Labour has allowed the Conservative party to question its patriotism and take sole ownership of the Union Jack. That is a mistake, says Joff Wild – particularly in light of what has happened over recent years
Theresa May, we are told, has bought herself sometime after appearing in front of the 1922 Committee and taking responsibility for the general election campaign and the result it delivered. “I got us into this mess,” she is reported to have told her backbench MPs, “and I’m going to get us out of it.” Of course, the “us” she refers to here is the Conservative party.
While it’s nice that the Prime Minister saw fit to apologise to her colleagues for the absolute Horlicks she made of her attempt to crush the saboteurs, I can’t help wondering about when she is going to apologise to the country. After all, she put us through six weeks of completely unnecessary mudslinging and failed totally to make the case she presented, so dropping us into an uncertain constitutional morass just days before the most important negotiations this country has been involved in since the end of World War Two are supposed to start. The UK already had a weak hand in the Brexit talks, now it has an even weaker one. Thank-you Mrs May – you have delivered the precise opposite of strong and stable.
All of which takes me to patriotism. It is, without doubt, one of the Conservative party’s most potent calling cards – and one that it has used extensively over the years. In the election that has just gone, Theresa May was presented as the Union Jack waving mother of the nation and contrasted starkly with Jeremy Corbyn, who does not sing the national anthem and has spent 40 years consorting with apologists for terrorism and those who wish the UK harm. At the next election, the flag will no doubt by deployed again by Boris Johnson or whoever it is that the Tories eventually decide will replace the current, hapless occupant of 10 Downing Street. They’ll do it because Corbyn is undoubtedly vulnerable (whatever he says now, the central charges are true) and because they believe they own the subject. So, what can Labour do?
For me the solution is an obvious one: the best form of defence is attack. Every time the Tories accuse Labour and its leader of hating Britain and its history, of despising the British people and of wishing them harm, Labour needs to ask the following:
- What was patriotic about a Brexit referendum that was only conceived for internal Conservative party reasons and which only happened because David Cameron won an election he thought he would lose?
- What was patriotic about a Brexit referendum campaign in which the very wealthy, Establishment Tories who led both the Remain and Leave campaigns told lie after lie to the electorate in order to win their votes?
- What was patriotic about holding a referendum without giving any serious thought to the possibility of a Leave win and making absolutely no plans for how to deal with one, so leaving the UK woefully ill-prepared to negotiate a decent Brexit deal?
- What was patriotic about failing to defend the independence of the judiciary and of playing along while the right wing press labelled all those millions of British people who disagreed with the government’s Brexit line as saboteurs?
- What was patriotic about declaring that those who did not agree with the Prime Minister’s view of Brexit are citizens of nowhere?
- What was patriotic about foisting a general election on the country at a time of major uncertainty only in order to secure party political advantage?
- What is patriotic about seriously contemplating the kind of Brexit that would cause substantial harm to the long-term economic prospects of the UK and cause millions of British citizens to see their standards of living significantly reduced?
- What is patriotic about overseeing an economy in which housing and other basics are increasingly unaffordable, public services are being cut to the bone and the NHS is in permanent crisis?
- What is patriotic about contemplating a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party that will keep the Tories in office but which could lead to serious social and political problems in an integral part of the United Kingdom that has only recently returned to peace after decades of armed conflict?
In short, the Labour line should be that while the Tories claim only to act in the national interest, the evidence suggests otherwise: they always put party before country. A truly patriotic party would have done none of the above; instead it would be For the Many, Not the Few.
Would such an attack strategy work? Well, I suspect that a lot of voters will always have serious doubts about Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and others in the Labour high command. Their pasts cannot be rewritten; their words cannot be unsaid; it is perfectly valid to draw attention to them.
But as we enter the tenth year of austerity amidst the desperate confusion of Brexit, there may well be many more who can be persuaded that the Tories do not own the Union Jack and should not to be allowed to get away with acting as if they do. Just like the Labour leadership, their commitment to the whole country should be put under the microscope. Were that to happen, a lot of British people would not like what they see.
Joff Wild posts on Political Betting as SouthamObserver. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpaJW