I’d not long started my career in videogames when a game designer told me that good game design is giving people what they want, but also giving people something they didn’t realise they wanted, but now they’ve got it, they’re delighted. Similarly, if you cannot offer something new and compelling as an opposition party in politics, an inspiring alternative explanation and solution for their problems, you cannot make the emotional connection that takes people with you. You cannot win.
Nesrine Malik’s recent article on patriotism characterises the problem Labour perceives it has in trying to win back power. It’s wrong, and the solutions proffered will, as Malik says, fail before they begin. Focus grouping a strategy in this way is by definition fake and people won’t follow a fake. As a vision it’s too reactive, too focused on taking at face value what people don’t like about Labour and crafting a direct counter, without seriously considering how unlikely it is that people will just magically love Labour again because they wear better suits to a cenotaph. Shouldn’t Labour be re-framing patriotism, grounding it in its true complexity? It’s always been complex. Shouldn’t they be doing this because they need to speak to all, as they always have, not just a few? Labour must formulate a strategy that is optimistic and empowering for current and future generations across the whole country. It must show that political and practical solutions to the erosion of community, decimation of good jobs and regional economies requires an evolution of democracy that leverages technology. It is a national project that only our unity can make succeed. Small scale examples of practical successes in community and consensus building exist. Publicising these will help people get a grasp of the vision, it’ll give them something they didn’t realise they wanted.
I want to take a step back and look at the nature of patriotic feeling.
The sources of patriotic feeling are multifarious. This pride and sense of belonging sits within citizens with widely varying identities; age, gender, (dis)ability, language, colour of skin, religion. Some might not like it, some hate it, but there is no rational argument for delineating a particular ‘recipe’ of identity and a particular set of sources for patriotic feeling as ‘right’. There is no authority for determining what counts as legitimate patriotism.
So let’s take me as an example and pick on a few things that make me proud. I’m proud of the legacy we have for holding those in power to account, with the freedom to speak to power, challenge it and even satirise it. I love the parliamentary select committee structure for its ability to scrutinise our government from within. For decades on national television there were (and in the odd case still are) current affairs programs famous for holding those in power to account. Ministers no longer seem to care for such scrutiny in an age where they can curate their messages direct to Facebook undiluted by critique. (Take a look at the summaries for TW3, Panorama, The World at One, World In Action and Brian Walden’s forensic interviewing for Weekend World and elsewhere (bear in mind he was no ‘lefty’) for examples of programming that attempted to bring clarity to matters of public concern). There is no doubt we can scrutinise those in power. Who among us would want it otherwise except those who seek to exercise power on our behalf without oversight, i.e. the corrupt?
The image of Stormzy above represents to me also the freedom of expression we have in the arts, another source of pride. We are renowned for a sophisticated, daring and diverse culture. In regards to both freedoms I’m particularly proud of the BBC. Its existence may well be bemoaned by those to the left and right of centre, but Stormzy in Glastonbury was on the BBC the night before The Archers continued to entertain its own long-running and far different cultural niche the next morning. This is the BBC speaking to all of Britain in a nutshell. There’s nothing particularly partisan about its news output, either, much as I believed there was.1 2
What else am I proud of being British for? I’m proud we have strong gun control and the NHS. I’m proud to be Welsh because, er, Welsh. I like that citizens of this country have done so much through political activism for women’s rights, gay rights and worker’s rights, but I’m not proud of how much fight that took or how long it took. I am proud of Britain’s standing in the world, its reputation and contribution, in particular its stand against fascism, but I’m not proud of what it took to get us here regarding the awful human costs of our empire. I’m proud of the fact we can openly scrutinise the latter and yet not so proud that the capabilities of our educational, social and political institutions the wealth of that empire built are not yielding the same ‘white heat’ of progress that the industrial revolution forged. It feels like we’re stagnating.
