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The BBC's Robin Oakley
"Mr Blair is pinning the patriotic label to every aspect of his modernisation programme"
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Tuesday, 28 March, 2000, 18:06 GMT 19:06 UK
Blair waves the pre-election union flag

Tony Blair: Wrapping himself in the Union Jack
By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair has intensified the pre-election atmosphere currently gripping politicians with a keynote speech aimed at turning Labour into the patriotic party.

In comments which echoed numerous attempts by his predecessors to whip the Union flag from under the Tories, he insisted devolution had made the UK stronger.

He attacked William Hague for wanting to take Britain down an isolationist path.

And he declared: "In this new world, a new modern patriotism is needed. That is what we offer."

His comments certainly had the ring of an election address about them and led to speculation that, following last week's budget, the government is preparing to begin, if it has not already, a long election campaign.

There is little doubt that much ministerial business is now being determined by the prospect of a general election in around a year's time, and the prime minister is eager to stake out his battleground.

Budget measures to paint the government as the defender of public services were one part of the strategy and his attempt to steal the badge of patriotism from the Tory party, who believe that they are its rightful holders, is another.

Days of empire

But it is not an easy task. Neil Kinnock tried it before Tony Blair but was constantly undermined by left-wing moves to slash defence spending and scrap the nuclear deterrent.

Neil Kinnock: constantly undermined
And there has long been a lingering feeling in the Labour party that British patriotism often harked back to the days of empire.

Peter Mandelson's attempts to associate Labour with the Churchillian spirit by parading himself with a bulldog in the 1997 election campaign drew only ridicule, as did the short-lived "cool Britannia" campaign.

Others, meanwhile, simply believe that patriotism is one of the few things that transcends party politics, with no one having a monopoly on it.

And Mr Blair is certainly risking the allegation that he is dragging it into the party political arena.

He is also clearly rattled by the affect devolution is having in Scotland and Wales, where separatist parties are making serious inroads.

That was sharply brought home to him in the recent Ayr by-election where the SNP pushed Labour into third place, apparently confirming Tory and nationalist taunts that devolution was the first step towards separation.

Natural territory

Mr Blair is desperate to dismiss that allegation, but the "new patriotism" speech was also a continuation of his campaign to recast Labour as the one nation party - another label once exclusively attached to the Tories.

And it pushes forward his strategy of painting the Tories as an increasingly irrelevant, nationalistic party well on the way to taking Britain out of Europe.

It all forms part of the wider election strategy which is to drastically reduce the areas which the Tories can view as their natural territory.

Mr Hague immediately attacked the speech as another example of "all mouth and no delivery" - clearly now a campaign slogan - and accused Mr Blair of planning to sell out the pound and break up the UK.

Meanwhile, some Old Labour stalwarts claimed to have detected another undercurrent of control freakery in the prime minister's words.

They claimed that, like his "forces of conservatism" speech last autumn, he was suggesting that anyone who did not agree with his vision was somehow unpatriotic.

One thing is certain - there will be plenty more of this sort of thing over the next few months.

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28 Mar 00 | Talking Point
Is patriotism a virtue?
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