Another kind of patriotism: why the Mail is wrong about Britain


It might seem that there’s not much more to be said about the Daily Mail’s week of horror after the embarrassing flailing of its staff and supporters in various media outlets and Mehdi Hasan’s bravura monologue on Question Time. But one thread that’s worth pursuing is the Mail’s persistent defence of its smear on the grounds that if you are a socialist you must de facto hate Britain.

I am not convinced that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, but I am sure that claiming patriotism for a single political ideology is. The Mail insists that because Ralph Miliband criticised such institutions as public schools and the House of Lords he hated Britain, whereas showing contempt for another set of British institutions (the BBC, the welfare state, trade unions) and values (tolerance, generosity) is the noblest form of national pride. The absurdity should be obvious but I’m not sure the people at the heart of the Mail realise that their hardline Manichean view is profoundly out of step with the public it claims to represent.

Polls suggest that around 20% of the electorate is instinctively very conservative. These voters support Ukip or the Tory right-wing represented by the likes of Daniel Hannan. They are not concerned with political theory so much as with being left bloody well alone: pub garden libertarians. They resent red tape, taxes, political correctness, do-gooders, vegetarians, feminists, environmentalists, foreigners and speed limits. A friend suggested to me that most Ukip supporters are essentially more bothered about parking restrictions than they are about immigration or Europe.

Within that cohort is a much smaller percentage, spiritually aligned with Joseph McCarthy, the John Birch Society and the dark corners of the Establishment that considered mounting a military coup against Labour in the 1970s (I recommend Andy Beckett’s brilliant Pinochet in Piccadilly for more on that weird episode). They include Paul Dacre, Melanie Phillips and the tormented souls who haunt the Telegraph comment section. They are prey to paranoid, apocalyptic visions of a communist takeover, obsessed with the Cold War and the 70s (when many of them were great admirers of General Pinochet), terrified about reds under the bed and the imminent collapse of western civilisation. But what keeps them up at night is comically irrelevant to most Britons: most Mail readers come for the gossip and voyeurism, not the Cold Warrior hysteria. Dacre believes he represents the heart of Middle England, when in fact he represents a single artery, clogged with rage and fear.

Most voters hold a mixed bag of beliefs. On immigration, crime and welfare they swing to the right, so much so that the majority view bears little relation to the facts. On taxes, the minimum wage, trade unions and privatisation, as the New Statesman’s George Eaton illustrates, they favour the left. Naturally, the Mail and its allies venerate the great British public when it toes the line but as soon as it swings the other way it is a “mob”, seduced by crude “populism”. Hence Quentin Letts’ fantastical Question Time vision of the Mail as a gang of anti-establishment guerrilla idealists, defending the underdog against the powers that be. I’d like to think he was just improvising wildly, but I’m scared that he truly believes it.

The Miliband story will fade as the news cycle moves on. I can’t quite believe Gavin Haynes’ eloquent argument that it will bring down Dacre, although my fingers are crossed. What’s important, after this week, is to insist on two things: that the Mail’s core values, laid bare this week, are alien to all but a small, embittered corner of Britain; and that progressive patriotism not only exists but has broad support.

A nation is a marvellously plastic thing, constantly changing, forever fought over, shifting this way and that, accommodating all kinds of contradictions while remaining fundamentally true to itself. At heart I love Britain but I want to change aspects of it for the better, just like Ralph Miliband or Paul Dacre or just about anyone else who lives here. The Mail tried to insist this week that only one vision was valid and it was a lie defended by more lies. In Alastair Campbell’s pungent phrase, it is “the worst of Britain posing as the best,” and that has never been clearer.




  1. At least you don’t have the Tea Party to deal with. I guess you have been watching the government shutdown fiasco that has been going on here in the US. It’s no fun, believe me. The Republican Party has been taken over by anarchist lunatics.

    • Yes, I started trying to tie in the Tea Party but the political traditions are too different – the Tea Party and Ukip tendencies aren’t really equivalent. Yours are worse, sorry. Hope the shutdown gets resolved soon. I thought the GOP would free itself from the extremists after Romney lost but I was way too optimistic.

