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Patriotism – the thoughts of a would-be scoundrel

3 Dec 2021

So I’ve been thinking for much of the day about patriotism; what it means, how much, or more like how little I feel it, and whether that is a failing in me. Someone on Twitter was talking about the failure of the British left to build a “radical, inclusive” patriotism but I suspect that when it comes to British patriotism, distinct from other patriotisms, there is no such thing. It is suspicious of the radical. It is exclusionary by nature.

People talk about patriotism in poetic, disingenuous terms, as if it is the pure and innocent affection for one’s country but how detached can this patriotism be from, for example, Britain’s appalling colonial legacy, one which has been highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement? Does one simply zone that out to preserve Elgar-esque, fragrant tones of affection for Britain? Or simply throw BLM under the bus to appease those who demand patriotism from our politicians?

I’m just not sure what I’m supposed to feel, since such feelings, whether real or performative, are apparently vital to be successful in British politics. Sure, I support England in football, GB in athletics, out of habits formed in children but beyond that . . Britain was just the country I splatted out into in the hospital ward. I’ve always lived here so clearly don’t loathe the place but I find the UK docile, arrested and deferential in matters of class and under-developed insofar as we still have a monarchy. Do such feelings preclude the possibility of my being patriotic?

I can see the value of, and reason for, patriotism in other countries, who, unlike Britain have been on the wrong end of exploitation, colonialism, invasion. But in the UK, patriotism seems too easily to amount to a dangerous, misplaced sense of superiority and exceptionalism, especially dangerous when it comes to Brexit/the pandemic. Am I still wrong to not feel it?

Isn’t it enough in politics to show your regard for your country by doing the best for all its citizens, not just a few? Make that the basis of your outlook? What’s more practically “patriotic”, after all, than the NHS? But then, as we’ve seen, any effort at socialism is viewed by our right wing press as somehow inimical with British values – Russian, French in origin – and therefore to be shunned.

I suspect there are people who feel exactly the same way as me about patriotism, can’t get it up for the Union Flag either but are nevertheless applauding Labour’s newfound commitment to patriotism; something the movement should fake, in order to win back the elderly Red Wall proles. This, for me, would be cynical, contemptuous and counter-productive. These people look at Labour in these matters with a far more sceptical eye than they do the Tories, and would sense insincerity; or simply vote Tory in any case, if patriotism is their deal-breaking criterion. Plus, they’d want to see some proof that you meant it, and this would mean a lot more “concern” about immigration, a rowback from the Remain position and a very dim view indeed of statues of slave traders being thrown in canals. Indeed, a generally dim view of the values of the under-45s. All sustained. I’m just not down with that.