Barnaby Raine: The Marxist, the Daily Mail and the anti-politics of ‘Britishness’

Category: Analysis
Published on Monday, 7 October 2013
Written by Barnaby Raine
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Who hates Britain? Is it Ralph Miliband, who spent much of his life engaged in a theoretical and practical struggle to define and ultimately to create a better society for people within these shores and beyond? Or is it perhaps the Daily Mail, whose patriotic credentials are never called into question? The Daily Mail loves Britain, its pages assure us, though it hates half the people living in it. Modern Britain consists of over a million black Britons, 1.5 million Muslim Britons, and a rich multitude of others whose origins span the globe. The Daily Mail regularly inveighs against them. Modern Britain is a centre of gay and lesbian life, yet homosexuality was long a byword for perversity in the imaginary of the Daily Mail. Modern British society is home to the NHS and the welfare state, to hundreds of thousands of doctors, teachers and other public sector workers who serve communities from Cornwall to the Hebrides. There are 6.5 million British trade unionists, and, shamefully, 2.5 million Brits who have been left unemployed. There are British atheists, British single mothers and yes, even some British socialists. These varied groups make up much of the fabric of contemporary British life, yet the Daily Mail might legitimately be said to hate all of them – certainly it spews bile about them with clockwork regularity.

Should the Daily Mail have the right to decide that Eton, the royal family and the House of Lords are so essential to Britishness that to raise political objections to any of them is to hate Britain, while the millions of British people who belong to ethnic or sexual minorities, who are members of trade unions or who choose not to attend church every Sunday matter so little that to hate them is perfectly consistent with loving Britain? And, if the Daily Mail’s loyalty is not to Britain but to a portrait of a mythical British past, how ought we to decide what really constitutes ‘hating Britain’? Who and what would one have to hate to hate Britain – which of this country’s varied and often sharply conflicting cultures do we mean to evoke when we talk of ‘Britishness’?

If it is hard to find a satisfactory answer to this question, the following question is no less difficult: why should we care? Why should the political virtues of Ralph Miliband or anyone else be judged on the basis of how loyal they were to this constructed category of ‘Britishness’? It seems an unnecessary theoretical detour to judge someone’s views not on their political rectitude but on how well they accord to a national pedigree. Ed Miliband’s defence of his father’s patriotism on the grounds that he fought at D-Day failed to escape the Daily Mail’s logic. The argument should be that Ralph Miliband was worth celebrating politically not because he was loyal to ‘Britain’ (however defined) but because he was loyal to the cause of social justice. He was critical of British institutions where they merited criticism.

This matters because the Daily Mail’s project, tinged with Dreyfusard anti-Semitism as suspicion of the foreigner, is to discredit even mild radicalism. According to the Mail’s subsequent defence of their original piece to seek an elected head of state is to ‘hate Britain’. Such a McCarthyite definition covers a number of Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs as well as the comedian Jo Brand and the Daily Mail journalists Julie Birchill and Suzanne Moore. Under that punishing logic, to be a Marxist is to be nothing short of a national enemy. Whole schools of opinion are thus excluded from the realm of debate by an allegation of national disloyalty in place of a serious challenge to their arguments.

Patriotism is the loyalty to a set of arbitrary borders and the cultural practices extant within those borders. It is the political equivalent of the psychological affinity for the home. We can do better than drawing our politics from a sense of ‘Britishness’ while hoping the resultant values will accord with a broader sense of justice. After all, those who speak of a patriotic politics hardly lack a sense of the meaning of justice and injustice, which they attempt to mask behind national phraseology – hence the advocacy of Anglicanism as a social force appears not theological, sociological or political, but national. We can instead set as our category of political importance not the nation but justice or human emancipation. Ralph Miliband was loyal to those lofty ideals, loyal to humanity and its struggle to realise its full dignity. That places him in a different moral league from the small-minded nationalists of the Daily Mail, the paper that once backed Oswald Mosley because, whatever else one might say about that demagogic fascist, at least he was British.