History and Patriotism

(I've finished the copy-editing phase of 'the book'. But yesterday, just an hour or two later, being asked by a Swedish friend of Kajsa's what the book was about, I couldn't for the life of me remember. Dementia? Or simply a reaction to the months of work that went into it? - Now I need to write a press article to accompany the book's publication in the early summer. This is my first sketch.)

Why a ‘patriot’ would need to feel any kind of ‘pride’ in the history of his or her country is a mystery to me. In most cases – unless the aforesaid patriots are comparatively old, and played a significant part in the events and achievements they so admire – none of that history can be credited to them. Very few of them have had any choice over where they live and were brought up, even, unless they are expatriots or immigrants, in which case they might justifiably take some pride in where they have chosen to live; so long, that is, as it’s because of those nations’ virtues, and not simply because they were the only countries they were allowed in to, or to exploit. (The more ‘racist’ kind of ‘native’ patriot might baulk at that.)

As well as this, countries change, and people’s views of their virtues, too; so that – for example – pride in conquering other countries in the past – Rome, and of course the British Empire – might seem less of a virtue in less imperialistic times. If I could ever allow myself to take on this kind of historical ‘pride’, in my case it would more likely attach itself to Britain’s anti-imperialist traditions than to her acquisition of colonies all over the world. But I’d rather not take any credit for that, either; except for the part I played in my early life protesting against South African apartheid, the Kenyan ‘emergency’, and the like. And that didn’t amount to much. (Mainly marching and shouting.) So, pride in – and even, conversely,  shame towards – one’s national history is simply nonsensical. ‘It wasn’t me, guv. I wasn’t there at the time.’

In any case, your nation shouldn’t need to have had a ‘virtuous’ history for you to feel patriotic towards it. Some years ago when I was teaching at an American university (Rochester, NY), a student told me of a Republican neighbour of his who had asked him why he was studying British history. ‘America’, he went on, ‘has the best history in the world!’ Most of us would probably dispute that: either its placing of the US at the top of the moral (or whatever) hierarchy of nations; or its implied view that only the ‘best’ nations need to be studied by historians; or its assumption that America has a ‘history’ that is immutable; or of course on all these grounds. Most countries’ histories are ‘mixed’, changeable, and controversial. That’s what makes studying them so challenging, so enlightening and therefore useful, and also – for us scholars – such fun. 

Nor, surely, is a pride in your country’s past a necessary desideratum for ‘patriotism’. Swedish school students are taught to admire their country for its aspirations, not its history: which was, it has to be said, somewhat chequered before the Social Democrats got in. Britain is entirely different, on the political Right at least, in seeking to base its people’s patriotism on its past. That’s why earlier ‘heroes’ so often come up in ‘patriotic’ accounts of Britain: King Alfred, Drake, Churchill, Gladstone, Emily Pankhurst (at a pinch); and great victories – the Armada, World War I, World War II, the 1966 World Cup; as well as heroic failures (which we may be rather better at), like the Charge of the Light Brigade, Scott at the South Pole, and Dunkirk. Not all these heroes and their deeds have survived the critical attentions of later historians unscathed (viz. Churchill); but the fact that Brits need to have a past to be ‘proud’ of is the most telling thing.

Of course the impression we’re given in Britain of ‘unchanging’ traditions must be one of the reasons for the appeal of the ‘past’ as a focus of patriotism; dressed up as it is in the clothes of the past – literally in the cases of lords, judges and Eton schoolboys, including the top-hatted Jacob Rees-Mogg – in order to give an impression of immutability. Of course this is highly misleading. Clothes don’t ‘maketh the man’, or the woman; as neither do names and titles. The ‘Conservative Party’ for example hasn’t wanted to ‘conserve’ anything (except its members’ privileges) since Thatcher’s time; the Labour Party no longer represents horny-handed labour; ‘Public’ schools are no longer either public or the repository of the good old ‘noblesse oblige’ values that preceded capitalism, and might be said to justify them; football is no longer the ‘people’s game’ – and so on. But they give the impression of having endured for aeons, and to be worthy of ‘patriotic’ respect for that reason. 

But surely a genuine patriot would want to make his country better; into a ‘New Jerusalem’, rather than insisting on our allegiance to an old – and highly misleading – one: ‘our island story’, or ‘flag and queen’, as a newly-elected Conservative MP (Lia Nici) put it recently. She thought that anyone who wasn’t ‘proud’ of these two symbols ‘should move to another country they prefer’. Well, I’ve done that, albeit for other reasons too; and without my abandoning what I still regard as my fond and even patriotic feelings towards many aspects of my country of birth. (Shakespeare and cricket are the two things that still bind me to the place. Other patriots will choose other foci. But not, please, ‘Flag and Queen’.)

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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2 Responses to History and Patriotism

  1. Phil says:

    The “expatriot” line set my teeth on edge, I’m afraid – the argument’s good (I’ve had the same thought) but the spelling’s terrible! (An ex-patriot is somebody who’s no longer patriotic; a migrant is an expatriate.)

    The only kind of patriotiism I can feel is the feeling Kipling captures here – that our country has a long history, and one that’s many-layered and strange and ultimately unknowable, but that everything we see around us now has somehow grown out of it. Of course there’s nothing special about England in that respect, except for you, me and Kipling happening to be English; many other countries have stories that go back as far or further. Not the USA, of course; patriotic Americans must feel something similar in some ways but very different in others.

    Liked by 1 person

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