People of all political stripes sometimes say things they don’t mean, or come to regret, in the heat of passionate argument, either out of anger or just for dramatic effect.
The Sun newspaper once famously warned the last person fleeing Britain in the event of a Labour election victory to “turn out the lights”. Every Labour Party campaign in living memory has warned voters that they had only “24 hours to save the NHS”, though somehow it never seems to disappear in the Tory years. Paddy Ashdown said he would eat his hat if the Liberal Democrats did as badly in the 2015 general election as the exit poll predicted (they did worse).
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, angry liberals threatened to move to Canada when George W. Bush was re-elected, while social conservatives – high on passion but lacking in international awareness – responded to the Supreme Court’s ruling legalising gay marriage by themselves threatening to move to Canada, that well-known bastion of homophobia and social conservatism.
So rhetorical hyperbole is not restricted to any one political party or any one type of outlook or worldview. But there is a certain type of political argument to which those on the political Left seem to resort far more often than their opponents on the Right.
When faced with electoral defeat and years in political opposition, those of a conservative mindset tend to lick their wounds for awhile and then set about the business of trying to re-acquire power and influence, however angrily or unsuccessfully. However, when those of a left-wing mindset are faced with rule by the other side, they are far more likely to view the situation as intolerable to the extent that even remaining part of the same country or political structure becomes undesirable.
Take our own United Kingdom. Scotland and England have been through the fire together many times in the course of our centuries-old union – only seventy years ago we faced possible invasion and total destruction at the hands of the Nazi war machine. We fought and bled together to preserve our freedom and then bring that torch of freedom to the subjugated peoples of Europe. And yet last year, in 2014, the United Kingdom nearly ripped itself apart, irreparably.
How did this happen? Because the SNP and the forces of Scottish nationalism, once a fringe group, were swelled in number so that they almost became a majority. And the SNP’s army of new recruits were almost exclusively left-leaning, austerity-hating individuals who had been persuaded that the temporary presence of a centre-right Tory government in Westminster was sufficient reason to permanently and irrevocably sever the bond between our countries by voting for independence.
Now look at the reaction of many left-leaning commentators to the unfolding crisis in Greece and the European Union. Left-wing eurosceptics have been a highly endangered species for at least the past twenty years, with prevailing left-wing thought dictating that to have any doubts about pooling sovereignty in Brussels is tantamount to being a narrow-minded, xenophobic Little Englander. For all this time the European Union has been held up as a Good Thing because EU law and regulations tempered the free market instincts of Margaret Thatcher, John Major and their New Labour and Cameroon successors.
Yet as soon as one member state (Greece) cloaked itself in opposition to austerity, playing David to Germany’s Goliath in the battle for global sympathy, left-wing loyalties began to turn. Now some prominent left-wing commentators, offended by the EU’s attitude towards Greece, are openly flirting with euroscepticism. Never mind the fact that the EU has been busily stamping down on personal freedom and national democracy for years before the Greek crisis – it was only when a cause dear to the left-wing heart (anti-austerity) came into play that the bonds of acceptance and legitimacy between the European institutions and the British (and global) Left began to fray.
The purpose of this piece is not to denigrate our call into question the morality or virtue of the Left, or to question anyone’s patriotism, for no side has a monopoly on patriotism and devotion to country. And yet it must be noticed – having been brought into sharp relief by last year’s Scottish independence referendum and now the ongoing drama with Greece in the EU – that a sizeable strain of left-wing patriotism and loyalty to even supposedly loved institutions only runs skin deep. Some people apparently feel British until government policy moves to the right and they suddenly reject Britishness, while others feel a European identity until they notice the EU behaving badly, at which point old allegiances are cast aside with scarcely a second thought.
This is partly because of the way left-wingers and right-wingers view politics differently. This blog noted with alarm during the 2015 general election campaign and its aftermath that many Labour supporters had sincerely convinced themselves that the Conservative Party and their supporters were not just wrong but actually evil, intent on doing deliberate harm to their fellow citizens. It’s the age old dichotomy – those on the Right think that left-wingers are misguided, while those on the Left think that right-wingers are evil.
Consequently, if you were a conservative-minded person suffering through 13 years of Labour government under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, you were probably inclined to make the best of a bad situation and ride it out. And so it was – there were very few calls for England to secede from the United Kingdom or for the Tory heartlands to declare independence for themselves when Labour were in government. Conservatives disagreed vehemently with many Labour policies, but they viewed our common bond as fellow British citizens to be far more important than transitory political questions.
By contrast, the hysteria about Evil Tory rule and a genocide of the sick and disabled helped stoke the fire of Scottish nationalism almost immediately, and even resulted in petitions for the Thatcher-hating north of England to divorce from central and southern England in order to join a new Scottish socialist utopia.
This all points to a malaise at the heart of left-wing thinking in modern Britain. And this blog is not alone in thinking so. Tristram Hunt, the serious-minded Labour shadow education secretary, has also called for a new “progressive patriotism”, perhaps realising that throwing one’s toys out of the pram and trying to found a new country every time one loses a political argument is not the most mature or constructive way to behave.
From Hunt’s interview in the Guardian:
Calling on Labour to promote a keener sense of national identity in tandem with a confident internationalist, European outlook, learning lessons from the SNP in Scotland and Syriza in Greece, he said: “My big fear is that, just as we lost the agenda in the aftermath of the last election, I fear us losing it again. The breadth of the attempted land grab by Osborne will, I hope, deliver a defilibrator, an electric shock, to our leadership election because we need to think really deeply about the future of the Labour party. This needs to be a summer of hard truths.”
Hunt, who ducked out of the leadership contest after failing to gain enough support from Labour MPs, said the party needed to position itself as patriotic yet internationalist and outward-looking. By contrast, the current leadership contest seemed too focused on policy minutiae while failing to address huge wider challenges facing centre-left parties across Europe.
On this occasion Tristram Hunt is right. This blog is glad that some on the left are finally waking up to the dangers of vesting our democracy and sovereignty in remote international institutions lacking any real popular legitimacy, though it is curious that Britain’s new left-wing eurosceptics have been moved to change their mind because of the suffering of faraway people in Greece and not those on low incomes and few career prospects in Britain who have been most harmed by the EU.
It is very strange that so many educated, thoughtful people who until recently looked upon the European Union as a shining, benevolent example of altruistic internationalism are now turning against the EU, in some cases even openly calling for Grexit and Brexit – Greek and British secession from Europe. And it is downright worrying when we observe the same trend taking place internally within our own country, when Labour supporters and other people on the left think so little of their conservative brothers and sisters that they no longer feel able to share a country with them.
Left wing or right wing, the bonds that tie us together are important, and must be nurtured. The too-close-for-comfort “No” vote in the Scottish independence referendum, coupled with the lightning-quick speed that some former europhiles are now rushing to bash their formerly beloved EU, suggests that these bonds are fraying at an alarming rate, and may soon snap entirely.
In the case of the EU, this blog could not be happier that many former pro-Europeans are now experiencing serious doubts as a result of the eurozone crisis – though our utmost sympathy goes to the Greek people who have suffered hardship, humiliation and an austerity on a scale that most of us cannot easily imagine.
The lack of British patriotism, on the other hand – and the ebbing sense of any unifying bond which ties us together as a national family – is a matter of very grave concern indeed, and one not easily rectified.
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