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Consider this rule of thumb: the more that “patriotism” is invoked by a country’s political elites, the less healthy its political culture will be. From McCarthyism in the US to the Chinese Cultural Revolution, the imperative to love one’s country has often been used as a pretext for persecution and submission. And in post-Brexit pandemic Britain, we have developed our own grammar of patriotic intimidation.
The Conservative government is well positioned to play this game. It is already high on the fumes of Brexit, which carried the Tories to a majority that would allow them to vanquish Europe, take back control and get the job done. The Vote Leave veterans in No 10 are already aware of how well the language of treachery and sabotage can turn a section of the public against its own judiciary and even elected representatives. The kind of war talk that helped secure Brexit is now proving useful in managing the government’s calamitous Covid strategy.
Among the government’s many gambits for deflecting blame – in between the lies, scapegoating and occasional snarls of menace when questioned too closely – a sinister implication has begun to linger. It whispers: why don’t our critics love this country? Challenges to the government’s inept management of the crisis are depicted as nasty efforts to “politicise” the pandemic; worried northern mayors and MPs are “taking advantage” of a difficult situation to “score political points”. Public behaviour that obeys government instruction is a duty. Going to the pub is not a pastime, but an exercising of Britons’ “patriotic best”. Boris Johnson compares Covid-19 to all the other “alien invaders” that this country has “seen off” over a thousand years – positioning critique of his public health strategy as a traitorous undermining of a wartime government. Any criticism of the failing privatised test and trace programme has been hastily recast as an unpatriotic attack on “our NHS”.
Cabinet ministers are increasingly reaching for sanctimonious bluster when put on the spot. Matt Hancock, in a slightly embarrassing fit of fake indignation, responded to a very reasonable and, in the circumstances, restrained query from the Labour MP for Slough, Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, about availability of testing by saying: “I will not have this divisive language. I simply won’t have it!” When cornered, scuttling to the moral high ground with pious talk of “national unity” is always an easy way out.
This shimmy is clumsy and transparent, but it can be crudely effective. If there is one thing Keir Starmer wants to avoid, it is the perception that he is capitalising on the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic to burnish his credentials as the new Labour leader. This is a reasonable concern, especially for an opposition leader determined to present himself as a grownup who will look after “the national interest”. Starmer is keen to stress that he is “supporting the government” whenever he can. He reassures the government that he is on its side – “but …”
This strategy has its limits, as seen by the quip from one Gogglebox family that they have devised a new drinking game – down a shot every time the leader of the opposition says that he supports the government.
Johnson has picked up on this frequency and is playing with it, trying to discredit Labour whenever Starmer does get oppositional, charging him with inconsistency. It’s at moments like this – when Johnson taunts Starmer to return to his “previous script” and to stop “knocking the confidence of the country”, when he accuses him of having “more briefs than Calvin Klein” – that the hapless prime minister recovers a bit of his old bullying swagger. This is the trouble with trying to perform constructive opposition to a government that has no scruples and no answers for its own failure. It will always take your helping hand and use it to slap you. After months of restraint, you will still be called “a shameless opportunist playing political games in the middle of a global pandemic”. You will still be asked, by politicians and media alike, to work with the government, to help it come up with better coping mechanisms, as if the government did not have a huge majority and a long summer to correct its springtime mistakes.
This is why the Labour party’s attempted rebrand as a party of patriotism is another gift to the Conservatives. Patriotism – and here I mean its weaponised political deployment – is Tory ground, because they will always weaponise it more lethally. Labour interlopers on this turf are only permitted if they sign up to the right’s terms and conditions: never criticise a patriotic government, never defend the human rights of immigrants, never “side with our enemies” in Brussels, even if that puts the interests of your own citizens at risk. And on that ground of submission or sedition you will be stuck, because you can never outmanoeuvre the right on its own turf.
It doesn’t have to be that way. What has passed for patriotism for too long in this country is, in fact, chauvinism: an attitude that defines itself by who it excludes, rather than who it brings together. It is a bullying sect that is devoid of love, of affection, or kindness to fellow citizens. It is, as Oscar Wilde is said to have remarked, “the most insincere form of self-conceit”.
Holding this government to account requires a different approach to the question of patriotism. Sometimes loving your country involves kicking up a fuss. It means taking control of the narrative and telling the uncomfortable truth about a government that is letting its people down.
This is the sort of love for our neighbours and communities that can be found in Marcus Rashford’s work to feed hungry children, which has brought the 22-year-old footballer endless personal attacks and a rebuff from No 10 – it is not for schools to regularly feed children during a pandemic, they say, let them survive on universal credit. That sort of love can be found in a passionate advocacy for a nation bereaved, heading into a second lockdown, whose new tiers are both divisive and confusing. Succumbing to the false logic that demands national consensus and “putting the country first” only prolongs the charade that Johnson’s Conservatives are just trying their best – they only need a little more help from the opposition to crack it! A party that governs in the national interest does not hand out large untendered contracts to the private sector, it does not refuse to devolve power to Labour administrations and barricade itself against the north of the country. It’s not a lack of camaraderie or a lack of resources that is failing the Tories. It’s their own lack of patriotism. They are not here to govern; they are here to rule.
There is no way of working with this government – either on the part of citizens or the opposition – that will not simply give it more chances to shift the blame on to others, who will be accused of not helping “enough”, of not keeping quiet. If you love your country, it’s time to get loud.
• Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist
Source: The Guardian
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