Monday, 20 August 2012

Patriotism and the Left

My post on the London 2012 Olympics started a debate within Haringey Greens about patriotism in Britain and whether this is positive thing, or rather a reactionary, undesirable, and even dangerous concept. So, I’m expanding my thoughts here, and hope that my colleagues will post their opinions, either in a separate post, or via the comments section for this post.

I must say at the outset, that I’m not one for waving the Union Jack and like most people on the Left, patriotic behaviour makes me feel a bit uncomfortable. I think this stems from patriotism’s association with Britain’s imperialist history and the propensity of the Right (especially the far Right) to wrap themselves in the flag and the xenophobic and racist outlook that inexorably seems to flow from this position.

The other troubling kind of patriotism, perhaps more accurately described as jingoism, is when it is related to war. I can still remember my horror during the Falklands war against Argentina in the early 1980’s when a kind of collective madness swept the country, and every young man it seemed, became an armchair general and weapons expert, egged on by the ‘red top’ press and the BBC. The term ‘Argie’ was coined to describe the Argentinians and I learnt never to trust the BBC’s reporting when the country’s armed forces are in action.

I have always separated sport from this kind of patriotism though, and tended to support Britons in sporting contests. Even then, although I have always loved football, it was mainly of the club variety, and my club, Manchester United in particular. United have always had something of the ‘Celtic fringe’ about them, and even before globalisation, were an internationalist club. At one time, I supported Scotland in the football against England, because there were quite a few United players in the Scotland team, and none in the England team.

Gradually, over the years, I have changed my mind on the England football team. With large screens in pubs these days to watch international football, I like the community feel of these events (always a disappointing sporting result), and the ensuing camaraderie of watching the game in communal surroundings such as this affords.

I’ve been lucky enough to be working in the Olympic park over the course of the London Games, and anyone who has been there cannot fail to have noticed the great atmosphere, with the flags of many nations displayed. There was a joyous, excited spirit amongst the volunteers and spectators and not even a hint of aggression, but instead a friendly and respectful ambience that was tremendous to experience. Coupled with the multi-cultural make-up of the British team, I think this was a positive type of patriotism.

The Observer newspaper published an opinion poll this week that finds that 75% of respondents believe that the Olympics showed Britain to be ‘a confident multi-ethnic country’. The same proportion of people said they supported all Team GB athletes equally regardless of where they were born. The same newspaper has a piece by Tim Soutphommasane, The Australian is a political philosopher and author of the book, The Virtuous Citizen: Patriotism in a Multi-cultural Society, who is advising the Labour party leader, Ed Miliband, on such matters. It is well worth a read.

Drawing on experience mainly from Australia, he says multi-culturalism has been about securing civic equality. A demand for inclusion and respect, not separation and privileged treatment, which has been undermined to some extent, by the emphasis on a ‘community of communities’. As though there could be no common ground, but only difference. He concludes that after the success of the London Olympics, many countries are looking to Britain as an example of a dynamic multi-cultural society united by a generous patriotism.

The political Left cannot afford to leave the monopoly of the concept of patriotism to the political Right, because it is a deeply embedded cultural phenomenon, and we should have the confidence not to cede this ground to their ugly, separatist type of patriotism. The London Olympics have showed us the way to celebrate our positive patriotism, multi-cultural, inclusive and respectful of our country and of other countries cultures and people. We can use this positive force to grab the flag back from those who would use it to divide us, at home and internationally.          

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