Friday, 31 July 2015


What do we mean by patriotism?

It seems simple, a love of country, a pride in country that does not reach the heights of jingoism, or nationalism. My country right or wrong, but without the nastier connotations of superiority, ethnic cleansing or simple lunacy that these last two elements can contain. A love of country that draws the line at marching headlong and blindly into a war that will kill most of a generation, as it did in World War One. Is it so straightforward though; are we actually so blind as to hand-wave everything away under the strains of Rule Britannia or the Star Spangled Banner (or whichever national anthem you choose to mention)?

A note here: I don't consider myself particularly patriotic. There are things I'm proud of, that happened in my country; I'm not sure if that's sufficient to make me dyed in the wool. In the way of these things, one of those internet quizzes you find at sites like Buzz Feed or Play Buzz, got me thinking about what it meant to be a patriot in the UK. 

World War One is, in part, why the UK doesn't really do patriotism... or if we do it isn't in the same way that the Americans do. There's little chest thumping, or indeed tub thumping, about how great the country is. If it surfaces at all it's with an element of depreciation, anyone who gets too enamoured with it is probably looking to get taken down a peg or two. Part of the cringe factor for UKIP is the way they wrap themselves in the Union Jack. Contrast that with what we see of America on the TV or in films; Stars and Stripes on show and speeches about how great the USA is. 'God Bless America' is probably one of the statements most associated with the country/collection of republican states, and is recognisable throughout the world; bordering on stereotype in places.

Over here, this would be unthinkable. Whilst British politics is just as capable of 'playing the man', accusations of being unpatriotic would be as unthinkable as the Prime Minister praying in public. That was encapsulated by Alister Campbell's quashing of Blair and Bush praying together in public during an American state visit: 'We don't do God'. Religion and patriotism have shuffled in the private sphere, and in the case of the latter become bundled up with negative associations with war, pride, racism and stupidity. The Union Jack was claimed by the Far Right long ago, only becoming rehabilitated in the 1980s, as the National Front and its ilk were dealt with. Even now, the flag is largely eschewed, you see it at Last Night of the Proms, a camp spectacle if ever there was one; St George's cross is now the favoured flag of the right wing extremist and you can see those in abundance in certain places, especially during the World Cup.

My feeling, however, is that the people who wave that flag have crossed the line into nationalism; they are not patriots, no matter how they protest; it produces images of UKIP, and the associated nastiness that party must contend with in regards to immigration, homosexuality and so forth. This strand of thought conjures up a largely imagined past where Britain was a green and pleasant land, doors could be left unlocked and there was a bobby on the beat. No need for Human Rights or legislation to protect workers (or at least British versions, which will somehow be inherently superior to the EU version).

The fact that this is a very different picture to reality seems to pass such people by, in the same way that liberals who rhaposdise Magna Carta ignore the limitations inherent in that document. Both ignore the fact that the past is no place to forge a future; both smack of overly indulged children, trying to reach the cookie jar after they've been told they can't have a midnight snack.

Genuine British patriotism seems trickier to define, in part because you're dealing with four different nations, each with its own identity and history that reaches back further than many other countries have existed. Part of the problem we face here is that the Union is slowly but surely splintering, even if at present that's only seems to be effecting the left wing vote, perhaps because that's traditionally been the side of politics that supports pluralism and many voices; as opposed to the sole voice favoured by the Right.

Glossing over the fact that the country is getting more patriotic, the less important it seems to become, what are the elements of patriotism over here? A love of the monarchy would certainly factor, as might a certain amount of pride in historic achievements of the Twentieth Century (to put it another way 'two World Wars and one World Cup, doo dah, doo dah'). This attitude was fostered by the Second World War, the legend of 'plucky little Britain standing up to the foreign bully', which handily overlooks a lot of the facts, the legacy we'd inherited, the Empire, and that the Allied victory was a team effort. Take part of the Allies away and you're looking at a longer war, and a more costly one.

Our sense of humour is also trotted out as a key plank of the British identity to be proud of, and its true that most of us probably hold to the idea that we are somehow funnier than the other nationalities in the world. Certainly this is an area where the non English speaking world gets short shrift, where we see ourselves as better than certainly the European countries we border (the butt of our jokes are usually the Germans, shown as efficient but humourless in the popular imagination). It's a little different with America, because so much of the television shows we see and comedy films come straight out of Los Angeles or New York, places that we know because we have the illusion of familiarity.

