Yesterday Sir Keir Starmer chalked up a year since becoming leader of the Labour Party. It must seem longer to him — and not just because time appears to pass so slowly during the interminable lockdowns.
For he has struggled unavailingly with a party membership still madly missing Jeremy Corbyn — whose evident distaste for his own country’s history aroused a reciprocal contempt in Labour’s former heartlands in the North.
A recent strategy document Starmer commissioned, leaked to The Guardian, advised Labour to ‘make use of the [Union] flag’ in order to win back such support — which only provoked the former shadow cabinet minister Clive Lewis to complain of ‘pandering to the nativist right’.
‘Nativist’, by the way, is a posh word for ‘racist’.
Yesterday Sir Keir Starmer chalked up a year since becoming leader of the Labour Party
Lewis is far from alone in Labour in equating display of the national flag as racist or even ‘fascist’.
Thus when Starmer appeared to endorse the idea of using the Union flag to identify his party with patriotism, the secretary of the Warrington North constituency Labour Party, Robin Frith, ranted that this was ‘another move from the fascist playbook’.
The voters of Warrington would not see it that way, to put it mildly — and there lies Sir Keir’s problem.
So I was a surprised to see the Labour leader — in a column for yesterday’s Observer telling his party to prepare for a general election which ‘will come much sooner than expected’ — lamenting ‘the rise of nativism and nationalism’ in Britain. But perhaps I should not have been surprised that, in an article for the Sunday newspaper most likely to be read by Labour’s existing membership, Starmer would throw them a little bone.
He referred to Labour’s ‘patriotism’ to distinguish this from those other ‘isms’ of which he disapproves. But voters do not distinguish between ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’.
A recent strategy document Starmer commissioned, leaked to The Guardian, advised Labour to ‘make use of the [Union] flag’ in order to win back such support — which only provoked the former shadow cabinet minister Clive Lewis, pictured, to complain of ‘pandering to the nativist right’
If they read Starmer’s article at all they will just see this as more evidence that the politician who spent years trying to block Brexit is still deeply unhappy that the UK is no longer part of the European Union, and regards the outcome of the 2016 referendum as, indeed, a distressing manifestation of ‘nativism and nationalism’.
Yesterday, a YouGov poll of Labour members showed that 59 per cent of them wanted their party to campaign in the next election on a platform of rejoining the EU. That would be a good way of ensuring even more Tory gains in Labour’s former northern strongholds when the next election does take place.
To be fair to Starmer, he knows that, and has kept a studious silence on Brexit-related topics, whatever his private thoughts. But what is required from him is positive insincerity, rather than mere acquiescence.
Tony Blair, the last Labour leader to win power from the Conservatives, did so in 1997 by shamelessly usurping the Tories’ patriotic iconography.
He had a policy of ‘reclaiming’ the Union Flag, and chose as the party’s election mascot a British bulldog.
Tony Blair, the last Labour leader to win power from the Conservatives, did so in 1997 by shamelessly usurping the Tories’ patriotic iconography (pictured are Tony and Cherie Blair walking into Downing Street in 1997 after a landslide victory
He wrote an article for the Sun under the headline ‘Why I love the pound’ — even though Labour’s actual policy was to abandon the national currency and join the Euro.
And when he entered Downing Street, Labour party members were issued with little Union flags which they were instructed to wave as Mr and Mrs Blair walked for the first time into No 10.
But under Jeremy Corbyn, the only flag being waved at Labour party events was that of the Palestinians: at the 2018 party conference this display was accompanied by the sight of a delegate declaiming, on national television, ‘I’m speaking for the Palestinian people’, to rousing cheers in the hall.
And when that leaked document urging the party to come out more for the British flag was published, a Labour councillor, Paul Warburton, expostulated: ‘Next step, teaching the national anthem in schools.’
It all brings to mind George Orwell’s observation, in his 1941 essay England Your England: ‘In Left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that is a duty to snigger at every English institution . . . It is a strange fact, but unquestionably true, that [they] would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during ‘God Save The King’ than of stealing from a poor box.’
Eighty years on, that remains true — as Starmer’s struggles make clear.
But under Jeremy Corbyn, the only flag being waved at Labour party events (such as the 2018 party conference, pictured) was that of the Palestinians
Scientist shamelessly rewrites Covid history
Even before the inevitable public inquiry into the performance of the Government during the coronavirus crisis, the books are coming in with their own verdicts.
A gripping account by the investigative journalists Jonathan Calvert and George Arbuthnott, is one of the first. The title alone, Failures Of State, tells you this is a damning assessment.
One of their most critical interviewees is Professor Susan Michie, who throughout the period has been a senior member of the Government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.
So it is quite something that Michie condemns the Government’s decision just over a year ago not to suspend the Cheltenham Festival, with its vast and densely packed crowds of horseracing fans.
‘I thought Cheltenham should definitely not have been allowed to go ahead,’ she told the authors. ‘I remember looking at the television images of what was happening there and feeling slightly nauseous about it, just feeling: ‘God, this is awful.’ Given what was happening in Italy and we could see what was happening here, it just didn’t seem appropriate.’
Professor Susan Michie told Andrew Neil in 2020 that it still made sense to go ahead with the Cheltenham Festival, on the grounds that if people weren’t in the stands, they’d be watching it crowded together in pubs
I was amazed by this, as I distinctly recall Michie going on numerous radio and television programmes at exactly that time, defending the Government’s decision.
And sure enough, still available online is an encounter on the BBC between the Prof and Andrew Neil, in which the presenter asks her: ‘In parts of Europe they’ve banned big sporting events.
‘What did you think when you saw the pictures of tens of thousands at the Cheltenham races this week? Did it make you wonder if we were doing the right thing?’
Prof Michie replied that it made sense to go ahead with the festival, on the grounds that if people weren’t in the stands, they’d be watching it crowded together in pubs.
Which, of course, would not have happened if the event had been cancelled, as she now claims she wanted.
And far from looking ‘nauseous’, she was smiling as she reassured Mr Neil.
She even used her Twitter account to defend Boris Johnson’s refusal at that stage to introduce mandatory social restrictions, rebutting a Labour MP who said this laid-back attitude would lead to the deaths of ‘elderly and vulnerable people’.
Yet now, Michie tells the authors of Failures Of State that ‘immediate interventions at an early stage would have made far more sense’, adding: ‘I hope there is not just a Government inquiry but an independent public inquiry.
‘I think that will be one of the things will be seen as among many mistakes the Government has made, one of the bigger ones.’
As I say, amazing. Michie might claim that back in March of last year she was merely defending the official line, as an official adviser.
But what sort of scientist would defend a policy that she believed at the time was fatal? And she was not at all obliged to go on all these programmes: there were plenty of other Government advisers available.
No: what we are witnessing is a shameless re-writing of the history of our Covid-19 policy-making, by one of its more prominent participants.
Intriguingly, Professor Michie has been a member of the British Communist Party since 1978. She comes from a political tradition in which the past was frequently re-written to avoid any admissions of error ‘by the party’.
As the old Soviet joke went: ‘The past is rewritten so quickly, you don’t know what’s going to happen yesterday.’
Now it’s happening here.