Stephen Richmond writes for the Social Liberal Forum about a liberal approach to patriotism.
Perhaps the defeat of Donald Trump signals the end for the, ironically, international nationalist project. Maybe it doesn’t. It’s too early to say. What we can say though is that one of our rhetorical weaknesses as Liberals is on patriotism. People like patriotism, polling shows [whatever it is polling shows]. Given that it’s so popular we probably need to figure out how to engage with it, and group identity more broadly, if we want to communicate effectively with the electorate.
A helpful place to start might be in accepting that if we truly want each individual to get as much of what they want out of life as possible we are going to have to accept that group identity clearly gives people joy and meaning. People like football teams even though most people couldn’t hope to compete as part of their favourite team and their team is made up of a random selection of players simply purchased by a wealthy owner. On one level it’s a meaningless identity. On the other hand, it gives people joy. Ultimately individual joy and happiness matter to Liberals in a way it does not quite matter for any other ideology. Even for those of us who have no interest in football, knowing that other people get joy out of it is enough to ensure our support of it. Group identity can be meaningful to people, the question is how to deal with its darker side.
A core belief within Liberalism is that there is a darker side to group identity. Worries around not only government coercion but social pressure to conform are woven into our beliefs. Our fear of Nationalism is well founded and fair. It should be self-evident to us that giving up on defending ourselves and our communities from those things is to give up on Liberalism. Yet we do also speak about our communities. Community and fellowship have been core to Liberalism stretching well back into the 19th century and further. How do we square that circle?
The first way is to acknowledge that Liberalism isn’t Individualism in the sense of one against all, but Individualism in the sense of all for all. The belief that each and every person matters without exception. The trick, I believe, is to take that belief and fold it into the second strategy, one that is a little newer.
My proposition is that while Conservatives see tradition and identity as immutable and historical, Liberals see identity as the stories we all tell about ourselves. Identity is not something that is given to us as a finished masterpiece but instead something we build and grow together. The analogy I would use is that of Agloe, New York. In the early 20th century, a map maker in the United States, worrying as many map makers did about someone stealing his work, slipped a fake town called Agloe, New York, into his map. If anyone were to copy his map and sell it as their own, he could take them to court. Well, one day his company discovered Agloe, New York on a rival company's map and took them to court. The problem? There now really was a small town called Agloe, New York right where the map said it would be. It turned out that particular crossroads was quite a good stopping point on journeys and as people kept going there expecting a town some enterprising person had set up a shop. More people came and a small community formed. The pretend Agloe, New York had become real.
National identity is much the same. It isn’t an inherent truth from the past that is immutable, it’s a story we tell about ourselves over and over again until, one day, it becomes true. The thing is though that we can change that story. If we want, we can talk about Britain as an Imperial power, superior to all others, the story the Brexit camp wove into their narrative. We fired back with some completely true but dry figures about how much the economy would lose out and so we lost the referendum. There is an alternative story though. We can choose instead to be the nation that re-made itself after World War Two. We were proud to have fought against evil and won. We built the NHS and the welfare state, we kept the innovation and drive of our past, but we chose to also help build the United Nations, Human Rights, International trade and, yes, a united Europe after centuries of war. You might well roll your eyes at such a poetic description but then explain to me why there was such a visceral reaction of pride and joy when the NHS featured in the Olympic opening ceremony? The 2012 Olympics didn’t tell a story of world conquest but it did celebrate Britain, it just chose to tell a different story. The same is true of the oft-quoted scene from the film ‘Love Actually’ where the Prime Minister stands up to the US president and stresses David Beckham and Harry Potter, not the East India Company and ruling the waves.
If we choose the British story can be a Liberal one, Paddington Bear and the NHS, Human Rights and, to use an example the Lib Dems are famously passionate about, Doctor Who. If we cede the ground of group identity to the Conservatives and Socialists, it will be Nationalism and class divisions. It doesn’t have to be. Liberalism was once synonymous with community, let’s choose to tell a story that people can be proud of. As much as we may wish double-blind placebo-controlled experimental data on public policy swings elections it simply does not, stories do! Let’s choose to tell a good one and win. Otherwise, it’s Brexit nationalism all the way down.
Stephen Richmond is a member of the Liberal Democrats from Coventry, as well as being a member of the Social Liberal Forum Council.