There's also a certain affection for the Victorian era, though I don't know if that's actually connected to the notion of Empire. I think its more likely to be projected sense of nostalgia, harking back to a time when the nation seemed secure, and the world was understandable. This view may be bunk, you only have to look at the way America and Germany created economic consternation and unease and the fears about Fenianism, the so called 'yellow peril' and Anarchism to see that the Nineteenth Century was as turbulent and anxious as we are today. Time preserves certain things, but history is a cold, unemotive subject if you look at it academically. I'm sure the monuments of the period are part of the reason it's so well thought of, so much of the UK is effectively Victorian, their legacy is everywhere we look.

Setting these things aside, do we have anything concrete to base it on? Senses of humour are subjective, as are historical facts to an extent. Nothing is as certain as it seems, and what might look like a solid piece of cultural identity might well prove to be an import (the Christmas tree for instance, or brides getting married in white, which both only date to Victorian times). Our nations are mishmashes of cultures that washed up on our shores and became normalised, naturalised over time. There are parts of our culture that still rankle over them sure, look at the oft referred to German heritage of the Royal Family (which seems odd to me, because the Saxe-Coburgs took the throne before there was a Germany, and my own Prussian ancestor came over somewhat later, during the Victorian period), but in the main everything foreign eventually gets subsumed into the mainstream. So Flemish, French and German immigrants became part of the nation with little incident... It seems unfair that the Windsors, as they became in the Great War, should be beaten with a stick because some people are unwilling to accept that they've been here for over two centuries.

The whole thing feels rather thin to me, especially as we seem to have given up on building 'Jerusalem' here, in England's green and pleasant hills. It feels more like the Plain of Armageddon out there, if you know what I mean. As our social contract warps, I find myself wondering what we're loyal to, an idea? Or is that too weak a concept? If the Prime Minister genuinely wants a 'weightless state' he needs to come up with reasons for us to support that state and pronto; for me geography doesn't come into it so strongly and if everything is privatised, I'm not sure I see what the point of the government or Parliament actually is. Perhaps they want to sit at Westminster to decide who we go to war with next; that would suit the jobs for the boys mentality they seem to have down there.

To bring this back to a very personal level, let me tell you what I'm proud of about my nation. I'm proud that we invented Punk and Goth music. I'm proud of the likes of Byron, Shelley, Milton and Shakespeare who defined so much of our language and created beautiful thing. I'm proud of Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, of Ada Lovelace and Robert Louis Stevenson; I'm proud of the war poets and H.G. Wells. I'm proud of our explorers, our reformers, our creatives and the way the country has grown, not necessarily in terms of economy but in conscience, justice and understanding.

The flip side of that of course, is that there's lots of stuff I'm not in the slightest bit proud of; the growing gap between rich and poor, the anti democratic 'professionalisation' of politics, or the way we ape anything the Americans have done, even when they have abandoned the thing we're running to adopt. I'm also not proud of parts of our history, the way that the Victorians sent children up chimneys, or the conditions that brought on the Indian Mutiny for example, make me sick. And I hate the way we push that under the rug, dismissing it as unimportant. We have to own our bad as well as our good, or we'll never face up to the things we've done in the name of progress, nation and faith; back when those things mattered.  As do revelations about the current political situation, or the economic strategy that the UK is currently pursuing, one which leaves families scrambling for food, shelter, and the basic pieces of life. I'm afraid I don't care about the World Cup or the Olympics and can't be bothered to get excited by things like Wimbledon. I'm not proud of the way we treat our poor, our sick, or anyone whose face doesn't fit.

So am I a patriot? Where is the line, between being a slavish sycophant to something that's just defined by the lines on a map, or a harsh critic of the nation? Do we even have the concept of 'the loyal opposition' anymore? If not, is that because our nations feel so embattled that tribalism is taking root and we're on the slippery slope to nationalism?

And if I am, what does that even mean in a world where the nation state is of diminishing importance?

No comments:

Post a Comment