I’ve never gone in much for British ‘patriotism’, which probably makes me a traitor, or as near as dammit, in the eyes of UKIP and Theresa May (‘if you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere’). I admire and love other countries, regard Britain as just as mixed morally as most others – every nation has its achievements and crimes; and in any case I can’t see the logic in feeling ‘pride’ in a country simply through the accident of having been born there, when one has not contributed to its supposed qualities oneself. (Naturalised citizens may be different, having – one assumes – chosen British citizenship in preference to others. That’s why immigrants may be better Brits.) By the same token I guess it’s just as illogical to feel shame for a country whose past deficiencies are none of your making, and which you may even, in your small way, have battled against.
But that’s what I’m feeling now. I’m embarrassed and ashamed to be British, for the first time ever. Of course there are episodes in past British history which I’m appalled by, many of which are brought up against us Brits almost every day of the week. But they haven’t affected me like the events of the last year or two. I’ve even been able to weather our imperial legacy, for example – my particular field of study – on the grounds that it was at least mixed, sometimes well-intentioned, and in any case the fault of global forces, like international capitalism, rather than of any particular national agenda. (See my books.) The bombing of Dresden is compensated by the Battle of Britain and Dunkirk. Britain can’t compete with the Continent or the East in the Arts, but it did have Shakespeare. It was generous to refugees in the nineteenth century, anti-militaristic (its people, that is), and a leader in the field of social reform. It also gave birth to cricket and football. There’s a lot there to be ‘proud’ of, if ‘pride’ were a sensible way of looking at it. But it’s not enough for me to cling on to, just now.
It’s Brexit and its aftermath, of course, which have provoked this. Brexit brought out a side of the British nation I never realised was there to this extent, and spewed on to the surface of politics a group of people whose claim to ‘patriotism’ was founded on an understanding of the ‘best’ qualities and characteristics of the nation and its history which are totally opposed to mine. I realise that Brits are supposed to have been peculiarly xenophobic in the nineteenth century, and ‘imperialistic’ well into the twentieth; but that goes right against my understanding of them, based on considerable research. (See my The Absent-Minded Imperialists, 2004; and a number of pieces I’ve published on British ‘xenophobia’, of which the most popular appeared as ‘The Victorians and Europe’ in History Today, vol.42, January 1992.) These certainly weren’t the major national ‘discourses’ in British society in modern times. (‘Freedom’, possibly misunderstood, was the main one.) But they seem to be the ones that have been taken as the foundation of their brand of ‘patriotism’ by our new Europhobe nationalists, and especially their (objectively) ridiculous leaders, like May, Farage and Johnson (B). This is either a vile slur on us as a nation; or a sad sign that we have declined appallingly over recent years. It’s this, I think, that logically justifies my anti-patriotism today. Maybe I can’t be held responsible for the Massacre at Amritsar; but I can – even though it’s only through omission – for the political situation in Britain today.
The last straws, for me, came from the mouths of the dreadful Theresa May, and the clownish Boris Johnson, over the last few weeks. Under May (ultimately), the Home Office has been expelling legitimate European residents of Britain at a great rate recently, cruelly, in most people’s opinion – children brought up in English families, scientific researchers, taxpaying workers, legal partners of Brits, and so on – but justified by May on the grounds that Britain needs to be seen as a ‘hostile environment’ for immigrants (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2017/sep/30/brussels-uk-deported-eu-citizens?CMP=share_btn_link). In other words, she wants us to be seen as unwelcoming! That goes right against our boasted traditions for centuries. Following on that, a TV documentary this evening will apparently show Foreign Secretary Boris in a Burmese temple, about to start reciting Kipling’s ‘The Road to Mandalay’, with all its racist nonsense; only to be stopped – thank God – by the British ambassador’s muttering ‘not appropriate, old chap’ in his ear before he can get going (https://www.theguardian.com/politics/video/2017/sep/30/boris-johnson-caught-on-camera-reciting-kipling-poem-in-burmese-temple-video?CMP=share_btn_link). But how could he ever have thought it was?
I really don’t want to be represented in the world by these idiots. They’re giving their compatriots a terrible reputation abroad. And it’s justified. Which is why I’m positively ashamed of being British; for the time being, at any rate. Do Americans feel the same?