Words are incredibly important in politics. It is not good enough to try and analyse what you say after you have said it.
First published in September 2020.
I am willing to give Lisa Nandy the benefit of the doubt on this one:
“... we stand up for Britain, we stand up for British people, we stand up for British interests and we will always put that first.”
It is a phrase which a lot of people wouldn’t see any problem with. Here is the issue though: that’s how dog whistles work. I don’t think this was, but you can be certain some groups will have heard it as one.
It is actually kind of sad. Personally, I think ‘patriotism’ nowadays has become too synonymous with ‘nationalism’ and wouldn’t class myself as ‘patriotic’. There is a sense that you can’t just live somewhere. Instead, you have to prove you are the ‘right sort’ to live there.
Again, I don’t think Nandy did it here, but I can see why others do. This is why language is so important, and it is not being over-sensitive to say so. When you say “stand up for British people” what some will hear is, “stand against migrants”, and they will use it to push that line.
The idea of “British values”, “British people”, and that anything which even remotely suggests that questioning anything Britain, or its government, has done is “un-British” has become a common riff, not just since the 2016 EU Referendum.
How you frame things is complex. People can almost always put their own meaning on things. The idea of a dog whistle is that they can do so and still argue that anyone complaining about it is being unreasonable.
That is why they are so dangerous.
Arguably, those who hear a politician saying that they should put “Britain first” and use it as a rallying cry for xenophobia are actually a minority, but they are a vocal and growing one, and we need to be aware of the language we use and how they will spin it.
One of my favourite lines is from a film called Spy Game:
“When did Noah build the ark? Before the rain.”
That is how we have to be thinking in terms of defending migrants’ rights. It is not good enough to try and analyse what we say after we have said it.
So, again, I don’t think Lisa Nandy was making a statement aimed at racists, but I know racists will have taken it as a statement in support of them.
It is essential, if it is to genuinely be progressive and support rights, that Labour thinks ahead about what it says and how it is heard.🔷
Dan Sohege, Human rights advocate, international refugee law specialist, immigration economist, charity fundraising professional and Director of Stand For All.
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🗳️ Lisa Nandy