The case for Progressive Patriotism, and resisting the Temptation of the ‘T-word’

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Last week, the British ambassador to the U.S.A, Kim Darroch, stepped down after Boris Johnson, the overwhelming favourite to become the next prime minister, refused — six times — to back him during a live TV debate.

The furore was sparked after internal memos criticising the Trump administration were leaked to the press. These private communications revealed the shocking spectacle of Darroch doing his job: providing honest assessments from his perspective as our chief diplomat in Washington. Johnson’s refusal to defend him against the inevitable salvos from the U.S. president provides a taste of what’s to come in a Johnson-led administration that kowtows to American interests.

Those who claim that the moment the cables were leaked, Darroch’s position ‘became untenable anyway’, are missing the point.

The point, is the off-the-charts hypocrisy displayed by Boris Johnson: the man who is styling himself as the patriotic figurehead of a “do-or-die” full British Brexit, whilst cowardly refusing to defend the nation and diplomatic service from the interference of a foreign power.

Firstly, imagine for a moment, if it had been the E.U.’s Jean-Claud Juncker or Donald Tusk who had attacked a senior British diplomat after critical communiques regarding them were leaked to the British press. Recall how foaming-at-the-mouth the Brexiteers got when Tusk made his ‘special place in Hell’ comments about Brexiteers who advocated departing the European Union without a plan of how to do it.

Secondly, consider the nationalistic puss that clings to the arguments for a ‘no deal’ Brexit. It began with the ‘enemies of the people’ headline shrieked from the front page of the Daily Mail. It went on to the press being told they should be ‘more patriotic’, and the risible spectacle of a Tory MEP asserting that ‘loyalty to the EU’ should be included in the Treason Act. More recently it has included Brexit Party rallies being kicked off with the sound of World War II air raid sirens and Brexit Party supporters crowing about how we ‘beat the Germans twice before and we will again’.

It really does make you sick a little bit in the mouth. Firstly, we have the childish jingoistic rhetoric of privileged baby-boomers (hardly the ‘left behind’) who equate regaining control of the flammability of pillows to the horrors of war: an insult to those that actually fought in them. But it also makes the nationalistic hype that is constantly spewed out by Brexiteers as ironic as it is interminable, in that the objective pursued by these fanatics — to leave the European Union without a deal — is about as unpatriotic as you can possibly get.

Boris Johnson, alongside Nigel Farage, is the emerging co-leader of this most extreme manifestation of Brexit: a Brexit that would destroy British businesses, British livelihoods, British rights and British global influence; a version of Brexit that many moderate pro-leavers look on with horror.

Furthermore, Johnson refused to back a senior British diplomat for fear of upsetting the country to which United Kingdom — in a no-deal scenario — would become a vassal-state. The U.K’s supposed subservience to the E.U. — the reason that Brexiteers-who-blocked-Brexit gave for voting against Theresa May’s deal — is nothing compared to the subordinate status our country would have when forced to turn States-wards in the event of no-deal.

Now we know just how horribly wrong government minister Michael Gove was when he said that we ‘hold all the cards’ in our negotiations with the European Union. This dreadful miscalculation would be nothing when compared to who would ‘hold all the cards’ in a U.K. — U.S. trade deal. The U.K will have gained pariah status after defaulting on international obligations. It would be the only country on Earth that was trading on purely W.T.O. terms. Desperate for a trade deal with the United States, our NHS would be on the table in any future trade deal, which by the way, could conveniently benefit dozens of Conservative MPs who have interests in private healthcare.

The weakness of our position, as Brexit-supporting Oliver Norgrove points out, is because when it comes to global trade, there is no such thing as sovereignty. We must choose between the two big global trend-setters. On the one hand we have the E.U. Until we leave, we have an influential role as one of the bloc’s largest countries and economies as well as 73 directly elected representatives who sit in the E.U. parliament. If and when we do leave, whilst we’d lose that influence, if we remain aligned to Europe there would be mechanisms (for example through membership of EFTA — the European Free Trade Association) through which we’d still have a say. On the other hand, and most likely in the event of ‘no deal’, we have the U.S. with whom our influence will be near zero.

Perhaps the most poignant thing about the Kim Darroch affair is the sobering confirmation that if we choose the latter, then even at the most senior diplomatic levels, our most powerful influencers can just be swatted away at the whim of whoever sits in the oval office. Cue an onslaught of U.S.-led deregulation of the British economy, degrading of worker’s rights environmental protections and further threats to our NHS from private interests.

To bleat that ‘no deal’ is the ‘will of the British people’ is obscene. A no-deal Brexit was never mentioned in the referendum campaign. All that has been promised is a milk-and-honey trading arrangement with the EU: one with all the advantages of EU membership, but with none of the obligations. No one voted for a no-deal Brexit, and in fact in the latest election — the European Elections — the people voted decisively against it, when parties firmly against no-deal won 55% of the popular vote. So, a no deal Brexit wouldn’t just be insane, it would also go directly against the will of the British people.

