Tory party has ‘lost any right’ to call itself patriotic, says Keir Starmer

<span>Sir Keir Starmer wrote that Labour would ‘always put country above party’, and was ‘the patriotic party now’.</span><span>Photograph: Manjit Narotra/ProSports/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Sir Keir Starmer wrote that Labour would ‘always put country above party’, and was ‘the patriotic party now’.Photograph: Manjit Narotra/ProSports/REX/Shutterstock

The Conservatives have “lost any right” to call themselves a patriotic party, Sir Keir Starmer has said.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, the Labour leader said the Tories have “denigrated some of our proudest national institutions” and he accused the party of stoking divisions that “weaken our nation” if it means it “strengthens their grip on power”.

He also said the party lacked faith in the strength of British national identity to “withstand discussion”, and this has weakened the Tories’ claim to patriotism.

In an opinion piece published ahead of St George’s Day on Tuesday, Starmer spoke of his “pride and gratitude” at being English.

He said Labour was “at its best when it has celebrated, defended and served the values of our country and its people” and said establishing Nato and the NHS were prime examples of this.

Labour promised to “always put country above party”, Starmer said, which has allowed Labour to take up the mantle of “the patriotic party now”.

Asking whether the Conservative party was “really capable of serving anything other than itself”, he said: “I don’t think so.”

He added: “In fact, frankly, when you’ve trashed the economy, hammered mortgage holders, weakened the union, neglected our forces, repeatedly broken laws you expected others to follow and denigrated some of our proudest national institutions, from the BBC to the National Trust to the England football team, I’m afraid you have lost any right to call yourself a patriotic party.”

In recent years, sections of the Conservative party have criticised the National Trust over issues such as a report into its properties’ connections to colonialism and slavery.

Others condemned England footballers for “taking the knee” as a protest against racism, with the then home secretary, Priti Patel, saying players taking the knee was “gesture politics”.

Saying the Conservatives had overseen a period when pride in British identity had become “more contentious”, Starmer added: “Shouting ‘woke’ doesn’t just undermine the proud British traditions of free speech, dissent and independent thinking.

“At best, it suggests they don’t have faith in the strength of our history, identity and flag to withstand discussion.

“At worst, they don’t care if division weakens our nation if it strengthens their grip on power,” he added.

“I won’t let the Tories chip away at our boldness and confidence. To be proudly English means to be proudly ourselves, to hold firm to our convictions and be able to speak our mind – and be civil when others speak theirs. No, Labour is the patriotic party now.”

Starmer’s comments echoed those made by Tony Blair nearly 30 years ago when, as leader of the opposition, he accused the Tories of lacking patriotism, telling the 1995 Labour party conference: “It’s no good waving the fabric of our flag when you have spent 16 years tearing apart the fabric of our nation.”

The party’s black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) group at Westminster raised concerns about the dominant use of the union flag in election campaign material amid concern it may alienate ethnic minority voters and others. One MP said it was “definitely detrimental”.

However, Starmer said he had “no time for those who flinch at displaying our flag”.

He said: “The cross of St George belongs to every person who loves this country and seeks to make it better – a symbol of pride, belonging and inclusion.

“We cannot allow it to become the preserve of the tiny minority who want to drive hatred in our communities.”