Ukip leader Nigel Farage bawled that the Labour Party hates “the concept of Englishness” in the wake of last month’s Rochester and Strood by-election.
This followed a Labour politician tweeting a picture of a house emblazoned with St George’s flags.
Emily Thornberry, the now resigned shadow minister, came under fire for her odd comments that suggested such a thing was remarkable.
But it’s no wonder many people feel uncomfortable at the sight of the St George’s flag. Some reject the jingoism that goes along with it.
And others know it is shorthand for celebrating a country with a bloody and racist history.
Both know that the loudest calls for patriotism come from the right. It’s why English Defence League thugs and other racists wrap themselves in the cross of St George.
Demands that we celebrate “Englishness” and “British values” are based on the idea that there is something unique and superior about the country.
Often this is based on what racists describe as Britain’s “glorious” history as a dominant imperial power. This is full of colonial occupation, slavery and bloody war.
The concept of Britishness has developed to encompass many things—from being reserved to drinking tea. For Ukip it includes “traits such as politeness”.
It isn’t clear how Britain’s rulers building an empire on the backs of slaves could be defined as “polite”.
The idea of fixed national traits also assumes that people’s behaviour stays the same over time. But this is nonsense.
For example, British Social Attitudes reported 44 percent of people in 1993 said they would be uncomfortable were their children to marry across ethnic lines. By 2013 this had fallen to just 9 percent.
Those at the top of society push nationalism because it suits their interests. Nationalism encourages workers born in different countries to see each other as competitors and enemies.
It hides divisions in society by pretending that workers and bosses from the same country are bound together by common values and interests.
This is rubbish.
The values and interests of David Cameron, a public school educated millionaire, are alien to those of most ordinary people.
His “respect for the rule of law” is apparently a British value. This helpfully defines anyone questioning or breaking laws as “un-British”.
Nationalism can help those at the top cast out certain people as “not British enough”. In 1990 racist Tory Norman Tebbit MP attacked migrants who didn’t back the England cricket team for not being “integrated” enough.
Today Muslims who don’t speak English at home are told they aren’t embracing “British values”.
Some on the left argue that nationalism can be reclaimed. They say workers can take pride in aspects of Britain’s history, such as the Chartist movement or the Battle of Cable Street.
Of course there have been great working class movements in Britain. But they weren’t the result of some innate characteristic of British workers. And they aren’t more worthy of celebration because they happened in Britain.
Labour politicians claim they have to be patriotic to win over working class voters.
In reality workers aren’t automatically nationalist—that’s why our rulers have to work so hard at promoting it.
Others say that the nationalism of the union jack is more acceptable than that of the St George’s flag.
But all nationalism aims to pulls us closer to the ruling class, and it can drive a wedge between workers.
For socialists, the country we happen to be born in is nothing to celebrate. Our nationality doesn’t define us—our class does.