It doesn’t matter what you think of these sources of my patriotic feeling or, indeed, my frustrations with Britain. No, really, it doesn’t matter. The reasons I love Britain are mine and you or anyone else doesn’t get to decide their legitimacy. Mo Farah is a proud British muslim, an immigrant who became one of the greatest distance runners of all time. Can you seriously believe his patriotism is somehow illegitimate, fake or simply felt less strongly? Stormzy may well love the fact he can create a publishing imprint able to give voice to those being under-represented in mainstream book publishing, yet he will rightly criticise the way Black people are discriminated against here. Our war veteran may both love his country for protecting us from fascism and feel dismay at that same country’s lack of government support and funding for ex-servicemen. He will recognise Stormzy’s belief in God, but is unlikely to understand what it means to be ‘Black British’. It doesn’t matter. Being ‘British’ is a wonderfully complex concept.
Social media and news media wars are being propagated to set people against each other based on their varied identities. This is useful to those who would exercise power over us and look to profit from it. Why else would we stand in a food bank arguing about why I don’t belong in this country when we both should be more concerned about a system that’s forcing us to use the food bank in the first place? The racist and fascist playbooks have a long and varied history of offering comforting and entirely dubious explanations to people looking to understand why they work hard and do their best but end up with so little compared to the rich. Behind these groups, always, are those seeking to exercise authoritarian power over us without scrutiny. Social media has amplified their reach and the same grooming and radicalisation tactics all fundamentalists and terrorists use applies here.
So I cannot have been the only one pleasantly surprised by seeing so many of us clapping the key workers for their efforts during this pandemic, the NHS in particular as it bore the brunt of the sick and dying, many of whom suffered due directly to the ineptitude of the government. Despite widely varying identities and, no doubt, a variety of sources of patriotic sentiment we were unified in common recognition of our fellow citizens that spend their lives taking care of us and often saving our loved ones. I don’t recall anyone clapping nurses and doctors of a particular identity. I doubt anyone out clapping would have tolerated that. Yet meaningful recognition of the work of nurses, from the funding of all aspects of nursing training through bursaries to a good salary is an issue we don’t seem to either care enough about or begin to know how to solve, given we have a strong Conservative majority. Have we become a nation capable only of some zero effort, zero cost clapping for five minutes on our doorsteps for the good work done by our neighbours?
Perhaps not. The stellar work Marcus Rashford did to highlight child poverty and hunger during the lockdown, forcing two government U turns on policy that would have caused its own citizens to go hungry was another trigger for an amazing and far more meaningful nationwide effort to provide meals to families struggling with poverty and unemployment across the country. Once more, in adversity, there was a unity among British citizens with their fellows that ignored those other aspects of our identities that are being exploited to divide us.
Practical Steps (aka ‘it’s not merely spending, it’s investment with a return’)
I want to talk about some initiatives out there that Labour should seriously look at that I believe are instrumental to creating a better Britain.
If a prospective government is going to attempt to heal our divisions and argue for a more complex ‘Britishness’, it’s obvious a connection needs to be made between the compassion for others that is latent in almost all of us and a political vision that makes clear the benefit to everyone for leveraging that sense of community. How? Principally by mapping out how we invest in the whole country to stay competitive in the face of change coming in the global economy caused by climate change and advancing technology, and how we can put an infrastructure in place that devolves decision making to a greater degree to the regions using methods that promote consensus and so change the character of our interactions with each other. We can reduce and replace the mediation of our connections driven by the myopic, profit-oriented agendas of modern media and tech barons who seek to define our future on their terms.
Britain doesn’t succeed while it’s at war with itself, while the interests of its citizens have been made antagonistic to each other through excessive inequality of income, opportunity and discrimination. This vision of a better Britain acknowledges the past but is geared towards framing the present as the ground on which we stand, love it or hate it. I think we’re good at pragmatism. The glories and the bloodshed of the past can and must be made clear by our historians, but we acknowledge that it is an act of self-destruction to denigrate the role of education and ‘being educated’ in transforming Britain for the near future global economy, when those things were so central to our success throughout that history. If we paid such a heavy price for the success Britain has historically had, why are we so reluctant to leverage it, except that it appears not to suit an elite that feels threatened by our unity and our potential.
