St George’s Day is always a bit of a worry in politics. Flag-waving and ingratiating behaviour is the order of the day. Oh dear, you find yourself thinking, Keir Starmer’s made a video. I daren’t look.

As leader of the opposition, I suppose the Labour leader has to do these things but it’s a tense moment. With musings about patriotism, there’s always a heightened risk of looking like a wazzock.

Exhibit A: last year’s video. Keir Starmer put out a two-minute St George’s Day reverie in 2023 which featured several images of… Glasgow.

For the avoidance of doubt – and I can say this with some authority, this being The Herald – Glasgow is not in England. The people of Glasgow are quite particular about that.

What cringe was awaiting us this year? Would we get blokey Keir, wrapped in the flag on a football terrace sloshing beer over the row in front? Would there be panoramic shots of Sir Keir on a hillside surveying God’s own country in a waxed jacket?

Thankfully – exhale – there was not. It was a bit lame, but campaign videos have to be (it’s a rule). The main takeaway was that it wasn’t awful.

The Herald: Labour's shadow cabinet on St George's DayLabour's shadow cabinet on St George's Day (Image: free)

In fact, it was trying to do something quite important. It was part of an attempt by Labour to reclaim English patriotism for sensible people, the ones who don’t hate Brussels or think Ursula von der Leyen is Cersei Lannister in disguise.

Landscape and football did feature. He talked about feeling pride in England when he climbed Scafell Pike with his family as a child and when “belting out” Three Lions at Wembley in 1996.

But he also talked about feeling pride in England when, as a lawyer, he defended people from the death penalty in countries that “look up to our rule of law”.

You can argue about whether people still look up to England’s rule of law after Boris Johnson laid waste to his government’s reputation for respecting it, but there was a broader point here: Starmer was making clear his version of patriotism is not the hard-line right-wing version we’ve got used to since the 1990s, espoused by thugs and populists. The hang ‘em, flog ‘em, keep ‘em out brigade can go elsewhere: this was pride in England for people who don’t like talking about their pride in England.

He talked about it in the context of educational opportunity and meeting people from “every background and circumstance” as Labour leader. He pointedly mentioned inclusion. He talked about respect for each other. This is not brash nativism but something much more like SNP-style civic nationalism – civic nationalism expressed with less assurance and fluency than it is in Nicola Sturgeon’s hands, sure, but also without the whinge against a distant oppressor.

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The left in English politics bodyswerved expressions of pride in English national identity for decades because it gave them the ick. It clashed with Labour’s internationalist world view and repelled liberals who are instinctively suspicious of nationalist sentiment as reactionary and potentially dangerous. I relate to that. Prof Michael Kenny, an authority on English nationalism at Cambridge University, speaking in 2019, put it like this: “Most liberals and progressive types are wary of English nationalism; many believe it will capsize Britain or think it’s narrow, chauvinistic and maybe inherently xenophobic.”

But there’s been a dawning realisation that refusing to engage with these issues has been a mistake. Pride in where you come from arises in nearly every community, local, regional, national and even continental. It’s a fact of life. If you ignore it and fail to define it positively, then other forces will rush to claim it. Giving the right the space to claim English patriotic identity has been one of the biggest failures of left-wing parties of the last 30 years.

It has made way for Nigel Farage and Lee Anderson.

This is what 30p Lee had to say in his own St George’s Day message this week. He opined that “this country of ours has been a gift to the world. Look at the industrial revolution, culture, arts, music, sport.” (To think the world wouldn’t have had any of those things without England!) He also captioned his post with a “trigger warning”: “If you are a Guardian reading, avocado eating, Palestinian flag waving, Eddie Izzard supporting Vegan then this clip is probably not for your consumption.”

When right-wing English nationalism has reached that level of self-parody, you know the moment has come for an alternative.

There is a much healthier story to be told about Englishness. There’s no rule that says it has to be narrow-minded. Historically, going back to the English civil war, it was concerned with rational debate, popular sovereignty and nascent ideas about human rights.

The Herald: Keir Starmer is trying to take back the Union flag from the ToriesKeir Starmer is trying to take back the Union flag from the Tories (Image: free)

If Keir Starmer’s version of English patriotism feels a bit contrived, then perhaps that’s because it’s in the English character to be embarrassed when discussing your feelings of national pride. Bombastic or sentimental patriotism makes people across these isles snigger, and that in itself makes some of us proud. (Funnily enough, Scots are more at ease with it, though personally I‘d be happy never to hear Caledonia again.) So well done Labour for trying to reclaim English patriotism from the right. Just one thing, though. Sir Keir referenced the establishment of Nato and the NHS and wished people a happy St George’s Day saying “let us be confident on the world stage”.

Unless I’m very much mistaken, we are known abroad as “the UK”. The NHS and helping set up Nato are UK accomplishments.

This conflation of the UK and England happens, I think, not because people like Starmer don’t recognise that the UK has four constituent nations but because England lacks the strong political and cultural identity separate from the UK that Scotland and Wales have, meaning England and Britain more easily flow into one another.

Still, England isn’t the UK, end of.

All in all, Labour are trying to do the right thing. No one suggests the SNP are right wing for expressing patriotic pride. Neither is Labour. It’s time to redefine English patriotism instead of running away from it.