There are better things to be doing than playing the patriot game

Stephen LowStephen Low urges caution, and calls for debate, over the adoption of patriotism in Scottish Labour’s new Clause Four.


“To these ends we work for the patriotic interest of the people of Scotland” runs part of a suggested new aims and values statement that Labour members will be asked to debate and endorse at Scottish Conference in March.

As a party and a movement we can improve on this. And there are a number of reasons, both political and practical, why we should make a point of doing so. Not least, because the idea is built on a foundation of myths – and nationalist myths at that.

More fundamentally our party should be forming our aims and values through participation and involvement from the grassroots up. The world isn’t short of movements that think enforcing patriotism is more of a virtue than taking different views on board and coming to a consensus. Scottish Labour shouldn’t be one of them. CLPs and affiliates should be given the opportunity to put amendments to go to the conference, and this would allow real discussion and for ideas, experience and insights from around the party to enrich the process.

We should be honest with ourselves that the statement can be improved. Saying Labour will govern in “the patriotic interest” doesn’t make life easier for our party. The purpose behind it is fairly obvious (and worthwhile). The SNP are widely, but wrongly, perceived as being the people who stand up for Scotland, this is an attempt at taking some of that ground back.

Laudable aim certainly, but in my view we’ll do better by countering nationalist myths, not buying into them. We won’t have a distinct or compelling appeal by saying that we “work for the patriotic interest”; any tax exile or homophobic bus monopolist can say the same. “The interests of working people and their families” – that is our interest in this, and every other, nation.

To think that we need to insert a patriot clause into our constitution necessarily involves accepting a nationalist mythology. The idea is Jim Murphy’s, and it was announced in a speech where alongside many worthwhile observations and aspirations our new leader stated:

“We will make it clear that we are both a democratic socialist party and a patriotic party. We are a socialist party yes, but we recognise that our political faith grew out of something deeper which is ingrained in our Scottish character. It was there before our party in the beauty of Burns’ poetry, the economic vision of New Lanark, the actions of the highlanders who stood against brutal landlords.”

Leaving aside (for now) an unease about bringing ideas about ‘national character’ into politics, this is romance, not history. The idea that the labour movement arose from a sense of national rather than class identity would get you a bad fail in any history class. Whilst our movement has had no lack of Scottish specificities, as Labour Historian (and Labour Party member) Ewan Gibbs put it during a facebook discussion about this

“To be clear, the Scottish Labour movement and Party were largely formed out of struggles against Scottish employers, and more broadly opposition to a specific Scottish set of political traditions (‘Unionism’ and Liberalism) within the broader British context. … Of course specific Scottish circumstances, history and cultural facets had an influence but this is very distinct from ‘patriotism’. … I’d have to fail any essays my students hand me arguing our movement was established out of patriotic sentiment, not due to some disagreement of ‘opinion’ but because the historical evidence just doesn’t exist to substantiate that sort of claim.”

Our party, our movement, doesn’t have its roots in Burns poetry, or the economic vision of New Lanark. (Apart from anything else, the vision on display in New Lanark was social and industrial, rather economic, and it belonged to both a Scot, David Dale, and a Welshman, Robert Owen.)

Jim is hardly the first person to massage historical truth to construct a patriotic narrative. Indeed if that is the game being played it’s almost essential. But is this a game we want to play? Are we not better sticking to the reality? It is, after all, what makes us distinctively ‘Labour’.

We should base what we say and do on what is true; on what happened, not the creation of convenient or cosy myths. Hardie’s politics, and our party, arose not out of something ingrained in the Scottish character, but as a reflection of, and response to, poverty and exploitation amidst growing plenty. The misery of mill and mine created the desire for justice and the realisation that only by uniting as workers could better be achieved. Crying social need and awareness of the power of acting collectively was the driving force – not “something deeper” somehow derived from being Scottish.

This is of course why the same movement was being brought into being, across the UK, and the industrialising world. If Keir Hardie embodied “something deeper ingrained our Scottish character” it would have been odd that it was the electorates of West Ham and Merthyr Tydfil who were most receptive to the man who had been blacklisted by the Scottish coal owners.

So to say that we should have a patriot clause in our aims and values to reflect our movement’s founding aims or ethos, makes little sense to me. But it’s the myth that we have an ingrained national character that is more worrying, and that is common to many Scottish parties.

The idea that a nation has some sort of ingrained character is of course hardly a new one. But if we are to endorse the idea that our “political faith” comes from “something deeper” in the Scottish character (unless we are claiming a truly unique status for the Scottish Labour Party) we are also endorsing the idea that “political faiths” can develop out of “something deeper” ingrained in, say, the German, Hungarian or Croatian character. These and many other countries have movements dedicated to arguing for precisely this notion, and they are made up of people who are not our friends.

It is, in any case, a fallacy. ‘National character’, insofar as it can said to exist at all, is not ingrained. There is no “something deeper”. It is hugely changeable. Scotland in my father’s lifetime has gone from voting majority Tory, to being a Labour stronghold, to seeing, the rise of nationalism. Similar big transformations (including depressingly the recent rise in nationalism) can be found all across Europe. Far from being ingrained, ‘national character’ changes as circumstances change, as Prof John Foster writing for the Red Paper Collective has outlined.

And quite apart from the justifications offered having no factual basis, a promise “to govern in the patriotic interest” doesn’t so much solve a problem as create a rod for our own backs. If it is to have any practical application what can it be other than a declaration that tartanry trumps solidarity? Would it mean, for example, that we would support an SNP Government arguing for more money from a UK Labour government in order to hold down business rates in Scotland, at the expense of social spending in the rUK? That would certainly match “the patriotic interest”. But it hardly squares with any conception of socialist or Labour values.

And where is the “patriotic interest” in not devolving abortion law? There are several reasons why doing so would be a terrible idea (and we owe a debt of gratitude to our team on the Smith commission for stopping it) but they aren’t patriotic ones.

Nationalism has been on the rise, not just here but across Europe. Getting arguments across based on sense rather than Saltire is a challenge. No one denies it. But it is a challenge we must face. Scotland already has too many people and parties who will equate progress with patriotism. Let’s not add to the number endorsing this myth. We should have the courage and integrity to stand up for truth, for solidarity and what unites rather than divides people.

The peoples flag isn’t a white cross on blue – it’s deepest red. We forget that at our peril.

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2 thoughts on “There are better things to be doing than playing the patriot game

  1. Well argued and all done with a bit of humour as well. The author’s modesty prevents him from pointing out that his essay in the Red Paper also shows how opinion in the North East and North West according to Social Trends is more progressive than that found here. It’s political education not ethnicity that will lead us forward.

  2. A well constructed argument and one that I wholeheartedly agree with. Thanks to the author for voicing my concerns. I’m also relieved to learn that there will be no devolution of abortion law. I’d been given the impression from reports in the media that it became part of the Smith Commission recommendations after receiving cross-party support.

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