Normally it’s Conservatives who like to wrap themselves in the union flag. Yet Labour could in fact now have most to gain from an assertion of progressive nationalism.
Not the customary left of centre perspective; but the rationale goes from hard-headed economic policy through helping Labour best communicate its vision of the future to tactical political advantage.
The economy has stalled, thanks to precipitate cuts in public expenditure while already reeling from the financial crisis. This has thrown into stark relief the on-going erosion of Britain’s economic strengths and chronic need to invest in our own future. Both as an immediate boost to confidence and for the assertion of economic will to meet the country’s deeper challenges, revitalising the economy most needs a new sense of purpose and self-belief. A focusing nationalistic lens is the obvious and, today, only realistic way of energising such economic self-reinvigoration.
Labour also struggles to put forward its economic strategy. The crunch is reasserting that government and the public sector have a valid and essential economic purpose alongside, and in partnership with, the private sector. Despite the demonstrable failings of rightwing free market policies, shifting the entrenched mindset that sees all public activities as nothing but burdens and impositions has proved nearly impossible.
Greater traction might, however, be found in Labour giving its economic strategy and reassertion of the enabling role of the public sector an overtly nationalistic focus. The public sector is our investment in ourselves as a nation; the embodiment of our national economic purpose. We are one nation and one economy, where public and private together best ensure prosperity for all.
This then feeds into wider insecurity and want of national self-belief. Bad news and hardship are relentless. People need hope and confidence in the country’s ability to meet its challenges. Narrow reactionary nationalism can be a ready retreat – hence UKIP’s dramatic rise. But progressive nationalism can just as readily find root in the same needs. This Britain takes pride in a long history of surmounting its circumstances; rises to challenges through its people and their very diversity; and leads progress from the front, whether its business innovation or ground-breaking public institutions like the NHS. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony for the Olympics clearly captured the strength of this vision of Britain.
Progressive nationalism would also help Labour assert a credible positive vision of the future. Much of its present support is dislike of the government not affirmative conviction. For this to translate into positive support and the electoral majority to actually get things done, Labour needs to offer more substantive optimism, more atavistic reasons for belief in the future. Yet this needs to be credible and hard-headed for hard times. Anchoring its progressive vision in an empowered national identity enables Labour to project a positive yet resolute, strong yet grounded narrative of a better tomorrow.
Tactically, Labour anchoring itself in progressive nationalism outflanks the Conservatives, playing on their UKIP divisions, while countering with a stronger identity more in tune with the majority of modern Britain. Equally it embraces from the disenchanted working class through to struggling British businesses, making common cause between classes and interests. For Labour nationalism can now be inherently unifying; whereas for Conservatives it’s now more divisive.
A focusing lens of nationalism then enables Labour to take the high ground in a series of juxtapositions that would play well with public and media alike. Labour believes in Britain and its people; the Conservatives in nothing but vested interests. Labour offers a path to the future; the Conservatives a race to the bottom. It’s Labour that will build a national tomorrow; the Conservatives just divisive decline. And Labour that speaks for the hard working, the innovative and the diverse that makes Britain all that it is and can be.
Finally, progressive nationalism with strength through diversity as one of its cornerstones would help Labour reconcile the thorny dilemmas and political pitfalls of Europe. At present, it can all too easily find itself on a defensive back foot in resisting the narrow nationalistic pressure that has now been whipped up. Labour needs to be able to argue the case for Europe from a position of strength as the embodiment and clarion voice of the national interest – as the champion of a strong Britain made stronger by Europe.
Ed Miliband has put forward ‘one nation Labour’ as a cornerstone of his political vision. So far this is primarily a statement of inclusiveness in contrast to government divisiveness. To have the necessary political and substantive traction, this now needs developing into a more muscular, more impassioned assertion of progressive national identity and its part in resolving the country’s pressing economic and social problems – hence why and how Labour is the embodiment of our national will.
There’s red in the union flag after all. It’s the sweat and blood of all the country’s diverse hard working people; it’s the red of anger at unfairness, failure and undeserved privilege; it’s the red of courage and strength; and it’s the red of belief in our ability to shape our own destiny.