The political vision thus begins with education and opportunity, in particular with a serious investment in STEM subjects and the attendant educational infrastructure. It makes clear that the public investment we make now generates the innovation and expertise later to respond to an economy fewer and fewer of us can make sense of the more quickly technological advances facilitate or supplant the production of goods and services, even the nature of labour and work itself. The twenty first century will not be shaped by the routines and work/life patterns of a twentieth century economy, regardless of whether older generations can make sense of where we’re headed. We therefore need as large a pool of capable people as possible available to drive competitive excellence in our companies. Those companies could lead the world with better support through publicly owned investment banks that can afford to take a longer view than private banks and distribute the dividends directly back to the exchequer. Strong public sector involvement (‘stakeholding’) in key industries is well understood in Germany and Japan. If that support can generate the IP, patents and solutions that will help us maintain an edge in the global economy to come, we will all have much to be proud of.
The vision is of us finding and training our most capable engineers, scientists, thinkers and innovators who might come from any community, not just those that can afford the education. It would naturally follow that we’d need to invest accordingly to give them a far better chance to contribute, and in so doing create wealth that pays back that public investment many times over. I’ve worked for many corporations, from BP to Disney, and all of them value investment in people, spending small fortunes on equipping their employees to be able to thrive and contribute more value to their business. Why on earth don’t countries behave the same way with and for their citizens? Why are so many of our fellows languishing in poverty, using food banks, living day to day under constant anxiety and stress? What could they or their children begin to offer both in the short term if they actually had any spending money to support their local economy and in the long term if they could utilise the sovereignty that better pay, conditions and a more supportive community would allow them and their kids. A simple example; student debt is putting off working class kids from going to university or polytechnic. A whole swathe of our youth are disempowered from fulfilling their potential, generation after generation, that might otherwise create significant wealth with the quality of their labour or entrepreneurship emboldened by the provision of the guidance and funding to bring their dreams to fruition. How is it right that the poorest and most deprived, much of the working class, succeed despite their circumstances and not because of them?
The vision for what it means to be a citizen, how we promote unity beyond just improving opportunity for all needs to describe how we connect directly with our communities via a citizens assembly framework that would exist in all our regions. Software already exists to facilitate this and this process was used to effectively and peacefully negotiate a path to abortion legislation in Ireland, a highly divisive issue there. This assembly and others like it created an environment that in their structure promoted consensus and informed decision making, and in particular did such with people talking directly with each other. How utterly opposed this model of communication is to the anonymity that fuels the cruelty and misunderstanding underlying so much engagement in mass social media generally (and by design).
In addition, what if a network of regional publicly owned investment banks worked in concord with the assembly framework to determine consensus on how best to focus tax spend? A similar, more embryonic initiative is underway with great success in pilot schemes across the UK.
When we see a positive outcome to our collaboration, we break down the divisions that are being constructed against our better natures. We recognise people for what they say and do, not what they are. The person before us is not reduced to ‘benefits claimant’ or ‘brown’ or ‘neurodiverse’, we grow to see they’re as capable of caring about our community as we are. We’ll more readily realise, too, that we all ‘bleed red’ as Shylock might have it.
The arts will evolve to hold our course to account, morally. They will evolve to interpret whatever future comes from these initiatives and further enrich our contribution to culture generally. All such visions are idealistic, but so is the cherry-picked nostalgia of ‘the good old days’ and the suffering it hides. It is as much the experience of the vision made flesh in these new institutions and frameworks that will break down the barriers between us as it is in what we say when we talk about Britain. We win by providing a practical path that might surprise and delight those of us who might be thinking the answers lie in the tweaking and modifying of the increasingly unsuitable frameworks and institutions we are familiar with, i.e. the past. The industrial revolution, all its terrible costs notwithstanding, drove a revolution in civilisation similarly unforseeable to all who came before yet it was capable, in principle, of emancipating us all. A necessarily more inclusive and rewarding revolution is no less achievable.