How to Vote in Hope

It’s polling day in the local elections. In a month it will be the general and I wanted to say something about hope.

There are many things in the world which are natural. Trees, rocks, the sea, the earth, the air. And then there are all the things that aren’t – things we call constructs. Constructs are things which humans built out of language and story-telling – often political story telling.

Countries are constructs. There is nothing inherently Welsh or English, Irish or Scottish, about the ground your house is built on. It’s a collection of rocks and earth and tiny, wriggling worms just like the foundations of all the houses in Mosul and Georgia and Bangkok. All countries are a collective fantasy, a history of myths and icons which have been advantageous for those who want to rule us in making us feel we ‘belong’ somewhere.

Do you know what else is a construct? Money. Financial systems. There is no poverty in nature – natural disaster yes, but not poverty. To quote Nelson Mandela: “Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.”

Which brings us on to race. Another construct. Race isn’t natural. Skin pigmentation is no more meaningful than the fact that some humans can roll their tongues and others can’t. Most of us recognise this. We know that racism is a by-product of colonialism and that through our efforts it can now be undone. It’s our duty – as clever and compassionate humans – to undo what we made in error. 

So today May 4th and next month on June 8th ask yourself: am I ready to start undoing that which we made in error? Am I going to go to war on poverty, inequality, nationalism, xenophobia and racism? Am I going to be cowed and mistaught by the past or am I going forward in hope?

For me the answer is hope. I will vote hopefully and progressively on May 4th and June 8th. I’ll be voting Labour but I know that I stand alongside Greens, Lib Dems, SNP and Plaid Cymru voters in knowing there’s a better country – a truly shared country – which we can create together.

Patriotism means re-imagining our place in the world

Patriotism noun "the vigorous support of one's country"

So today Theresa May will trigger Article 50 - our notice of an intention to leave the EU. Like most on the left I voted to remain and like many others I am bereft at the path my country is taking. But in line with my intention to talk in positive and constructive ways about what it means to belong to the British left I wanted to write something today about what internationalism means and why it's a vital part of who we are as Britons.

For centuries England, later Britain, proved herself immensely able at taking over other people's countries, exploiting their natural resources, growing rich from their economies, exploiting their trade routes and in some cases enslaving their people. Just 90 years ago - in 1927 - the British Empire included Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, South Africa, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Tanzania, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Guyana, Cyprus, Honduras, Swaziland, Rhodesia, Gold Coast, Kenya, Somalia, Afghanistan, Burma, Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, the British Antarctic, Grenada, the Mosquito Coast, Fiji, Brunei, Borneo, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Cameroon, Mauritius, Hong Kong, the Northern part of Ireland and all of the territories within the Great British mainland.

That is our imperial past. We cannot run from it - though god knows we do a good job of hiding it from our children - but it is not our future. The British Empire is a thing of the past. And yet many people in Britain are profoundly influenced by their experience - or imagined experience - of being at the heart of Empire. They remain fondly attached to an idea of Britain as a great and influential nation, where the best parts of other people's cultures (normally meaning food, historical artefacts and sometimes fashion) flowed towards us and we exported the best of ours (normally meaning literature, media and education). This is the dream, this is the romance. And yet Brexiters have chosen a path of isolation, they have chosen to remove themselves from the co-operative body of their own continent and to become an island in every sense of the word, floating free from the ties of Europe but this time without an empire to boost their economy and political relevance in the world. It's almost as if they don't realise just how small we really are.

So here - in relatively pithy form - is how a post-empire country reforms itself in patriotic fashion.

Influence We take pride in having influence: in exporting our values of democracy and secular multi-cultituralism and our cultural products - film, literature, radio and television. To remain relevant we need to exist, to negotiate with and to trade within the international bodies and systems which allow us to retain old links and forge new ones. That means being a part of the EU and being a part of NATO, G8, G7, G20, the OECD, the WTO and the United Nations Security Council. There is a separate argument to be had about the ethical stance of many of these groupings but the fact remains that if the small collection of islands known as the UK wish to retain influence in the world we need to strengthen our ties - not sever them.

Cultural, scientific, environmental and academic co-operation All over the world we are moving with great speed away from manufacturing economies and towards knowledge-based economies. Trade in knowledge, knowledge-based collaboration and the effective intellectual protection of knowledge rights are all heavily dependent on our place within co-operative frameworks such as the EU and outside of those frameworks we will struggle to remain relevant, to invite funding, to advertise ourselves as relevant partners in scientific or cultural partnerships. If the UK wishes to be at the heart of the new economy it must strengthen ties - not sever them.

Peace The European project was designed to make it extremely hard for European states to go to war with each other, to provide an economic disincentive to conflict. The threat of conflict never truly subsides and it never will. Patriotism - vigorously supporting one's country - means keeping her secure from conflict. In the language of the right this often becomes about funding the military or spending on nuclear warheads. And the left is sometimes shy of talking about safety or security - because it 'isn't our thing'. But maintaining peace means - yes - properly funding a standing army but more than that - so much more than that - it means strengthening our bonds of economic and political co-operation with those nations who we might finds ourselves in conflict with. Protecting our country - protecting our citizens - means not having to go to war. It means compromise and co-operation, it means maintaining our part in the messy bond which constitutes the European Union. If the UK wishes to maintain the security and safety of its citizens it must strengthen ties - not sever them.

In other words:

Patriotism means staying relevant, staying peaceful and staying 'employable' in a rapidly changing world. 

