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Geopolitics & Security

Progressives Haven’t Lost the Argument on Patriotism, We Have Failed to Make One

Commentary29th March 2021

Progressives across the West have struggled with owning and defining patriotism since the period of the third way, creating an important barrier to winning elections. There have been times when attempts were more successful, such as with the UK Labour Party in 1997, but the problem is yet to be properly addressed in today’s context. We need an approach that answers the big question: How do we build a progressive patriotism that is embedded within the values of the centre-left? 

What’s the Problem?

YouGov data shows that 61 per cent of voters in the UK are at least somewhat patriotic but only 35 per cent would say the same of the Labour Party. And the UK electorate is not unique in this. Seventy-five per cent of Americans also consider themselves patriots and there have been times when Democrats struggled with this - Hillary Clinton’s difficulty in combatting Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ message is one such example. However, the problem is far less structural compared to the UK. In most analyses of why Clinton lost, patriotism does not come out on top – the same cannot be said for Corbyn’s postmortem, where this is generally reported as key to his unpopularity.

Hence, although the need to reclaim patriotism is most pressing for progressives in the UK, the same techniques can be used in the US and across Europe.

Patriotic? Give Us More Than a Signal

The current conversation regarding patriotism among progressives in the West often focuses on the use of signals, such as national flags, rather than what it means and looks like.

But before we begin to tackle this question, the progressive left must first regain the right to be heard on the issue. This means, most importantly, being serious on defence and the country’s interests overseas. One of the biggest failures of the previous Labour leadership was their apparent support for Russia in the aftermath of the Salisbury attack in 2018. This set the tone for the next few years and is reflected in the fact that 43 per cent of people believed that Jeremy Corbyn handled the situation badly (compared to 23 per cent who approved of his response). The following weeks saw severe consequences for the Labour Party, with the Conservatives leading in the polls for two consecutive months and Theresa May’s approval ratings surpassing those of Corbyn for the first time.

Regaining this trust must come first. The progressive left should not be fighting on territory is can’t win.

Only once that is done can leaders begin to look at building a viable political framework that is both truly progressive and truly patriotic.

This should be developed in four stages:

  1. Values: Set out why you are involved in politics - why do you want to do this?

  2. Vision: Based on these values and accounting for the opportunities and challenges ahead, establish your vision: What does the country you want to see look like?

  3. Positions: Take stock of your values, alight on your vision and use this to guide the positions you take on any issue.

  4. Policies: Articulate the plan that will achieve your vision.

Start With Values

Patriotism is a progressive value, like believing in equality or justice. It is commonly hijacked by those on the right of the political spectrum and defined narrowly, often as synonymous with nationalism. This was seen in the US a few months ago, with far-right Trump supporters bearing flags as they stormed the Capitol. Progressives are therefore right to claim and redefine patriotism, making a clear distinction between pride for one’s country and an exclusionary approach to other nations and their interests.

National flags can be useful signals, showing the electorate that a political party has identified patriotism as a value and that this influences its vision, positions and policies. But signals, by definition, are indicators of a wider platform or set of beliefs, so without this underpinning framework, they can appear hollow and disingenuous.

Next Up, Vision

Even progressives who recognise the risk of appearing inauthentic when embracing patriotic symbols without a well-defined vision tend to jump prematurely into developing policies But the order in which a political framework is developed is important and skipping out steps two and three (Vision and Positions) poses a problem. Instead, policies should stem from an inspiring vision that is articulated in the form of clear positions on the biggest issues of the day. To do otherwise results in an array of policies which may make sense individually but don’t form a coherent or authentic political framework.

In the UK this means the Labour Party building on Keir’s message that ‘this country should be the best place to grow up in and the best place to grow old in’. We need a systematic vision for the UK and the Labour Party has the ideal opportunity to develop this.

What does that country look like?

Values – Tick. Vision – Tick. Next: Progressive Positions and Policies

And the next question is then: In light of this, what are Labour’s positions on the key defining issues of the day?

For example, the position that the UK should play an active role in global development, as is explained in this TBI paper on the UK’s international aid commitment, is a progressively patriotic one. The same is true of reducing global inequality, supporting human rights, redefining innovation and leading the way on the technological revolution.

Reflecting back on Labour’s time in power, Tony Blair says, ‘the love of country should mean that the values of country are inclusive, fighting against injustice and inequality; otherwise love of country is love which excludes significant sections of the population. And patriotism is nothing if it is not shared’.

To make this case, patriotism must be approached from the point of view of enlightened self-interest. We support European partnership because it is in our interests. We believe in an interconnected world because true love of country means preparedness to work with other nations. This is why the failure of international cooperation around Covid-19 has been so tragic; it held back our ability to end the crisis for our people sooner.

What makes these positions progressively patriotic is not announcing them in front of the national flag, but the fact that they are built on a vision embedded in pride for the UK’s global leadership and the pursuit of international cooperation. These things align with the electorate’s pride for their country. Using the imagery of the national flag is an effective signal, and it is correct to reclaim this symbol from the political right, but progressives can only do that if they have something to signal to.

And finally, with clear values, an inspiring vision and established positions, progressives can begin to think about the particular policies they would implement if in power. This is, in some ways, the easiest part of the framework and the answer should stem naturally from the combination of steps 1-3 and the expertise of policy specialists.

Next Steps

There is no doubt that the patriotism problem exists, but it is not unsurmountable. The bigger issue is that progressives claim to be tackling it without doing the necessary work, leading to progress being stalled.

Currently, no one is asking the correct questions. How do we go beyond signals and develop policies grounded in a strong vision and clear positions?

Progressives haven’t lost the argument on patriotism; we have failed to make one.



Lead Image: Sebastiano Piazzi/Unsplash


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