      • We were too optimistic in the US on that point too. Seems the fear mongers, of whatever lineage, are tenacious little buggers. Nothing for it but to take our vitamins and a deep breath, and keep pushing on…

    • Well, we do have something similar to the Tea Party, in the form of UKIP. We just have the advantage that they are a party in their own right, rather than a subset of a larger party that is then permitted to determine that party’s direction because of the weakness of its majority.

      The Republican Party could kick out the Tea Partyers tomorrow, and never have to hear from most of them again; they get in because people want to vote against the Democrats, not because they are particularly enthused by Tea Party views. So while they might vote for a Republican Tea Partyer over a Democrat, if they’re given the choice of a Democrat, a TeaPartyer OR a Republican, they’ll probably vote Republican.

      The US being much more of a two-party system, there’s no incentive for the Tea Party to go it alone; it is the GOP that needs to take this step, for its own sake and for the sake of having a credible opposition.

      • Unfortunately there have been several primary elections where, because Tea Party supporters are way more passionate and engaged than average Republicans, their candidates have unseated the GOP’s more moderate incumbents. That’s the problem – the GOP couldn’t kick them out tomorrow because their core support is so strong. So we have the disaster currently unfolding, where a minority of House Republicans hold the party and the country to ransom.

  2. On immigration, crime and welfare they swing to the right, so much so that the majority view bears little relation to the facts. (Insert hyperlink to article which demonstrates how wrong they are)….
    On taxes, the minimum wage, trade unions and privatisation, (insert hyperlink to article confirming they are correct), they favour the left.
    Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

    • Let me know if you can find a factual inaccuracy in either of those links, otherwise it’s a non-point.

    • I’m confused. Are you “Oh dearing” because you think that people have to be proved wrong in their leftwing views as well as their rightwing views or something?

  3. Brilliantly done. I especially like the image of “a single artery, clogged with rage and fear.” Thank you.

  4. Very lucid and measured. Thank you.

  5. Thank you for an excellent article

  6. spot on

  7. I don’t really buy into the patriotic thing as, first, i’d have to recognise a nation to be a legitimate entity rather than a detail on a map that i had no choice or hand in drawing. Having said that, most of the people that i share this area of the globe with have plenty going for them simultaneously in all their diversity and values that are common.

    The Mail have spectacularly made fools of themselves this week and shown themselves as gross anachronisms, hopefully they’ll keep digging. It appears the right as a whole are rattled since the labour conference and the colossal march in manchester to essentially protest theirs.

    No, there’s plenty to feel positive about here (however you define ‘here’) and your ‘artery of rage’ along with mr Hassan’s and that bloke from the mirror’s words have all been nails being hit on heads.

    Just one more thing, about the Tea Party/GOP…as an anarchist myself, I see nothing in them but fairly typical capitalists…if what they’re up to and why they’re up to it is anarchism, “I don’t want their revolution”

  8. I think the other point that gets neglected is that, if you hate Britain, you must therefore be anti-British.

    It seems glib to say this, but complaining about Britain is our national bloody hobby. Of course, to complain about something isn’t to hate it – we generally complain about things that we have a lot of love and affection for, because we care about them and want them to be better.

    The right-wing press seems to either not understand or wilfully disregard this. To them, when someone complains about, say, the NHS or the BBC, it’s an argument to get rid of it. I suppose it’s because “Milliband wanted Britain to be better than it was” isn’t really that sexy a headline.

    The Mail seems to prefer British patriotism to take the form of deference to institutions that are anachronistic and often corrupt. And in truth many of us probably do feel the same way about them as we do about our country. Still, the British have generally been uncomfortable with patriotism for precisely this reason – most of our great achievements have been made by people in opposition to such institutions, not working on their behalf.

    So I appreciate the argument that Milliband didn’t hate Britain is probably true, but on the flipside is the argument “So what if he did?” and the follow-up of “Who doesn’t?” I don’t particularly care what the Mail’s opinion is on either though.

  9. Great blog and fantastic choice of song. Andrew Collins has just blogged about Tank Park Salute, which is well worth a read too.

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