Patriotism means co-operating and staying engaged.

An isolated country is a weak country and none of us want that.



Why patriotism?

So... what does patriotism even mean? Its normal definition is the vigorous support of one's country.

For many of the left they balk at these words. They see nationalism as being part of the far right movement. At the very least it belongs to a traditionalism which is alien to them. People hear patriotism and they see union jack bunting, the queen's head on a tea towel and people obsessed by tales of military success. And, yes, that's some people's idea of patriotism and that's fine.

But that's not what patriotism means to me. "The vigorous support of one's country." Well, what is a country anyway? We invented the concept of a country so it can mean different things to different people. To me it means society. A group of people who share a certain space of land. And why wouldn't I want to support society? That's the very thing that drives everything I believe in. 

So, how do we support society? Well, we try to act as a good member for a start. We keep within the limit of her laws, we do not actively harm her other members, we try to contribute. And how do we contribute? Well, we work if we can, we care for our family members, maybe we volunteer... And we pay tax. We pay tax so that schools will teach our children, hospitals will care for the sick, an army will exist to defend us in times of strife.

It is a source of constant sadness to me that taxation has become something about which the British whinge and complain. When I walk past a school - any school, my children's school - I look up at it and think I'm paying for that and that gives me joy. When I take my child to her hospital appointment I look around me and I think: I helped to make this happen. Every year, handing the government part of the money that I earn means that I can walk into this building day or night and know that I was and am a part of it. My contribution makes me proud. And the pride I feel is lasting, it contributes to - it constructs - my sense of who I am in the world.

Buying clothes or shoes or things for the house gives me a temporary high: that little buzz of purchase that consumerism so relies on. But it cannot even begin to touch the relationship I have with my country, the love I have for my country. The incredible pride I feel in paying in for the good of all. I want my children to grow up with that same pride in the community that I feel now, that same sense that here is something we have all built together.

That pride in community, that sense of contribution, that knowledge of involvement: that's where patriotism starts for me. In that moment of real engagement. That vigorous support of one's country. 

Why things have to change

On November 11th - Remembrance Day in the UK - two days after Trump's victory and five months after Brexit I wrote the following post on Facebook. And after I wrote it I realised that I had felt frustrated for a very long time that I wasn't able to express my pride in Britain and my profound patriotism - patriotism which drives every political belief I have: belief in society and co-operation and the country we are trying to build together. Below I have pasted the original post that inspired this blog. And in it I will try, as best as I'm able, to express what that patriotism means to me and why it leads me to the political conclusions that it does. 

First posted on Facebook:

A lot of us on the liberal left are in a kind of crisis right now. We don't understand why our political abilities have been lost. But something has come out very clearly from the writing in the last few days: we've lost the ability to inspire.

And behind this I think there's a sterner lesson. A rather horrible lesson and it's this: for many of us on the liberal left we live in a liberal left bubble. Almost everyone we know agrees with us. In the cultural wars - as far as we're concerned - we won the good bits. We got literature and we got theatre and most weeks we get to have the News Quiz as well.

We started to believe that 90% of the people who were educated and refined were naturally on the left. And we laughed at everyone who disagreed with us. We sneered at them. Made fun of them on social media. All those years of Labour rule made us lazy... and superior.

We became the mean, cool kids. We thought our clique would always be on the ascendant and everyone would simply want to join us so we stopped making our case. We thought laughing at the Daily Mail and rolling our eyes at every new Tory wannabe was political engagement. Guess what: we were wrong.

We are brilliant at talking in an echo chamber. The Labour left talk to the Labour left. The Labour right talk to the Labour right. The Greens talk to the Greens. The intellectuals debate in the LRB. We pat each other on Facebook and Twitter. We all read the same articles on the Guardian. We congratulate each other on our quiet and utterly un-influential left-wingedness.

And because we're smug and sneery we alienate every single person who encounters us. We're alienating f-ing everyone... which is how we've managed to lose so many bloody elections.

And along the way we absolutely forgot to make our case. We forgot to say to people, not sneeringly but in all sincerity:

I believe society has to work for everyone and that income inequality leads to poor health, high crime and high anxiety throughout every class and community.

I want to live in a world where my kids grow up to be far prouder of the tax which they pay each year - to build a brilliant education and healthcare system, to pay for our beloved teachers and doctors, to maintain our national security - than they are of their new shoes or their games console or their car.

I am proud to pay tax (and proud to pay more of it as I earn more) because doing my civic duty makes me feel that I'm playing my part in building and improving this community, this country - which I love very deeply. Paying tax is patriotism - the very best kind of patriotism I know.

I am a proud member of the European Union because the EU was invented to prevent another war like WWII occurring, because it is doing what it was designed for and because inter-continental co-operation is a beautiful part of who we are in the UK.

I am proud of my immigrant heritage and proud of Britain for providing a safe place for my family when other countries were more dangerous for us. Our history of colonialism has created many ties with other nations and part of living with that history means accepting that people will *want* to come to Britain.

I believe that society only works if we can provide work for everyone. Where that work has vanished (in manufacturing particularly) we either need to invest very, very heavily to rebuild our manufacturing base - or we need to radically rethink how we're going to define work - include the unpaid caring which millions already do.

We have to stop complaining. We have to stop mocking. We have to unlearn every bad habit we have learned in the past 30 years. We have to make a positive and thoughtful case. Otherwise nothing - NOTHING - is going to change.