Is progressive patriotism possible?

27th January 2020

Armed Forces

UK Armed Forces – not to be criticised….

The idea of progressive patriotism is being raised as one of the issues the Left needs to grapple with following Labour’s General Election defeat in December last year.  It is certainly the case that by the measure of patriotism used by the BBC and right wing media, Labour in general, and Jeremy Corbyn in particular, do not measure up.

The new patriotism test, against which Labour fails, has evolved by degrees following the defeat of the Soviet Union; the post 9/11 war on terror, resulting in UK troops being deployed following UK backing for the US invasion of Iraq; the deployment of UK troops, supporting the US once again in the unwinnable war in Afghanistan; and the four years long commemoration of the centenary of the First World War.

Replacing the International Workers’ Day May Day Bank Holiday, with an 8th May Bank Holiday to mark 75 years since the end of World War 2, is just the latest occasion to glorify the armed forces.  It is ironic that across much of Europe both 1st May and the 8th May, marking the end of WW2 and the defeat of fascism, have been public holidays for many years, the two not being seen in opposition to each other.

The UK was in a different position to much of Europe as World War 2 approached.  The British Empire was still a tangible reality and the ruling class were desperate to keep it that way. The role of the UK in colluding with the Nazis in their re-armament programme; the free hand given  to the German and Italian invaders of Spain in the so called Civil War (1936-39), due to the policy of non-intervention; and the desire to see either Japan, Germany, or both, attack the Soviet Union, are conveniently airbrushed out of the popular histories of the 1930’s and the build up to war.

On the contrary, the popular assumption is that Britain won the war, which in one sense it did but not without the help of allies in the United States and more significantly, in terms of damage done to the Nazis, the Soviet Union.

In the bid to win hearts and minds in Labour’s traditional heartlands these historical facts will not cut any ice.  By the same token, in getting rid of Saddam Hussein, Colonel Qaddafi and tackling the Taliban, ‘our boys’ have been doing their bit to keep the free world safe.  The reality for many working class communities is that ‘our boys’, and increasingly girls, are just that, family members who have signed up to the armed forces as the best career option, in areas where the run down of manufacturing and the public sector have gone hand in hand to create virtual ghost towns.

The winning of hearts and minds on the Left has for too long focussed upon the second part of that equation.   For example, it is altogether rational to equate the estimated £150 billion cost of renewing Trident nuclear submarines with so many roads, schools or hospitals which could be built instead.  When the response to that however, is that scrapping Trident will leave us defenceless, it is clear that the debate is not necessarily about the rational.

While it is intellectually self evident that Trident weapons will not stop someone in a suicide vest,  a cyber attack or a knife wielder on London Bridge, there is still a strong emotional appeal for many in the idea of a ‘strong’ defence of the UK and that includes nuclear weapons, with all of the international status and prestige they confer.

In the North East of England, one of the areas hardest hit by the Tories’ austerity programme, traditional Labour seats tumbled in the 2019 election.  Labour’s ambivalent position on Brexit was undoubtedly a factor.  The unpopularity of Jeremy Corbyn came high on the list of reasons not to vote Labour.  Why was Corbyn so unpopular?  Scratch the surface for many North East voters and it was not the Labour programme or the issue of anti-Semitism, it was that Corbyn was perceived as ‘unpatriotic’.  The drip feed smear campaign of the right wing press and BBC had made an impact.  Combined with the other factors undermining Labour’s position, it proved fatal.

Whether progressive patriotism is the right phrase or not the Left needs to reassess how it projects its position in relation to the armed forces.  That does not mean simply playing to the lowest common denominator.  It could mean redirecting some of the projected spend for Trident into conventional forces, while still retaining some for socially useful production.  One or two Generals may even be persuaded to back such a position.

The commitment to peace is so deeply engrained in many on the Left that voicing any support for the armed forces may seem anathema.  However, a socialist Britain will still need to retain some form of defence capability.  In the longer term it need not be deployed in support of adventurist US wars.  It need not be a vehicle to shore up the post colonial ambitions and greed of the minority.  It need not be allied to NATO.

If the Left is even to get close to these possibilities it needs to be thinking now about its own strategy for the military and how we build bridges to neutralise the ‘anti-patriotic’ smear campaigns in the meantime.



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