Patriotism – for scoundrels

In which I criticise the misguided attempt by a reputable UK historian to get liberals interested in patriotism (and in which I get criticised in turn for my misuse of Dr Johnson’s ‘scoundrels’ quote).

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Castles made of sand fall in the sea, eventually
Photo: Jonathan Hordle/Rex Features / Lyric: Jimi Hendrix

British historian Timothy Garton Ash has written a thought-provoking newspaper column calling for liberals to reclaim patriotism from the poltical right. He means well – but it’s never going to happen.

What’s great about England (Britain/Great Britain/the UK/whatever) is that we’re not particularly patriotic. (We can’t even be bothered to sort out a proper name.) Perhaps it’s one of the few worthwhile legacies of empire, giving us the confidence not to care much about what the world thinks of us.

In any case, we liberals regard the nation state with justified suspicion. It’s a relatively recent artificial construct, convenient for the purpose of civic organisation and worth being defended, but not a cause of natural affection.

It’s natural to feel sentimentally attached to your immediate vicinity, but not to a nation. The UK happens to be an island nation which is clearly geographically defined (apart from Northern Ireland, with its southern land border) but other nations are more arbitrarily defined, and therefore even less likely to inspire patriotism. (For instance – I knew my O level History would come in handy one day – how much national pride in France should the people of Alsace Lorraine be expected to feel?)

Cry God for Boris, St George and England
Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

The English flag – despite the brave attempt of Boris Johnson (then elected mayor of London, now post-Brexit secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs) to rescue it – is tarnished by its association with the racist far right. (For my analysis of racism, see Colour me racist, blame my genes – racism explained as a redundant instinct.)

UK flag-waving isn’t much better. The best British value is our near-total indifference to national pride and flag-waving.

A good example of how patriotism is just not British is the 2014 legislation making schools promote secular ‘British values‘ when teaching spiritual, moral, social and cultural (SMSC) development. This resulted from concern about the teaching of conservative religious values in state-funded schools. (See Guardian report.)

A schools minister said: ‘We want every school to promote the basic British values of the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance for those of different faiths and beliefs’. A department for education document says: ‘Actively promoting the values means challenging opinions or behaviours in school that are contrary to fundamental British values.’

However, the values prescribed by the legislation are not exclusively ‘British’. They’re the western Enlightenment values that underpin modern liberal democracy, freedom and rule of law: the conditions that motivate people to migrate to many western countries – not just Britain – from more unstable, lawless and repressive regimes.

The question of patriotism – and Garton Ash’s call for liberals to rescue it – has presumably arisen because of the perceived need for segregated immigrant communities to be more ‘British’, and our consequent knicker-twisting about ‘what it means to be British‘. Let’s just admit it: we don’t know – and that’s a Good Thing.

The solution to segregation is not for immigrant communities to be made to somehow aquire the mysterious property of ‘Britishness’ (which we’d first have to define). It’s for those communities to stop self-segregating. Britishness is simply what happens naturally when you live here without segregating yourself.

There’s no need for liberals to reclaim patriotism, Timothy. We can manage quite nicely without it, thank you.

Let’s leave patriotism to the insecure and racist.
 

Postscript
The pedantic professor puts me right about the good doctor

Whilst trying to find research on faith-based segregation in the UK for my critique of Islam in the UK, ‘Fear of Islamaphobia‘, I was kindly helped by Professor Tariq Modood, a multiculturalism expert and prominent Muslim – and we briefly discussed the issue of the teaching of ‘British values’ (see above).

(Having scan-read some of Prof Modood’s excellent published writings, and exchanged several enlightening emails with him, I’d summarise his view on the teaching of British values as follows: although he disgrees with the current legislation requiring the promotion of secular British values when teaching SMSC development, he doesn’t reject the idea of an educational ethos grounded in national values, but calls for a new nationalism – a more inclusive ‘Britishness’ that welcomes religious and secular diversity. I hope I’ve got that right.)

In the context of our discussion about teaching British values, I invited the professor to read this article. His only comment was to nit-pickingly point out an alleged error in my article’s title. I was wrong, he said, to enlist Dr Samuel Johnson (who famously said that patriotism is the last resort of the scoundrel) in support of my anti-patriotism argument.

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Portrait: Joshua Reynolds/Tate Gallery

The professor rightly surmised that I’d wrongly assumed – as do most people – that the famous saying meant that Johnson thought of patriotism as a disreputable thing, fit only to be used as a last resort by scoundrels. But as not many people know, the professor continued, Johnson wrote elsewhere of patriotism as an admirable love of one’s country, and clearly thought of it as a virtue.

Apparently, the 1775 ‘scoundrels’ quote was reported by Johnson’s amanuensis James Boswell without any context; and it’s not known what Johnson meant by it. However, as he apparently held patriotism in high esteem, he presumably didn’t mean what most of us think he meant.

OK, its a fair cop, Prof (if lacking clear evidence). Thanks for the free lecture. However, I’m not going to change the title. The apparent misinterpretation of Johnson’s famous quote has now passed into common use, and in his many pronouncements on the subject he frequently commented on the devious misuse of patriotism, so I feel en-titled (geddit?) to refer to the quote in token support of my own belief – as independently argued above – that patriotism is a Bad Thing, and is indeed generally used by scoundrels for disreputable purposes.
 

Please feel free to comment.

 

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