The patriot game

“The great industries  and the skilled workmen who should have been our national pride are today …. submerged in poverty and despair. It will be our job… to enlist them in fighting the battle of the whole British people. Real patriotism: care and respect for every fellow citizen…a nation of Britons fighting for Britain. This is the hope… ”

That was Paul Nuttall, the newly crowned leader of UKIP. Well, OK, it wasn’t actually Nuttall, but it may as well have been. In truth it was John Beckett, a senior figure in Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists, writing on 13 March 1936. He was introducing a significant change in their party’s orientation.

From its inception in January 1933, the Fascists’ weekly newspaper, Blackshirt, had carried a motto underneath its masthead: “Britain First”, which emphasised its cross-class, aggressively nationalist appeal. The following week’s newspaper, Beckett announced, would be larger –  and it would be “a paper for the masses.” He didn’t mention changing the motto but, from the next issue, the “Britain First” motto was ditched for one that illustrated much more clearly which section of the population they were particularly targeting and claiming to represent. The new motto was: “The Patriotic Workers’ Paper”. Over the next weeks and months the fascists were growing again – especially in depressed working class areas such as London’s East End and parts of Yorkshire and Lancashire.

UKIP never worried me too much under the leadership of Nigel Farage. He was an “ex-banker” who had made a fortune in the City, while hypocritically claiming to be “anti-establishment”, pretending to stand up for the “little man” against government bureaucracies and faceless corporate interests, dominating their lives. His anti-Europe nationalism could attract a certain kind of protest vote, – and UKIP amassed almost 4 million votes in the last General Election – but mostly  in safe Tory seats. If they were a threat to anyone in it was mainly more wishy-washy Tories. And while they certainly attracted an element with former membership of fascist organisations, they also shared with Britain’s far right an unerring tendency towards internally destructive factional fights. UKIP’s economic policies under Farage were so ultra-Thatcherite that their capacity for intervening and gaining lasting support in working class communities seemed limited.

But now it is all change. Their new leader, Nuttall, grew up in the working class district of Bootle, in Liverpool, with none of Farage’s advantages. Nuttall went to a state school, and his accent is the very opposite of posh and privileged.  As someone who has emerged from a family and community that has genuinely known poverty, he can speak to people in the same boat and can tap into a culture of scapegoating others for that poverty much more convincingly. That is dangerous for Labour and it is dangerous for minorities.

Nuttall made it crystal clear in his remarks on the day he was elected that UKIP under his leadership would be the party of “patriotic workers” and that Labour was in its sights as the enemy it plans to oust. On the day he was elected, Nuttall said: “…the Labour Party has ceased to speak the language or address the issues of working people. I want to replace the Labour Party. They have a leader who will not sing the national anthem, a shadow chancellor who seems to admire the IRA more than he does the British Army, a shadow foreign secretary who sneers at the English flag and a shadow home secretary who seems to advocate unlimited immigration.” The day before his election was confirmed, Nuttall  told his acquaintances on Breitbart Radio  that “Islamic fundamentalism” was a “greater threat than Nazi Germany ever was to the globe”.

If we can go by this and the tenor of his previously stated positions, we can expect Nuttall  to ratchet up racism against Muslims, to cast migrant workers and refugees as a “threat” to “indigenous workers”, and to rail against “elites”, whether it be the “Metropolitan elite” in London, or the “global elites” that his Breitbart friends use as code for “rich Jews”. And we can expect him to strengthen demands to bring back capital punishment and oppose abortion, especially among  working class voters.

With the BNP and other far right groups an electoral irrelevancy now, on that kind of programme we can expect UKIP to sweep up the 560,000 + votes that the BNP amassed in 2010 when it had been capable of a more serious political intervention.

Despite UKIP’s internal divisions and weaknesses, there are 44 Labour seats where UKIP stands in second place. And that leaves Labour and the anti-racist and anti-fascist movements with a serious challenge. Unfortunately the initial responses to the new situation were lacking. Labour spokesperson Jon Trickett homed in on Nuttall’s earlier statements expressing his desire to privatise the NHS. Trickett confirmed Labour’s total commitment to defend the NHS. “It is clear that we cannot trust UKIP and Paul Nuttall with the NHS. A vote for them is a vote against the health service as we know it.”  Good as far as it went, but why did he not add “…a health service in which immigrants have always played a pivotal role and will continue to do so for the benefit of everyone in multicultural Britain.” Just as we need the anti-austerity movement to be shot through with explicit anti-racism, we also need anti-racist movements to bind their critique of racism with anti-austerity politics.

Jeremy Corbyn and Diane Abbott have both made several statements in recent weeks expressing their absolute commitment against racism and their concern to defend minority migrant communities. We need to hear that from many other Labour members beyond the circle of Left MPs. What we don’t need  are Stephen Kinnock’s remarks: “In Labour, we are patriots.” The right and far right will always play the patriot game better.
This week the stakes got a little higher.

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