russian state might be involved, cemented his fate as a man in whom the public could not place their trust.
And so it followed that while bourgeois Labour members campaigned to make Corbyn prime minister because they could not drop their hopeless fixation with a second referendum, the sensible proletariat in the towns of England and Wales saved them from themselves. George Orwell’s great essay on patriotism and the left, The Lion And The Unicorn, is sub-titled Socialism And The English Genius. Time and again the English have shown that they have a genius for avoiding socialism and they avoided it again this time. Orwell was, it turns out, only half right. His essay is infused with love of his country and of its people. He understood everything about them apart from their political allegiance.
There is no doubt that the non-metropolitan electorate regarded Jeremy Corbyn as unpatriotic. Mr Corbyn is an anti-capitalist in a nation of shopkeepers. He regards the nation’s greatest ally, the United States, as an imperialistic behemoth. He believes many of Britain’s democratic institutions are sham creations designed to paper over grotesque inequalities with the facade of freedom. He simply cannot speak the language of patriotism which is the common property of the people he aspired to govern.
This is a Corbyn problem but it is not necessarily a Labour problem. The best image of left-wing patriotism is Mr Attlee being injured in Mesopotamia in 1916 while carrying the red flag of his regiment. As prime minister, Attlee was the Atlanticist who helped create Nato and give Britain the atom bomb. In his fine biography, Citizen Clem, John Bew describes how the Tory MP Sir John Rodgers incurred the wrath of Churchill with a disobliging remark about the Labour leader. “Mr Attlee is a great patriot” scolded Churchill. “Don’t you dare call him ‘silly old Attlee’ at Chartwell or you won’t be invited again”.
Attlee did not invent Labour patriotism. Indeed, the British left has as least as good a claim on patriotism as the right. Dr Johnson’s remark that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel was inspired by the fact that the patriots of his day were all dissidents. In an essay called The Language of Patriotism Hugh Cunningham traces the three elements of radical patriotism that caused Dr Johnson’s fulmination, all of which offer a patriotic left party suggestions for how to respond to Boris Johnson’s government.
The first element was that patriots accused governments of corruption and of upsetting the balance between the monarchy, the Lords and the Commons. If Mr Johnson’s government goes off on some cavalier assault on the BBC or packs the Lords with cronies, a patriotic Labour Party could say this is a partisan government acting against the interests of the nation. The second part of radical patriotism was trust in the courts as the guardians of liberty. If the Johnson government acts on its veiled manifesto threat to discipline the judiciary, patriots can cry foul. And the third element was liberty itself, the idea that Bolingbroke wrote in The Idea of a Patriot King was “the greatest good of a people”.
The ideal of liberty was expanded, by 19th-century radicals such as Hunt and Cobden to encompass the freedom of the workers from exploitative employers. Here is the link to living standards, the right of the free citizen to enjoy a life not lived at the mercy of others. If you want the most eloquent expression of this state of mind — dissident, radical, patriotic — then it can be found in the character of Rooster Byron in Jez Butterworth’s play Jerusalem.
This is a patriotism quite distinct from that on the political right where the temptation to claim national superiority is often too strong. There were traces of this witless nationalism — English rather than British — in the Brexit argument. Even now, some Brexit cheerleaders accuse their opponents of not believing that Britain can run its own affairs. This is a brittle form of nationalism which fears, strangely, that the best nation on earth will no longer be a free country if we have a shared regulatory framework for fishing. When the right gets patriotic it can sound raucous and chauvinistic. As generations of radicals, Orwell and Attlee have shown, the left can do patriotism better. It is, as Attlee once put it in his typically understated fashion, “pride in your own show”.
In appealing to the people of England who rejected the unpatriotic preening of Mr Corbyn it will be the language, not the accent, that counts. It is too patronising to suppose that people on Bury market need a leader who sounds like them. They do want someone who sounds like they like the county they live in, though. A leader whose critique of the country is not that it is the ally of the world’s worst but that, for all its virtues, Britain still falls short of the patriotic ideal. It is, as Herbert Spencer said of John Stuart Mill, so good it should have been better.
The language of left patriotism came easily to Tony Blair. Harold Wilson was fluent in it and Clement Attlee spoke it like a native. A fine country which can get better still, in which security and opportunity for all are a patriotic expectation. There is no other way to heal a divided nation and it is no coincidence that, in almost three quarters of a century since the Second World War, Attlee, Wilson and Blair are the only winners Labour has ever chosen.