Patriotism or chavunism?
OUT OF the London bombings a national consensus has emerged: what we need in Britain is a renewed sense of patriotism. The rightwing papers have been making their usual noises about old maids and warm beer, but in the past 10 days they have been joined by Jonathan Freedland in The Guardian, Tristram Hunt in the New Statesman, the New Statesman itself and just about everyone who has opened his mouth on the subject of terrorism and national identity. Emboldened by this consensus, the Sun tabloid now insists that anyone who is not loyal to this country should leave it. The way things are going, it cannot be long before I am deported.
The argument runs as follows: patriotic people do not turn on each other. If there are codes of citizenship and a belief in Britain’s virtues, acts of domestic terrorism are unlikely to happen. As Mr. Freedland writes, the United States, in which “loyalty is instilled constantly,” has never “had a brush with home-grown Islamist terrorism.”
This may be true (though there have been plenty of attacks by non-Muslim terrorists in the U.S.). But while patriotism might make citizens less inclined to attack each other, it makes the state more inclined to attack other countries, for it knows it is likely to command the support of its people. If patriotism were not such a powerful force in the U.S., could George W. Bush have invaded Iraq?
To argue that national allegiance reduces human suffering, you must assert that acts of domestic terrorism cause more grievous harm than all the territorial and colonial wars, ethnic cleansing and holocausts pursued in the name of the national interest. To believe this, you need to be not just a patriot but a chauvinist.
Mr. Freedland and Mr. Hunt and the leader writers of the New Statesman, of course, are nothing of the kind. Mr. Hunt argues that Britishness should be about “values rather than institutions”: Britain has “a superb record of political liberalism and intellectual inquiry, giving us a public sphere open to ideas, religions and philosophy from across the world.” This is true, but these values are not peculiar to Britain, and it is hard to see why we have to become patriots in order to invoke them. Britain also has an appalling record of imperialism and pig-headed jingoism, and when you wave the flag, no one can be sure which record you are celebrating. If you want to defend liberalism, then defend it, but why conflate your love for certain values with love for a certain country?
And what, exactly, would a liberal patriotism look like? When confronted with a conflict between the interests of your country and those of another, patriotism, by definition, demands that you choose those of your own. Internationalism, by contrast, means choosing the option that delivers most good or least harm to people, regardless of where they live. It tells us that someone living in Kinshasa is of no less worth than someone living in London, and that a policy which favours the interests of 100 British people at the expense of 101 Congolese is one we should not pursue. Patriotism, if it means anything, tells us we should favour the interests of the 100 British people. How do you reconcile this choice with liberalism? How, for that matter, do you distinguish it from racism?
This is the point at which every right-thinking person in Britain scrambles for his Orwell. Did not the sage assert that “patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism,” and complain that “England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality”? He did. But he wrote this during the Second World War. There was no question that we had a duty to fight Hitler and, in so doing, to take sides. And the sides were organised along national lines. If you failed to support Britain, you were assisting the enemy. But today the people trying to kill us are British citizens. They are divided from most of those who live here by ideology, not nationality. To the extent that the invasion of Iraq motivated the terrorists, and patriotism made Britain’s participation in the invasion possible, it was patriotism that got us into this mess.
The allegiance that most enthusiasts ask us to demonstrate is a selective one. The U.K.’s rightwing press, owned by the great-grandson of a Nazi sympathiser, a pair of tax exiles and an Australian with American citizenship, is fiercely nationalistic when defending our institutions from Europe, but seeks to surrender the lot of us to the U.S. It loves the Cotswolds and hates Wales. It loves gaunt, aristocratic women and second homes, and hates oiks, Gypsies, project housing estates and caravan parks.
Two weeks ago, The Telegraph published a list of “10 core values of the British identity” whose adoption, it argued, would help to prevent another terrorist attack. These were not values we might choose to embrace, but “non-negotiable components of our identity.” Among them were “the sovereignty of the crown in parliament” (“the Lords, the Commons and the monarch constitute the supreme authority in the land”), “private property”, “the family”, “history” (“British children inherit … a stupendous series of national achievements”) and “the English-speaking world” (“the atrocities of September 11, 2001 were not simply an attack on a foreign nation; they were an attack on the Anglosphere”). These non-negotiable demands are not so different to those of the terrorists. Instead of an eternal caliphate, an eternal monarchy. Instead of an Islamic vision of history, the one born of the U.K.’s elite boarding school system. Instead of the Ummah, the Anglosphere.
If there is one thing that could make me hate this country, it is The Telegraph and its “non-negotiable components.” If there is one thing that could make me hate America, it was the sight of the crowds at the Republican convention standing up and shouting “USA, USA,” while Zell Miller informed them that “nothing makes this marine madder than someone calling American troops occupiers rather than liberators.” As usual, we are being asked to do the job of the terrorists, by making this country ugly on their behalf.
I do not hate Britain, and I am not ashamed of my nationality, but I have no idea why I should love this country more than any other. There are some things I like about it and some things I do not, and the same goes for everywhere else I have visited. To become a patriot is to lie to yourself, to tell yourself that whatever good you might perceive abroad, your own country is, on balance, better than the others. It is impossible to reconcile this with either the evidence of your own eyes or a belief in the equality of humankind. Patriotism of the kind Orwell demanded in 1940 is necessary only to confront the patriotism of other people: the Second World War, which demanded that the British close ranks, could not have happened if Hitler had not exploited the national allegiance of the Germans. The world will be a happier and safer place when we stop putting our own countries first. —
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004
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