Patriot Games

I’ve never been one for generalising about nations and their ‘characters’, and indeed my many travels – and actually living and working in three countries I wasn’t born in – have confirmed to me the range of ‘identities’ that exists in any country. For example, my Absent-Minded Imperialists demonstrated, I hope, that Britain was never the ‘imperialist’ society she was often taken to be in the 19th and 20th centuries, and then afterwards by ‘post-colonial’ literary theorists; with other national ‘discourses’ existing side-by-side with those associated with the empire, and often cancelling the latter out. (‘Anti-imperialism’, for example, has an equal claim to be a British characteristic, and indeed a British invention.) In much the same way I’ve never accepted the common ‘Okker’ view of Australians, or the gun-toting view of Americans, or the Swedes’ idealised view of themselves – I’ll leave the French and Germans aside for now, for fear of upsetting them – on the grounds, not so much that they’re wrong, but that they describe only partial and often misleading aspects of these countries. Usually the characteristics that are emphasized are chosen simply because they seem exotic to the observing party, depending on their (the observers’) perceptions of themselves at the time. (There’s a chapter on this, Victorian Britons’ attitudes to Continental Europeans, in my forthcoming Britain Before Brexit.) They’re also influenced by the visibility of certain characteristics. Britain’s being surrounded by water has always been an obvious one, leading to the assumption that Britons must be insular. But there are others too.

Living in Sweden I’ve come to appreciate some of these. Old prejudices remain here, of course, based on all that historical baggage that Britain drags around behind her as an ex-empire, and on the Swedes’ insistence on referring to the country as ‘Storbritannien’, carrying as it does the mistaken inference that the ‘stor’ bit indicates ‘great’ in the sense of ‘terrific’, which of course it never did. (It just meant Britain as distinct from England. When the Victorians wanted to include the empire, they used the word ‘Greater’.) But in addition to this, foreigners’ impressions of Britain today are mainly based on the words, actions and even appearances of her leading statesmen and women; which – as even the latters’ supporters might ruefully acknowledge – are not likely to add to their country’s dignity. Boris Johnson is ridiculed almost as much here as he is in Britain, with Rees-Mogg, Farage and Gove not far behind. They also play to another foreign perception, not entirely unwarranted, that Britain is still basically feudal and dominated by stunted public schoolboys. By contrast with Sweden’s and the EU’s far more statespersonlike political leaders, these men are presented – or, rather, present themselves – as characters out of Monty Python  or Fawlty Towers, which of course the Swedes, and I imagine most other Europeans, are intimately familiar with; together with those other ‘typically British’ cultural productions, Midsomer Murders  and Death in Paradise – also currently all over Swedish TV. Cricket is another source of amusement on the Continent, although of course it’s not intended as such. (I get quite offended by this.) This may be important. We may not agree with Macron, Merkel and Lövgren (the Swedish PM), but we don’t see them as laughing-stocks. Britain’s own leaders are. And it’s they who just now are the public face  of Britain, to her huge detriment when it comes to her ‘position in the world’.

I have to say that, even as an internationalist, I feel very depressed at this situation. I’m far from being a British (or English) ‘patriot’; but I’ve always admired certain features and trends in British society, which are never unmixed and unsullied, and are rarely peculiar  to Britain, but seem admirable to me. Many of them were advertised in Danny Boyle’s wonderful opening ceremony for the 2012 London Olympics: the one that was objected to as too ‘multicultural’ and even ‘socialist’ by Tory MPs. One of these features is – or rather was – Britain’s tolerant attitude towards foreign refugees the past. (That’s in Britain Before Brexit, too.) Others were her political liberalism, her cosmopolitanism, the social welfareism embraced both by her socialists and her more traditional Tories in the last century, the strong anti-imperial strain in her politics referred to already, and of course cricket. To all this we might add her open acknowledgement of the mistakes that she – or her leaders – had made in the past, represented by those statues of slave traders and such, which should still be allowed to stand, in my opinion, albeit helpfully labelled, to remind citizens that their history has not always been an unsullied one.

But none of this, of course, is shared by Britain’s present-day leaders and so-called ‘patriots’. And it’s their sort of ‘patriotism’ that is giving Britain such a bad name abroad; that, together with stories of EU citizens now living in England (not so much in Scotland) being ill-treated by ‘patriots’ of this ilk. I feel deeply ashamed at this: not personally, but by association. And it’s this that sometimes makes me want to surrender my British citizenship, and fall back on my Swedish one alone. (But did you know that I’d have to pay £372 to do that: https://www.gov.uk/renounce-british-nationality? £372 to give back something! Jesus wept!)

But then I recall my conviction that you can’t characterise nations by their leaders alone, even if they were educated at Eton; or by their newspapers; or by their nativist mobs. There’s still some good left in the old country, hidden away. And in any case, I’d miss the cricket. So I’m staying a ‘dual’.

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8 Responses to Patriot Games

  1. I’ve never been one for generalising about nations and their ‘characters’, and indeed my many travels – and actually living and working in three countries I wasn’t born in – have confirmed to me the range of ‘identities’ that exists in any country.
    What about the famed militarism of nineteenth century Prussia, which was deeply embedded in its social institutions, culture and personality?

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  2. I guess I will have to read your work more, but I am a bit confused. Britain, as a society, had much in the way of anti-imperialist personality traits in the 18th through mid-20th Century is a proposition I can accept. However, its actions, as a national government, were certainly imperialist, whether through the East India Trade Company, its slave based colonies in the West Indies in the early 19th Century, or its direct actions taken in China in the Opium Wars or against India in 1857 and thereafter. There was much imperialist thought, as well, whether expressed by Kipling or Rhodes in the early 20th Century–and then there was that messy Boer War, where white racists fought for the spoils of Southern Africa. Am I misunderstanding something here, or may we say Britain was still an imperial power in the 18th through mid 20th Century (I stop at the mid-20th Century because the 1983 Falklands War is complicated in my view, since most of Argentinians had been removed long before that war and it was largely British person occupied)–notwithstanding its own complications within its culture?

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    • We need to distinguish between Britain as a nation, represented by its foreign policies, and Britain as a society. My The Absent-Minded Imperialists demonstrated – I think – that imperialism did not percolate very deeply into British society, whose ‘dominant discourses’ could be very different. There’s a shorter version of this argument in my more recent ‘British Imperial’.

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      • I think your distinction is definitely true. However, if I was in a British colony in the 19th Century and into the early 20th Century, it may not give me much comfort. It is sort of the way the US Empire works. We see how those who our foreign policies have deeply hurt still love America’s ideals, but they are very much opposed to the fact of American imperialism and promotion of fascism.

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  3. John Field says:

    I find your careful distinctions suitable to a re-vision of the historical record and look forward especially to that chapter on late-Victorian attitudes toward European countries. I think my own old work aligns with your perspectives on these issues; it would inform any rewrite I might attempt. The self-described pro-Boers were at the crux of growing anti-imperialism, I believe.

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  4. Tony says:

    But weren’t some militant anti-imperialists also racists such as E.D. Morel, or moral colonialists such as Sydney Olivier who believed British ‘values’ should be ‘educated’ into the native populations to ‘prepare’ them for self-government at some indeterminate time, not forgetting there were plenty of outright imperialists in the Labour Party also.

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