A Fortnightly Review of
Labour’s Identity Crisis: England and the Politics of Patriotism
Tristram Hunt MP, Editor
University of Winchester, 2016 | 85pp | available online [gratis pdf download]
By MICHAEL BLACKBURN.
HAVING SPENT YEARS profiting from its promotion of identity politics the Labour Party at the last election eventually found itself hoist by the petard of its own prejudice against the English. They love the Scots (when they’re not agitating for independence), the Welsh and the Irish, but not the English. For them they reserve a special hatred.
It has not gone unnoticed by the electorate. Thus just as Gordon Brown was lethally wounded by his “bigoted woman” comment so Miliband was scuppered by “Thornberry’s Tweet” during the Rochester and Strood by-election in 2014.
Emily Thornberry’s tweeted image of a white van parked outside a house draped with the flags of St George was accompanied by just three words: “Image from #Rochester”. It was such a blatant expression of contempt for the the English working class and their patriotism not even the upper echelons of the metropolitan Labour movement could ignore it. What made it worse was the fact that Thornberry obviously thought her attitude was universally shared.
A couple of writers in this collection acknowledge Thornberry’s Tweet as significant but none of them can bring themselves to admit that contempt was its message. The harshest critic is Ben Bradshaw who says it was “snobbish”. Which is, ironically, a rather English way of avoiding the unpleasant truth.
That sneering contempt is not just reserved for the oiks but for anyone who shares their sense of patriotism. The Tories, obviously. And UKIP (“jingoistic, if not xenophobic”) – regularly bundled in with the BNP so it can be smeared with the far-right tag. Patriots = racists, jingoists and xenophobes: it’s like a mathematical equation for the left, they just can’t conceive of it otherwise.
This is Labour’s attempt to look like it’s facing up to a problem and intending to fix it. Except it’s a con. The anti-English, anti-patriotic impulse is now so ingrained in the modern left it will be impossible to get rid of it even if they depose the ultra-left, Brit-hating Corbyn currently in charge. All their talk of “a new English patriotism” and of offering “a renewed sense of English identity” is hypocritical cant. If you hated the English yesterday why should you suddenly love them tomorrow? This is a sorry and often dull collection of maunderings rarely lightened by insight. One writer after another says how “proud” they are to be MP for such and such a place or to have been born in one region or another, or how proud they are of their heritage (this includes Rupa Huq, who made a thoroughly cackhanded defence of Naz Shah’s blatant anti-semitic social media posts). Oh, how they now love the traditions of England, although this never includes Habeas Corpus, individualism, foxhunting, the presumption of innocence, a love of free speech, or patriotism itself.
Tristram Hunt, as editor, kicks the collection off with the famous speech given to John of Gaunt by Shakespeare, but makes a point of including the lines usually omitted when it’s used as an encomium: England “now leased out […] like to a tenement or pelting farm […] bound in with shame”. This, he thinks, predictably, is “Tory England”. What he should have done (but dishonesty – or is it self-delusion? – forbids) is acknowledge it’s the result of Labour’s deliberate use of immigration and multiculturalism to destroy British identity; and that Englishness, being the heart of that identity, must be eradicated to make this possible.
Thornberry’s Tweet itself was as a good as a flag to proclaim the true allegiances of Labour. It’s too late now for them to pretend they’re patriots. They could dress themselves up as Morris dancers, wear underpants and knickers made out of England flags, and saunter about whistling “Jerusalem” all day and it wouldn’t make the slightest difference. Any more than publishing a pamphlet will.
Currente Calamo columnist, poet, writer and lecturer Michael Blackburn lives in Lincolnshire . From 2005–2008 he was the Royal Literary Fund fellow at the University of Lincoln where he now teaches English Literature and Creative Writing. His poetry has appeared in numerous publications and anthologies over the years, including Being Alive (Bloodaxe) and Something Happens, Sometimes Here (Five Leaves Press). His most recent collection is Spyglass Over The Lagoon. A selection of his Fortnightly Currente Calamo columns, Sucks To Your Revolution: Annoying The Politically Correct (US), is available as a Kindle ebook.