Harnessing the power of patriotism

The left must get over its queasiness at displays of national pride

December 16, 2016
Shepherd's Bush market in west London © Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment
Shepherd's Bush market in west London © Matt Crossick/Matt Crossick/Empics Entertainment
Read more: A vote against the mass immigration society

Social divisions sap our communities of trust—increasing anxiety, prejudice and the fear of crime, restricting social mobility and augmenting the sense that there is more which divides us than binds us together. The result is a self-perpetuating cycle of fragmentation which fuels feelings of difference and dislocation—and makes it all too easy for people to pin the challenges facing our country on "the other."

In order to drain Britain's politics of the venom of blame and recrimination, we must build a more socially integrated society. This will mean seriously engaging with the vital task of managing change and crafting a politics which speaks the concerns of all Britons. As those of us who believe in open societies have been repeatedly reminded this year, political movements which attempt to suppress or circumvent the need for solidarity and community have a limited shelf life.

There are some very practical steps we can take at a local level to support communities and foster integration. When I visited Boston in Lincolnshire, one woman said to me that she wanted to talk to her neighbour and build a friendship, but she had to wait for her neighbour’s children to come home to translate because her neighbour didn’t speak English. However, local authorities have had their funding cut for English language services and are not able to provide the scale and depth of services needed.

Another resident told me that they were made to feel unsafe with young Eastern European men drinking on their street at night. However, as our conversation went on another local resident said that the only reason people drank on the streets was because of private sector landlords who only allowed tenants access to their room at certain times of day. A local community issue creating division and fear was actually due to exploitation in the private rental sector showing that the right reforms to tackle rogue landlords can have a positive impact on the whole community.

More than any other issue, immigration has been the fulcrum around which political debate has revolved over the last few years. At times, this conversation can seem hopelessly, irreconcilably polarised—with one group of voices claiming that Britain is full and that it’s time to pull up the drawbridge, and another that multiculturalism is a great British success story and that it’s only a fundamentally backwards minority who are concerned about change.

As ever, the truth is neither black nor white but exists in shades of grey. It is not contradictory to at once recognise the dynamism which immigration has infused into our communities and the fact that rapid demographic and cultural change can put pressure on public services and undermine people’s sense of security and belonging. Indeed, any effort at grappling with the forces of globalisation and forging a settlement which works for everyone must begin with an acknowledgement that immigration can undermine the ties that bind—but that it doesn’t have to.

Of course people are more likely to cast around for someone to blame when inequality is rampant, school places, houses and jobs are harder to come by, but this isn’t the whole story. In fact, in order to learn the lessons of the Brexit referendum, we must recognise that many people cast their ballot in favour of leaving the EU in full knowledge that they were voting against their own material interests. We must acknowledge that unease over immigration is rooted as much in issues of identity and attachment as in concerns over the jobs market or public services.

We on the left must get over our queasiness at displays of national pride and stop giving the impression that we believe transnational entities such as the European Union to be somehow morally superior to nation states. We must harness the power of patriotism to accentuate our essential sameness and build bonds of trust between Britons of all backgrounds in every corner of our country.

Englishness, much like Scottishness, is deeply felt—there’s no denying it’s a more emotional connection than Britishness. Now, we must develop a 21st century, pluralistic and inclusive idea of Englishness, marrying a deep sense of national kinship with genuine comfort with our place in Great Britain, Europe and the wider world.

Our national conversation on the new patriotism must stretch beyond the debating halls of Westminster, it must extend past our newspapers and Facebook feeds and unfold in our schools, streets, pubs and places of worship—in the places where people from different walks of life still come together and lead shared lives.

It follows that we need more of these places. After all, research shows that when people from different ethnicities, social backgrounds and ages meet and mix, trust grows and communities flourish. That’s why I believe that we must make rebuilding community a truly national, cross-party mission—driving change from the centre through adapting our schools and public services to better bring people together and establishing new national institutions to promote social integration; while also empowering cities, towns, local authorities and communities to create new spaces in which neighbours can come together.

This article is based on a chapter Chuka Umunna MP wrote for the report A Sense of Belonging: Building a more socially integrated society, published by the Fabian Society and Bright Blue, in partnership with The Challenge.