It was once commonplace to be patriotic, to love your country, to be proud of its culture, of the society within it and the people which constitute society. Familiarity with the literature and history of our nation, its core values, and its guiding lights, was cultivated through the school and at home. Although this may be an idealised and generalised glance into the past, it is certainly true that the current generation does not value patriotism with the vigour previous generations have. According to a YouGov poll, only a minority of young Brits today consider themselves to be patriotic, in contrast to every other age bracket over 25 which, by a majority, are at least “slightly” patriotic. Why is this?
One explanation is the conflation between love of country and support for the current government. Perhaps the majority of young people – the only age demographic Labour won in the 2015 General Election – cannot rustle up pride for their country because they dislike the current government. This is an understandable but lamentable take on patriotism. When people vote for, or stand to be, a Member of Parliament they generally do so with the country’s best interests at heart, with an idea to change the country for the better or preserve the aspects worth preserving. Whichever it is, it is based on a patriotic principle that this country is worth fighting for.
Jonathon Freedland, a journalist for the Guardian with whom I have much to disagree with, was nevertheless absolutely right when he likened this rationale, of abandoning patriotism because of its association with the right, to “the person who opposes candlelight because once or twice its led to the house being burnt down.” The left struggles with patriotism because they often seek to overhaul tradition or fundamentally change society. But as Freedland pointed out, some of the most respected people on the left, in the twentieth century, like Atlee, Bevan, Benn and Orwell, were all celebrated patriots whilst being advocates of change. There is no ideological preclusion of patriotism, only the misinterpretation that to be patriotic is a vote of confidence in the current policies of government.
Rather, patriotism is enshrined in the notion that at the centre is the conern for oneself, followed by concentric circles representing love of the family, the local community or town, and, finally, the nation. It is the recognition that man is imperfect or “fallen”, that there is a hierarchy in our affections. But this allows us, as a society, to care for others in the local community and the nation before we look to other countries; to vote for, act upon, and represent what we think is in the national interest, as well as our own. It was the National Health Service, not the Universal Health Service that Bevan wanted to create. It is for National security and not Universal security that we have, and should value, a strong military. To reject patriotism as a relic or dangerous idea is to run roughshod over the nature of mankind and deprive society of a virtue well worth preserving.
Patriotism can also extend to an appreciation of the land, history and culture of a country. This is not to say patriotism demands you love every piece of land, everything ever done in the name of Britain, or every aspect of culture. When Alice Duer Miller came to our shores in 1940, she tried to persuade her fellow Americans to fight for Britain with her poem, “The White Cliffs”, which expresses an admiration for our country inspite of its imperfections:
“I am American bred
I have seen much to hate here, much to forgive,
But in a world where England is finished and dead,
I do not wish to live”
Perhaps if we recognised that politics is, fundamentally, concerned with society, its health and its wealth, more civility and less incoherent hostility may come of it yet. Patriotism is not a revolving door to imperialistic nationalism, nor is it an irrational afterthought of an ignorant age; it speaks to core human values and channels them into something greater than the individual. Patriotism makes us care for the future of our nation and knits us together as a unique society, both of which we can all, surely, welcome.