Lisa Nandy putting Britain first is a classic nationalist dogwhistle

An image of Lisa Nandy smiling
Maryam Jameela

Labour shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy’s recent comments on ‘putting Britain first’ bring with them the weighty context of divisive nationalism and traditionally right-wing rhetoric.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 22 September, Nandy heralded a policy change from Labour leader Keir Starmer:

 

Starmer and Nandy have signalled a switch in policy direction that emphasises family and tradition. This is the first sign that Labour’s messaging is drawing on values and phrases that are traditionally right-wing. David Cameron and Theresa May’s phrasing of British values are particularly pertinent here; both former prime ministers emphasised the centrality of respect and tolerance whilst overseeing regressive policies from the Windrush debacle to Prevent legislation.

Visions of a progressive Britain

Nandy began her comments by stating:

I think it is progressive and deeply ambitious to say that you love this country, that you love the people in it.

This seems like a harmless sentiment. But, linking progress and ambition raises a series of questions. Who shares this vision? Who do we see belonging to the Britain of the future? An understanding of Britain’s past opens up the limits of imagination as to who can be seen as carrying the potential for its future. Loving a country requires loving the past – the makings of a country – and for Britain this means a past strewn with colonialism, empire, and aggressive foreign policy.

With this context, it would certainly be ambitious to love Britain. Just perhaps not in the manner Nandy intended.

 

Remember the mugs

It further remains highly questionable as to how much of a pivot this actually represents for Labour policy under Starmer. As much as Theresa May’s ‘go home’ vans are, rightly, still criticised for their cruel symbolism, Labour’s “controls on immigration” mugs from 2015 show that border control and immigration are far too often the litmus test for the apparent viability of Labour to the general electorate:

Nandy is plainly attempting to appeal to those who ground their politics in love for their country. However, patriotism that seeks to uphold borders and immigration controls as proof of a nation state’s power requires robust challenging.

Standing up for Britain

Nandy continued that Labour has:

set out in a number of areas, including in my area of foreign policy, that we stand up for Britain, we stand up for British people, we stand up for British interests, and we will always put that first. And that we want to come together now, not just as a party, but as a country after a very divisive few years.

Nationalism and patriotism have increasingly come to be associated with far right and white nationalist politics. Whilst it may hold that one does not always denote the other, it is unavoidable that the association has weight. Putting Britain first mimics Donald Trump’s repeated claims to put America, and American interests first.

Making Britain great again has its own history for Britain, as referenced in scholar Paul Gilroy’s Small Acts [p. 28]. Gilroy describes party slogans during the summer of the 1987 election:

The Labour Party pleaded for Britain to heal its deep internal divisions and become ‘one nation again’ while the Conservatives underlined their success in ‘putting the Great back into Britain’…this language made no overt reference to ‘race’ but it acquired racial referents. Everyone knows what is at stake when patriotism and deference to the law are being spoken about.

The language of putting a nation first has historically been a dogwhistle for race relations. Nandy’s use of “British interests” and uniting the country carry disturbing parallels to the Labour and Conservative election campaigns from 1987, as well as Trump’s brand of patriotic zeal.

Unity

Just as Nandy’s comments can lead us to ask who belongs to the British future she envisions, they also lead us to ask who this unity includes.

If it’s “divisive” to say that Britain is a racist country (as Stormzy was viciously criticised for), or to say that Black Lives Matter (sparking tens of thousands of complaints), then maybe we’re better off with divisiveness. A divisiveness that more fully examines whose futures are at stake, and whose interests we’re fighting for has to be better than a fall into unified fascism.

Featured image via Kevin Walsh/Flickr

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  • Show Comments
    1. Is it rhetoric or just plain bollox? Imperial bollox at that; ‘we’re first the rest of you can go forth and multiply. Among thoughtful people Nandy’s comments represent straying onto ‘bourgeois terrain’ – a fundamental mistake for any ‘progressive’ whatever the fuck that means, other than ‘I’m not a socialist!’. ‘Progressive’ is a label 19th century Liberals used in their competition for honours with Conservatives. What little progress that was achieved was an accidental consequence of that ‘elite competition’ for a bit of political power. Oh, here we are again…

    2. I declare myself a Peaceful Patriot of the Planet. We should promote “A healthy body and mind on a healthy, peaceful planet. We need to create a universal set of values that show respect for all people and the earth that we all collectively inhabit. There is no Planet B!

    3. Labour is, again, falling victim to the idea that one must ‘focus group’ popular opinion then move policy towards that instead of actually devising policies and then making the argument with the voters about why they are right. This is ANOTHER shift in direction since Starmer took over.

      He is a good speaker and looks great in his suit so after 14 years of Tory government and them leading us through both Brexit and COVID it would be a hard job NOT to get elected at the end of this term.

      Starmer led the charge on a second referendum against the wishes of Corbyn even to the extent of announcing it as policy when it was not. This policy led directly to Labour being trounced and I find it hard to believe this was not Starmer’s intention ie lose badly, blame Corbyn, get the leadership and then hope that the electorate have a short enough memory. He is, of course, aided in his endeavours by our toothless press. After hounding the Labour Party for years on anti-semitism and it’s poor handling of complaints the stories have dried up overnight – I can’t believe that the problem has.

      Still, whilst the Tories might (justifiably) wish to complain about the over friendly press they benefit just as much from it. Whilst our TV news rightly criticises Trump’s poor handling of the COVID Pandemic they essentially ignore how bad it is here. Our Case Fatality Rates are three times worse and our infection rates are higher too. However bad Trump is, Boris is worse..

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