Wednesday, 23 September 2020

Employing the definite article


Given his lawyerly background, and his careful use of language in his increasingly pointless weekly attempts to ask questions of a PM who deliberately avoids answering any of them, it is reasonable to suppose that when Keir Starmer chooses a particular word or phrase, he does so with care and thought. So, when his speech to the Labour Party’s conference was widely billed as him wrapping himself in the flag, it’s reasonable to suppose that the use of the definite article before the word flag is entirely deliberate. It’s also revealing.

‘The’ flag to which he refers and which was prominently displayed behind him as he spoke is, of course, the union flag, but it’s a flag whose power to unite is far from universal. In Northern Ireland, it’s deeply divisive. Revered as a totemic symbol by the half of the population which will never support Labour, and hated by the half more likely to vote for Labour’s partner party, the SDLP, wrapping himself in it seems hardly likely to attract much support there. But then, Northern Ireland’s voters are unimportant to Labour which chooses not to stand there. The situation in Scotland is rapidly heading in the same direction; the die-hard unionists unlikely ever to vote Labour may applaud his ‘patriotism’, but for the rest of the population – including, according to some polls, many traditional Labour supporters – it seems unlikely to do more than confirm Labour’s downward slide. But then, Scotland’s voters are increasingly a lost cause for Labour; perhaps they’ve been written off too. In Wales, the situation is more complex. There are some firm unionists, of course – but they’re more likely to vote Tory than Labour. And there are some of us who regard Y Ddraig Goch as the only flag of Wales, but we are still in a minority. My own assessment (and I’ll admit this is based on experience and anecdote rather than hard numbers, but I’m pretty confident in its accuracy) is that the majority here are more ambivalent, regarding both flags as having some salience as an expression of their nationality. If that's so, then demanding loyalty to only one of those doesn’t immediately strike me as the best way to enhance Labour’s standing in Wales. Perhaps they are simply taking Wales for granted – as usual. But all this means that it is, effectively, only in England where there is anything approaching unanimity over the question of whether the union flag represents them, and even there, there is a growing movement towards using the cross of St George. In essence, therefore, Labour’s appeal is pitched predominantly at English, or Anglo-British, nationalist feeling, without really taking account of the consequences elsewhere. It’s strangely at odds with his stated aim that, “we must once again be the party of the whole United Kingdom. The party of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland” (a statement which, in itself, skates over the fact that the party has never even attempted to represent Northern Ireland). It’s English exceptionalism and superiority at its best. Or worst, depending on your viewpoint.

It wasn’t the only use of the definite article which struck me, though. He also said that he wanted the UK to be “the best country to grow up in and the best country to grow old in”. Note again the use of the definite article. For any country to be ‘the’ best necessarily requires that every other country be worse. Socialism, this is not. Internationalists not only want their own country to do well, they want to help others to reach the same level. It’s only a nationalist who want his or her own country to be regarded as ‘the’ best. He may not have gone quite as far in his jingoism as the current PM, who demands that everyone agrees that the UK actually is ‘the best’ when it patently is not, but the difference between someone who wants to make it so and someone who merely wants everyone to believe that it is so is one of detail and delivery, not of political philosophy. What Starmer has shown us is that the difference between Labour and Tory, when it comes to English nationalism and exceptionalism, is minor. Perhaps we should be grateful for that demonstration.

I won’t lay this next one directly on Starmer himself; it’s not something which his speech actually referred to, but it’s of a piece with his message. In response to the speech Baroness Chakrabati suggested that, amongst the things in which British patriots should take pride was the English language. It is again an Anglo-centric view of the world (and in this case, even of the UK itself). It’s true, of course, that English has become the lingua franca of the world, but taking pride in that fact without recognising the reality of how it happened displays a certain blindness to history. The language wasn’t something generously shared with the world community, it reached its dominance through a process of imposition and dominance; it involved cultural genocide enforced by waves of colonialism and at the point of a gun. The clock cannot be turned back, and the cultural dominance of one language is certainly beneficial to those of us able to speak it fluently, but pride in the process of imperialism which achieved that position doesn’t seem wholly appropriate to me. It is, though, the position to which ‘patriotism’ of the not-nationalist-at-all Anglo-British variety so often leads.

1 comment:

Spirit of BME said...

A good post and much of which I concur , I only saw part of the Mr K Starman speech and it follows his attending the Battle of Britain anniversary, but it all looks as convincing as Brother Corbyn`s standing at the Cenotaph or when he was extolling the virtues of the EU.
It appears that Mr K Starman wants to do something to get members to return and clearly all this is based on focus groups, which in fairness is the thing to do, however he has an emerging battle with the party , as two days ago he fired three M.P`s (whom he selected and thought they were ‘safe’) from their posts for voting against a Bill that protects the English Army in overseas operations.
To get his party to a place where he could pursue a ‘ Red Tory’ agenda one political commentator , who is a bit of a wag ,but a lifelong Labour supporter defined two issues that the rank and file would have to buy into -
1. “There is no structural or institutional racism in the UK unless you count so-called ‘positive discrimination. “
2. “Human beings in possession of XY chromosomes, a beard and a togger is a ‘man’, no matter what he might wish the rest of us to call him.”

- Good Luck with that.