Battle for Britons

20 Jan 06
PETER WILBY | About six years ago, at the end of a long dinner in Edinburgh, I discussed patriotism with Gordon Brown (this being the nearest thing to light-hearted chat that you can get with the chancellor).

About six years ago, at the end of a long dinner in Edinburgh, I discussed patriotism with Gordon Brown (this being the nearest thing to light-hearted chat that you can get with the chancellor).

I suggested that a revival of patriotism was a fool’s errand.

Consider a man born in Glasgow to a Bangladeshi father and a Sri Lankan mother, married to a Ghanaian, converted to Catholicism, living in London, working for a US company and owning a second home in France. Such a man could construct an identity from any combination of these ingredients, and the proportion of the world’s population in positions similar to his would surely grow. Brown gave me a long stare and growled. ‘You cannot have a pick-n-mix identity,’ he said.

Brown is still going on about patriotism and gave a speech on the subject to the Fabian Society last weekend. What he wants from us Britons — as though we were a pre-school playgroup applying for Treasury funds — is a ‘mission statement defining purpose’.

Brown’s difficulty, as he acknowledges, is that Britain’s radical intelligentsia has never cared for patriotism. It is associated with the monarchy, the Church and the Empire, not with the rousing declarations of secular liberty that you get in the US and France.

As George Orwell wrote in 1941: ‘England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality.’ Almost any English intellectual, he observed (unlike Brown, Orwell tended to write about England rather than Britain), ‘would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during “God Save the King” than stealing from the poor box’.

Orwell nevertheless thought patriotism could be rescued for the Left, and Brown drew upon his ideas for his speech. What Brown does not acknowledge is that Orwell envisaged a patriotic revolution. Its programme would include the ‘nationalisation of land, mines, railways, banks and major industries’ and ‘limitation of incomes’ so that ‘the highest tax-free income ... does not exceed the lowest by more than ten to one’. Not much room for public-private partnerships there.

Why is it that most readers of this magazine (I would guess) find the idea of celebrating a national day and flying the Union flag in their gardens so problematic? What accounts for what Orwell called this ‘divorce between patriotism and intelligence’? The answer, I suspect, is that Orwell’s revolution never happened. In other countries, national days and symbols mark events and ideals that everyone can share. The US and France — the examples most often quoted — are both republics. Their national identities derive from historic acts of shaking off oppression. National days in many other countries mark independence, when foreign rule — usually British — came to an end.

Not all, or even most, of these examples of patriotism have admirable results. The US’s national pride feeds an arrogant belief that it has a special mission in the world, which led it to invade Iraq, Vietnam and other countries. French patriotism translates into a belief that French farmers should be subsidised at any cost. The patriotism of countries liberated from British colonialism leads to the tyranny of ‘freedom fighters’ such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.

Nor is it true that patriotic countries can offer solutions to troubling questions of ethnicity. Since last year’s urban riots, the French model — everyone has to commit to Frenchness and drop any trace of other cultures — is universally derided, although I didn’t hear its inadequacies much mentioned before the riots. The model now held up for our admiration is the US one: you keep your original identity, but you must pledge allegiance to American ideals of individualism and enterprise.

This works well for the dynamic, self-reliant migrants who freely enter the country, who have no group history of US colonial rule. It does not work for American blacks, whose ancestors were forcibly imported into slavery, or for many Hispanics, who got themselves illegally smuggled across the southern US border because of poverty and desperation.

What many people might find attractive about Brown’s speech, however, was the emphasis he placed on community roots and ‘local initiative’. I know clever Lefties who would hate to celebrate the Union flag but take pride in being born or raised in Yorkshire, Devon or London. In the wake of the July 7 bombings,

I heard London Muslims complain about ‘foreigners’ from Leeds travelling south to maim or kill them.

I’m not sure what Orwell would have made of that. But I’m certain that New Labour — and particularly its centralising chancellor — has a way to go before understanding the patriotism of what Orwell called the ‘common people’.

Peter Wilby is the former editor of the New Statesman

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