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Friday, Oct. 19, 2012

After Olympics, British parties find patriotism pays


The queen's Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics have made 2012 the year that Britain rediscovers its patriotism. In recent years, overt displays of national pride have not been the British way. If there was one thing that united the majority of Brits, it was an aversion to the type of overt flag-waving patriotism that many — rightly or wrongly — associated with the United States. But the triumph of the London Olympics and Paralympics has given Britain a renewed sense of national confidence and pride.

In bleak economic times, Danny Boyle's Olympic opening ceremony gave the British public a ray of hope. In contrast to Prime Minister David Cameron's language of "broken Britain," Boyle celebrated all that is good about the country's common culture and history. By showcasing the NHS, multiculturalism and the Jarrow marchers, Boyle roused an inclusive sense of patriotism. The Olympic legacy gives Britain's distrusted politicians an opportunity to reconnect with an increasingly anti-ideological electorate. Election victory in 2015 will go to the party that best harnesses the new patriotic mood.

But patriotic rhetoric alone will not attract British voters. Politicians must speak to heads as well as hearts and offer voters a convincing vision of the future built on the best of Britain's past.

Hoping to capitalize on the success of the London Games, British politicians crowbar Olympic references into speeches on just about any subject. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg shamelessly co-opted the games in defense of gay marriage, while trade union leader Brendan Barber invoked the example of Britain's athletes to call for investment in the green economy. But the more farsighted within the political establishment are using Britain's new post-Olympic self-awareness to ask fundamental questions about modern British identity. At the annual party conferences held over the past month, leaders put forward competing visions of Britishness, each based on a different interpretation of the core values that underpin British culture.

In his annual conference speech early this month, Labour leader Ed Miliband unveiled the concept of "One Nation Labour," an idea borrowed from the "one nation" philosophy of 19th-century Conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. In his novel "Sybil," Disraeli wrote that Britain was "two nations" — in modern parlance the "haves and have nots" — between whom "there is no intercourse and no sympathy." Miliband cunningly used the words of a former Conservative leader to attack the current Conservative prime minister for failing to govern in the inclusive manner promised at the 2010 general election.

Milliband cast the need to rebuild the British economy after the financial crisis as a patriotic project, and used this ideological framework to attack the austerity of the Conservative-led coalition. His speech also conjured the ghost of Labor Prime Minister Clement Attlee. In 1945, Attlee won power on the promise of building a "new Jerusalem" in postwar Britain.

Miliband's speech signals a new departure for the British progressive left, whose relationship with patriotism in recent decades has lurked in uncomfortable ambivalence, at best. Many in the Labour Party see discussions of patriotism and national pride as surrogates for xenophobia and racism. Influenced by the work of young Australian thinker Tim Soutphommasane, Miliband hopes to convince his party that a new concept of "liberal patriotism" could act as a framework for Labour's manifesto at the next election. Soutphommasane, who recently held talks with Miliband, argues that it is in the left's interest to promote a national common identity, because a sense of fellowship is necessary to legitimize the redistribution of resources.

Labour's spokesman on Welsh affairs, Owen Smith, argues that fusing Welsh identity and progressive politics has delivered electoral success for the party in Wales since devolution in 1999. Smith suggests that creating a new spirit of fraternity and solidarity across the United Kingdom could return Labour to power in 2015. But while advancing a vision of Britishness based on reciprocity, freedom and the common good, Smith argues that Labour must also recognize the diversity of modern Britain by devolving more power to local communities.

Labour was not the only party to drape itself in the red, white and blue of the union flag this conference season. As prime minister and leader of the party most traditionally associated with national pride, Cameron should be best placed to exploit post-Olympic patriotic sentiments. But moves such as cutting the top rate of income tax for high earners have undermined Cameron's claims to be a one-nation Tory. Pollsters find that two-thirds of British voters believe the Conservatives look after the interests of the rich, and not those of ordinary people.

The Conservatives are seen as too male, pale and financially hale to understand the concern of the average voter. In Scotland, Wales and Northern England, the Tory brand remains toxic. Cameron may genuinely wish to move his party ideologically to the center where it can attract a greater diversity of candidates, activists and voters. But in order to do so, he will have to struggle against the right-wing majority on his own back benches. It remains to be seen whether Cameron can remake his party in his own image, as Tony Blair did so successfully with Labour in the mid-1990s.

Within the Liberal Democrats, it is Nick Clegg's former director of strategy, Richard Reeves, rather than the leader himself, who is at the forefront of the party's identity debate. In a paper for the think tank Demos, Reeves argues that Clegg should offer voters a vision of British society based on radical liberalism. Reeves acknowledges that the Lib Dems face a difficult task in carving out a unique space for their party when all definitions of Britishness include references to liberal values. Nevertheless, he argues that a niche exists between the statist, communitarian philosophy of Miliband's Labour Party and the elitist paternalism of Cameron's Conservatives.

In government, both main parties chipped away at civil liberties and introduced policies to micro-manage personal behavior. Reeves advocates that his party promote a genuinely liberal redistribution of power that allows the British people to decide their own locally appropriate solutions to the challenges facing their communities.

If the legacy of the London Olympics inspires political leaders to find creative ways in which all citizens can contribute to building a better country, based on a shared vision of the common good, then British voters will be the real winners of the games.

Tina Burrett is an assistant professor of International Relations at Temple University, Japan.

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