One of the continuing debates on the British left is how does the left interact with national identity and notions of ‘Britishness’. While many praise the internationalist traditions of the labour movement, inherited from Marx and Engels proposition that working people have no country, a significant number of people on the left have tried to argue that the left eschew nationalism and national identity at its own peril. Many have proposed that by ignoring questions relating to national identity and ‘Britishness’, the left have given up that space to the far right. Others argue that an effective anti-racist position cannot be maintained while accepting the notion of nationhood, and that nationhood is a bourgeois concept used to divide the working class.
This debate is not new and has raged for most of the twentieth century. Throughout the history of the Communist Party of Great Britain, the relationship between the CPGB and ‘the British nation’ was a much contested issue. The Party long maintained that it wasn’t an ‘alien’ force in Britain and that it wasn’t an enemy to Britain, but at the same time, it tried to combat the racism and xenophobia that was part of the notion of ‘Britishness’. Particularly in the post-war era, with The British Road to Socialism, and issues surrounding the emergence of a post-imperial Britain, the Party wrangled over its ‘loyalty’ to British nationhood.
During my research into the CPGB’s anti-racist activism, I came across this exchange in the Morning Star about the CPGB and the Union Jack. I didn’t have anywhere to put it in my thesis and stumbled upon it the other day, looking for material on the CPGB’s attitude towards the EEC. I think it is an interesting discussion which shows the divergent opinions on the topic of national identity inside the Communist Party at the time, and the debate that was allowed inside the Morning Star in the 1970s.
‘Don’t Ridicule the Flag’ (Letters section), Morning Star, 19 Oct, 1978, p. 2
I have no objection to you ridiculing George Brown, as in your recent editorial, and in Eccles’ cartoon, but in the latter we had George Brown waving a Union Jack in a manner which could be construed as bringing our national flag into ridicule too.
For too long we have allowed the Tories, or even worse, the National Front, to use the flag of Britain as if it were theirs.
This has helped them in both cases to cover up policies which are opposed to the interests of the vast majority of British people.
Before anyone jumps in with both sectarian feet, I know all the history of the Union jack. It has flown over some terrible incidents in history especially concerning people in colonial countries.
But then so have the flags of many countries. The red flag and the hammer and sickle flew over the crimes committed by Stalin and others, but it is till the flag of the Socialist Soviet Union.
The Union Jack is still the emblem of our country, recognised as such the world over, by reactionary and progressive countries. So we should retain it for the whole of Britain.
Some months ago in your columns, there was a discussion about the cover of The British Road to Socialism.
I thought at the time how appropriate it would have been instead of just the red flag on the front if we had had it crossed with the Union Jack. This would have symbolised the actual title of a programme both British and Socialist.
In my view the biggest obstacle to advance by Communists in Britain has always been the idea, cultivated by the media and our opponents, and sometimes unfortunately added to by our own attitudes, that we are foreign to Britain.
Everything possible should be done to show that we are indeed the British Communist Party.
‘Union Jack – Imperialist Flag’ (Letter section), Morning Star, 25 Oct, 1978, p. 2
I must take issue with John Peck in his embrace of the Union Jack as the flag of Britain.
The Union Jack is the flag of English imperialism. It does not recognise Wales and its inclusion of a ‘cross of St Patrick’ is a historical inaccuracy.
Both Wales and Scotland have flags accepted by the majority of their people – yDdraig Goch and the Saltire.
England unfortunately does not have a recognised flag – this is something for Socialists to correct. In a Socialist Britain the Union Jack will be a as irrelevant as was the swastika after the downfall of Hitler.
There is a big tendency within the labour movement to belittle and malign anything which is British.
This must be deplored and fought against. For it is we who stand for the real interests of the British people – it is we should bring out boldly and clearly the best traditions of our people – the solidarity of our people in struggle, whether it be for the miners, the dockers, Vietnam or Chile.
Despite the rotten role played by MacDonald, Citrine or Wilson, and our somewhat tarnished image of working-class disunity at the moment, our labour movement has an unrivalled tradition in the world for organisation and unity.
The flag of our working people has long been the Red Flag shrouding the martyred dead and symbolising its class and internationalist outlook.
Even in the last war against fascism the Union jack was used to fool people and preserve capitalism in fascist Germany and Japan as well as to defeat emerging socialism in many European countries.
In France the Tricolor, with its revolutionary traditions, may well be used with some justification alongside the Red Flag but hardly the reactionary Union Jack.
This issue didn’t go away and in the 1980s, Thatcher’s appeal to patriotism, especially during the Falklands War, caused many on the left to argue that a left-wing version of patriotism was needed to counter this. Robert Gray argued this line in Marxism Today in November 1982. This led to several letters in following issues, which can be found here and here.
Most of the other Trotskyist groups in Britain used this flirtation with patriotism as an example of the reformism of the CPGB, and it did become a point of differentiation between the CPGB and the Trotskyist left. On the other hand, the anti-revisionist/Maoist CPB (M-L) embraced a kind of workers’ nationalism in the 1970s, which was a trend amongst Western Maoist groups worldwide at the time.
I’m wondering whether these letters reflect debates that took place at branch level in the Communist Party. As usual, anyone with information should get in touch!