Of course, there is a word that progressive pro-Europeans (whether leavers or remainers) can use to describe the people who wish to bring this harm upon our country. The word ‘traitor’ is bandied about all the time by unhinged Brexiteers, including against their own, such as the bizarre altercation between a Brexit-supporting Tory MP and a woman who donned a wearable PA system to berate him. There’s nothing like a bit of old-fashioned British eccentricity to lighten the otherwise dismal mood.

One could argue that those against a no-deal Brexit have every right to use such language against the extremists. Couldn’t deliberately undermining the British Diplomatic Service and allowing a foreign power to call the shots when it comes to who represents the U.K. oversees, be considered treasonous? Couldn’t a pro-hard Brexit hedge fund manager be called a ‘traitor’ for regarding the personal gains made by betting against sterling in the event of no-deal, as more important than its impact on his compatriots? Aren’t there serious questions to answer about Russian interference in the Brexit campaign, and isn’t it possible that lead-Brexiteer Aaron Banks’ several meetings with what he calls ‘shady’ Russian contacts — as well as the Russian embassy- amounts to treachery?

Well, maybe.

But progressives should avoid the inflammatory language of treason, because by engaging with it, we merely stoop to the same pathetic level as the hard-line Brexiteers. It is a very slippery slope from screaming ‘traitor’ at each other, to the emergence of overt intimidation such as the ‘yellow jacket’ protests outside Westminster. Chucking milkshakes at each other might seem — at the moment — a humorous and a somewhat tepid liberal response, but the polarising divisions over Brexit risk a rapid escalation into somewhat less frivolous territory. So, no, shouting ‘traitor’ at each other is hardly going to help.

What is the alternative?

As I argued in my article: ‘The Uncomfortable Patriot’ for the Journal of British Identities, the alternative is for British progressives to reclaim the idea of what patriotism actually means. It is a concept that the British left — and particularly the English left — often struggle with precisely because of its connotations with ugly nationalism and exceptionalism; it’s links to empire and its most recent manifestations through Brexit.

However, I believe there are inclusive notions of British patriotism that the Left could promote to provide a positive antidote to the overwhelmingly Brexiteer-dominated narrative.

Firstly, a progressive British patriotism is underpinned by an acknowledgement that the very definition of the word ‘British’ is contested. It abhors what is — ironically, given their full name: the ‘Conservative and Unionist Party’ — an English nationalism espoused by most on the Tory right, that masquerades as British patriotism. How telling it was that Jacob Rees-Mogg was called upon to ‘speak for England’ at the 2017 Tory Party conference, and even then, rest assured, the ‘England’ he was speaking for wasn’t my England. Meanwhile, I’d hazard a guess that the triumphant patriotic flare of the little-Englanders who talk of ‘beating the Germans again’ rarely extends to them being able to define what the U.K. — their country — actually is, or if it does, they care little about anywhere beyond their own little castle.

The antidote that progressive British patriotism should offer is firstly is a willingness to understand and appreciate the complex constitutional architecture that makes up our union of nations and regions. It means rejecting ideas of territorial ownership in favour of simple solidarity with each other, regardless of whether or not someone living in another part of these islands regards themselves as ‘British’, and whether they voted ‘leave’ or ‘remain’. After all, whether we like it or not, when it comes to Brexit, we are all in this together, bound together by the impact of our collective decision. For progressives this means defending the invisibility of the Northern Irish / Irish border, no matter which part of these islands we come from. It means defending the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and the validity of devolved governance across the U.K.

Secondly, a progressive British patriotism considers British identity a fluid and evolving phenomenon. It regards the migrants who most of us are descended from and those who continue to arrive on our shores today as part and parcel of that ever-evolving identity and culture, underpinned by a common adherence to fundamental human rights.

Thirdly, a progressive British patriotism is about recognising the importance of devolution: giving power back to towns, cities and regions that have been ignored for too long, so that decisions about the NHS, social care, policing, education, transport and job creation can be made as close as possible to where the effects are felt.

Fourthly, with particular relevance to Brexit and regardless of whether we end up remaining or leaving the E.U., progressive British patriotism is a rejection of British (and English) exceptionalism: the idea that the rules apply, except for when it comes to us. It is about promoting rational and informed debate about the country’s future, prioritising the voices of the hesitant doubters over the unbearably self-assured who possess all the answers and none of the questions, and who sup from the — usually very loud — sound of their own voice.

Fifthly, British progressive patriotism is about embracing internationalism and aiming to work with others — including those with whom we rarely agree — to achieve common goals for the good of the country, by which I mean, the people who live in it.

So, when it comes to the divisive discourse of Brexit, progressives should avoid the temptation of the language of treason. The truth is, we can’t beat the hard-line Brexiteers in such hateful rhetoric, and neither should we wish to.

The only way that we can counter their jingoistic and nationalistic hijacking of patriotism and their sycophantic fawning of a golden bygone era that never actually existed, is by offering an alternative view of our country: a form of patriotism that is based on inclusiveness, respect for everyone across these beautiful islands and provides a hopeful vision for our shared future.

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