“I love this country.” This was what Jeremy Corbyn has told the Labour Party faithful, and it was a message calculated to reverberate way beyond the conference hall at Brighton. In the pages of newspapers unsympathetic to the Labour cause, he has been portrayed, variously, as an apologist for Muslim terrorists, an IRA sympathiser, a man who wants to give the Falklands to Argentina, and a radical left-wing ideologue who won’t sing the National Anthem, who won’t kneel for the Queen, and who traduces everything we are supposed to hold dear.
And so, with that simple, unequivocal statement of patriotism, Corbyn seeks to allay the fears of the Middle England (whatever that is) that he’s an insurgent republican and convince them that, actually, he’s a beer and cricket man, just like John Major. It’s not going to wash, of course. He’s too easy a target for those who want to characterise him as the enemy within.
But I think he’s chosen the wrong expression for the defence of his beliefs. Because what does it really mean when you say you love your country?
For Corbyn, it’s about feeling solidarity with what he regards as quintessentially British values: a sense of fair play, tolerance, and respect. He says that these are the things which are universal to Britons. But his next door neighbour might have a completely different attitude: what he loves about his country may be free enterprise, low taxes, and a property-owning economy.
To my mind, one of the most attractive things about 21st Century Britain is its polyglot nature, the way its cities are a melting pot of different cultures and ethnicities, its range and its diversity. And to say, blindly, that you love your country is simplistic bordering on the facile. Most of us have a much more complicated relationship with the nation state than that.
Hearing Corbyn’s proclamation made me wonder: do I love my country? Well, I like being alive and I happen to have been born British, so, in that narrow sense, I am an accidental patriot. And I do think there is something in Corbyn’s misty-eyed belief that British people are, generally, welcoming and socially liberal. That’s what made this the sort of country that the poor and the dispossessed from all corners of the world are prepared to take enormous risks to get to.
But, despite being born in England, I found myself supporting Wales against England in the rugby on Saturday. I didn’t sing “God Save the Queen”, but I did join in with Hen “Wlad Fy Nhadau”. Does this make me a traitor? I think of myself as a Mancunian rather than an Englishman, and, as well as my love for most things Welsh, I still regard the English rugby team as symbolic of the hegemonic class system and redolent of public school privilege. Outdated, I know, but you can take the boy out of the North...
Equally, I think London is a magnificent city, the capital of the world. But it also represents the things I hate about modern Britain: the desire to attract the foreign super-rich which has only increased the widening inequalities, the ultra-materialism, the insularity.
Because, guess what? Some Britons can be insular, and others can be open-hearted. Some of us believe there is no such thing as society, while others will defend the welfare state.
So, good luck, Jeremy. I don’t really care whether you say you love your country or not. I ask, instead, what you will do for your country.
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