A new look at the subject of patriotism rejects the flag waving, drum beating, "my country right or wrong" attitude and proposes a softer, more community related way of loving one's nation.
Again a senior politician is calling for a national debate on "What it means to be British." This is an obvious attempt to capitalise on fears about immigration that have been stirred up by increasingly hysterical media reports that Britain is being swamped by a tide of migration from the former Soviet bloc countries of Eastern Europe.
Any attempt to define Britishness is doomed to fail of course, it will only accentuate the differences in wealth, living standards and culture within this small but heavily populated nation. We should be holding a debate on the negative effect of outmoded values like patriotism on a modern, cosmopolitan society.
Never having been slow to step forward I will kick it off by saying I am NOT nor have I ever been proud to be British. In fact I think the whole idea of being proud to be whatever nationality we happen to be is a nonsense. I am happy to be British, I like our landscape, food, grubby cities, surly waiters, our culture and heritage, but to be proud of being British would be to suggest to anybody non – British that the accident of being born in these islands makes be somehow better than they.
It would be foolish to expect people from France, Germany, Jordan or India to agree with my views on the superiority of most things British, in fact when an American friend recently wrote of being quite shocked by the low opinion most non – Americans have of her homeland I had to explain that too many Americans abroad have an unfortunate way of telling natives of the place they are visiting that "the good ol’ US of A is the best country in the world and expecting agreement in response. Why would the Dutch not think Holland is wonderful, or the Germans point to their nation’s many achievements in the arts, science and technology and make the case for their land being as fine as any? All nation states, large or small, have things to recommend them and many, often the most powerful and prosperous have shameful episodes in their history. I have to be honest and say my own nation is one of the foremost in this category. The number of deaths the British were responsible for in India makes Hitler’s holocaust look small beer.
Logically then, to proclaim that I am proud to be British would imply I expect other nationalities to acknowledge the superiority of Britain. Once we set out on that road, it is only a short journey to the drum beating, flag waving, my-country-right-or-wrong patriotism that has caused as many wars and as much waste of life as religion. So why are politicians and conservatively minded people so easily seduced by it?
Most people who have been at the sharp end of a real, blood and guts war soon change their mind about the value of patriotism as a virtue. The poets of World War 1 are an example. Poems glorifying acts of patriotism and lauding sacrifice were in the main written by elderly former soldiers who had only seen action against untrained, ill-equipped tribesmen (and ought to have been chastened by those experiences, particularly in Zululand and Afghanistan.) The front line poets, those like Wilfred Owen who joined the millions of young men taken in by what Owen called The Old Lie marched off to the battlefields of France and Belgium. They were prod to be British and prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice, only to find that Britain did not give a damn about them as they were mown down in their thousands. Their leaders, unable to devise a strategy to advance their cause, simply ordered whole regiments to march, bayonets fixed, against the enemy machine guns.
In his best known poem Wilfred Owen wrote of that Charnel House war: "My friend, you would not tell with such high zest / to children ardent for some desperate glory / the old lie, dulce et decorum est / pro patria mori. (it is sweet and seemly to die for one’s country)
Thus was the pressure put on, patriotism was the greatest virtue, pragmatism the greatest sin. Early in the twentieth century it took real bravery to say, "I do not wish to die for my country," such a selfish attitude was viewed with the same kind of suspicion as showing an unhealthy level of interest in children is today. It would however have been more noble to say, "I choose to live for my country, to speak out against the warmongering rulers, my fight will be a fight for equality among my countrymen and justice for everybody, I choose to contribute to the life of my country, not the deaths of many people who are not its true enemies.
I have never understood why we should be made proud by an accident of geography. England and Scotland were deadly enemies until about three hundred and fifty years ago. Go to the borders now, as ever, walk away from the roads into open country and who would know when we cross from one land to another. The same applies to Canada and U.S.A. China and India anywhere and its neighbour. So what we are asked to believe is that an imaginary demarcation, a line drawn on a map, should be the thing we are most proud of? Ought we not to derive most of our personal pride and self esteem from the things we do, from our work, roles as partner, parent, brother or sister, friend; from sporting or intellectual accomplishments, artistic talent or simply from being a wholehearted member of our community, from doing our best? These things are the sum of all that makes us what we are. Would Shakespeare have been a lesser writer had he been born in Spain and moved from there, rather than from Stratford to London? Cultural reference points and life experience might have made him a different writer, but mere location would not have changed the essence of the man.
Nationality is nothing but an accident of Geography and patriotism a facile ploy beloved of shoddy politicians to exploit primitive fears of that which is different. It is time to dispense forever with the politics of fear and embrace the politics of hope. We have nothing to fear from migration be it from Eastern Europe, Asia or South America. There must be controls of course to ensure the infrastructure can cope, but migrants do not threaten our lifestyle or culture any more than terrorists. Migrants wish to share our lifestyle not destroy it and terrorists do not want to kill every last one of us as the more hysterical advocates of patriotism claim. Terror is about disrupting not killing.
What does threaten our lifestyle in the west and what we must resist if we are to preserve what is best of our civilisation is the relentless corporate – led push to increase consumption.
The real patriots today are not supporters of the patriot – game playing politicians whose phoney wars only distract attention from the real danger but those who are strong enough to ignore the drum beating, anthem singing and flag waving , to rise above the politics of fear and the ranting of religionists and to take up the struggle against the dark forces of conservatism and the suicidal lunacies of free market economics.