Why Corbyn’s symbolic refusals matter – in a good way


After being criticised for not singing the national anthem at a war memorial event, Jeremy Corbyn has come under attack for missing his swearing-in at the Privy Council. Corbyn’s actions have proved welcome terrain for his opponents, obsessed with the new Labour leader’s comportment and choices – from how he wears his tie to whether he will don a red poppy.

But does a leader have to conform to norms and rituals, however reactionary? And what happens to the moral right to conscientious objection and refusal on taking up political office?

The right of citizens to refuse to take up arms has long been morally accepted – at least by some, as has the religious refusal to provide abortion services or support gay marriage. If these acts of objection or withdrawal are morally (if not necessarily legally) acceptable, why can’t a political leader refuse to sing the national anthem or kneel before the queen?

Is it because they represent the people? But even if they act in a representative rather than personal capacity, I am tired of reading how much “The People” (and especially The People outside of progressive North London – a place which seems to have become fair game for the most scathing attack) love queen and god. Of course some do; but there is no single unity, no shared attitude despite journalists, commentators and politicians’ routine attempts to present one. Many people remain hugely alienated by ritualised acts of hierarchy, order and patriotic fealty, people whose feelings are seldom, if ever, featured in the practical choices of politicians.

But even if we bracket the moral question of how politicians might represent those progressives who tend to remain uncounted, what about politicians’ own integrity? So often, politicians are criticised for being disingenuous, dishonourable, deceitful and self-serving. If we want politicians to be less calculated in their actions and more open about their views, then they need the moral and political right to act accordingly. This isn’t an argument for authenticity as if there is some “true” self floating behind each politician’s mask, but about expanding how these roles can be taken up.

Expressing a non-dominant ethics may challenge notions of propriety; but propriety is not the same as incivility. Declining to sing the national anthem or bow before the queen is not equivalent to a right-wing politician refusing to shake, for instance, a gay man’s hand (even as some may feel that shaking the hand of a person you have slammed is hypocrisy). Refusing to treat people equally is not the same as refusing to treat people unequally – as critics of conservative Christian bakers and registrars, who refuse to offer their services to same-sex couples, avow. I am sure Corbyn would be polite to the queen as he would be polite to his constituents on the poorer streets of Islington; what rubs is the protocol that expects him to treat her better.

Fundamentally, I am struck by how annoyed people get by these acts of symbolic refusal even as, in the same breath, they dismiss such acts as deeply trivial. A similar tension surfaces in the regular fuss over Christmas festivities in Britain when some local councils try for a more inclusive name, recognising that other cultural and religious communities have festivals around this time (festivals that remain invisible and excluded when only Christmas is recognised in public spaces) only to have opponents damn such changes as a waste of money and time. Dismissing those who feel excluded by the name such festivals carry, opponents’ sharpness demonstrates the lie of triviality.

Whether it is Christmas, the queen or other patriotic attachments, refusal to participate seems to jar. Even among atheists and republicans, there is a strong thread of dislike. But what is the real source of this objection or annoyance?

For some, I think it’s the perceived impropriety of breaking a well-established ritual, where behaving appropriately is fundamentally what matters. For others, their distaste lies in how such actions disturb the community of players, as a child would who, not willing to continue the game, insists on staying in place, thus bringing everything to a halt. Then, there are those atheists and republicans who read Corbyn’s refusal as disloyal; anthems and queen-bowing may be intrinsically meaningless but their significance lies in the proxies they provide for deeper, legitimate national attachments, forcing Corbyn, in response, to declare his country-love. And there are those who dislike what they see as the self-made-spectacle of a willed narcissistic standing-out from the crowd, marking and promoting a personal purity as if one’s own conduct really matters, even as, in this case, the spectacle derives from the excessive attentions of others.

But not all acts of symbolic refusal get condemned. From hunger strikes to sitting in the “wrong” place, wearing the “wrong” color, or refusing to use particular flags, passports or hand gestures, acts of refusal can be lauded as acts of politically justified impropriety in order to challenge state-mandated forms of subordination, authority and exclusion.

When symbolic actions become heroic, it is easy to forget how condemned they were at the time of their event –particularly by an establishment opposed to and threatened by the challenge refusal speaks. It’s only later, and of course only sometimes, that bodies refusing their “proper” stigmatised place become hailed as champions by the mainstream, indicative of an evolving common-sense that has been able to incorporate the challenge and so, often, to defuse it.

Might Corbyn’s actions, then, look quite different in a future time when the national anthem has been dropped (or at least rewritten) and no royal family is around demanding special treatment?

I think such a reading of the present, framed as our future’s past, in this context, seems unlikely.

One reason is the political covering up Corbyn and his team have felt required to make. In saying this, I don’t assume Corbyn’s national anthem silence was because he opposed the words or that he created an excuse not to attend the Privy Council in order not to kneel. Nevertheless, the claim that Corbyn’s silence arose because he was in deep thought about war, and that missing the Privy Council was due to a prior engagement, disavow the political implications of his actions. As a result, Corbyn and his team reinforce the wider dominant perception that symbolic refusals divert attention from what really matters.

The force with which this political space is closed down reveals the lie of its triviality.

God, queen and country are hard to defend as undisputable goods – objects of unquestioning loyalty in a contemporary world. And so to avoid defending the symbols of a Christian, colonial, feudal past, the attack on refuseniks like Corbyn is swift and fierce.

Absent an ethical or political explanation, Corbyn’s conduct can be dismissed as bad manners. Scolded and tamed, he promises to participate fully (when it comes to anthem singing, and anything else…?) in the future.

Perhaps anything else is political suicide. But if a left politics is to succeed in Britain, it will be by taking up these powerful symbols of hierarchy, order and patriotism and generating a momentum for change – towards ways of living that are more internationalist and egalitarian.

God, queen and country are far from the only things that here matter. But they are issues that can be politically addressed by people and politicians lacking the governmental power to do a lot else. For symbolic politics has a democratic quality in its deployment of bodies – their actions and inactions – in making or at least prefiguring a different world, acting as if society was otherwise in order to make it otherwise, in contrast to a politics of appeal that depends on persuading those with power to change.

Addressing what underlies and is enacted through rituals of anthem singing and royalty bowing, rather than letting them endure as unspeakable exceptions to the narrow realm of acceptable political life, reminds us that politics inheres in what we choose to question, contest and transform; it is not a fixed defined field.

God, queen and country lie entangled with many of the most pressing and prominent material issues of our time: taxation, land ownership, multiculturalism, colonialism, militarism, rural and global economics.

And in the passions people feel about what’s at stake, in the discussions and counter-actions that follow unruly bodies refusing to act exactly as they are supposed to, comes the potential to generate what politicians so often declare they want: vibrant democratic renewal.


One thought on “Why Corbyn’s symbolic refusals matter – in a good way

  1. Pingback: Why Corbyn’s symbolic refusals matter – in a good way | Compass

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