Patriotic Shame

Of course the stuff that comes up for me on Facebook is the sort of stuff I’m likely to agree with. I imagine Facebook’s algorithm wizards see to that.  I’ve not dared to stray far from their selections, and go into Tory or pro-Brexit sites, for fear that they might intensify my current depression to a dangerous level. Perhaps I should? After all, as a historian I was diligent in trying to understand all sides of past arguments: imperialists as well as the anti-imperialists I wrote my first book about, 1900s anti-feminists as well as suffragists, Fascists as well as democrats, neo-Classical architects as well as neo-Gothic. (That’s a reference to my obscure Battle of the Styles.) But in any case – to revert to the present – one can’t avoid right-wing and populist comments entirely, copied as they are into ‘my’ Facebook posts to show what we liberals are up against: comments from the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Nadine Dorries and John Redwood (how on earth did he get his Fellowship of All Souls?), and stark headlines reproduced from the Mail and the Express: ‘Traitors’, ‘Scroungers’, ‘Fake asylum seekers’, ‘Lefty Lawyers’, ‘Marxists’ (still?!), and so on.

On ‘my’ side of the debate – if you can call it that: usually it’s just name-calling – one of the most common feelings expressed is one of patriotic shame: that the nation the commentators used to be so proud of, and still profess their fondness for, has fallen so low. The ‘nation’ referred to here is England, with the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish parts of the ‘Union’ usually exempted from the general charge. Much-touted examples of England’s ‘fall’ are Boris’s lies, of course, and his flouting of so many of Britain’s constitutional conventions; upcoming laws directed against the ancient right of public protest; and of course Priti Patel’s Ruanda scheme for asylum seekers, although it’s slightly awkward to object to that without attracting suspicions of racism. (Why is Ruanda so bad?)

Another sign of the ‘fall’ is the level of hatred and sheer nastiness that is said to pervade England’s political discourse just now, in a country that had used to pride itself on being able to conduct its politics in a fairly ‘civilised’ way. That comes out in the language expressed in the social media; or is it simply the form of the social media – which of course is new – that provokes this, or has revealed deep-lying hatreds that were always there? In fact that’s part of the problem: that we can’t really tell how ‘low’ the country has fallen before we know how low it was before Facebook, Twitter and the rest gave voice to it in recent years. And of course those who speak out in these ways in the social media aren’t necessarily ‘typical’ of the nation – any of our nations – as a whole.

As neither is another supposed index of Britain’s ‘decline’: the tabloid press, which either reflects (as it claims) or manufactures this nastiness. In view of its ownership, by right-wing capitalists for whom ‘liberty of the press’ seems to mean simply freedom for anyone with enough millions to buy it up – by all other criteria the British press comes out at around 38th in international indexes of press freedom – I’d go for both options. The British popular press is both a mirror and a provoker of much that is felt to be wrong about Britain today. Any decent country would have either effective laws to regulate its ‘press barons’, or a public morality that would nullify its worst aspects, such as its descent into ‘propaganda’. I’m not sure which of these factors operates in Sweden; but its press is immeasurably superior to ours.

And Britain’s situation has indubitably got ‘worse’; particularly since Rupert Murdoch arrived on the scene. Apologists for Murdoch, like I remember Michael Gove was – Gove was once one of Murdoch’s employees, I believe – in giving evidence to the first Leveson Committee hearings in 2011-12 (the second, which would have focussed on ownership, was stopped by the Conservative government before it got off the ground), vigorously denied this; arguing that the press had always been as it is now, and so always must be: a typical Conservative response to any proposal, in almost any area, to improve things. As an avid reader in the course of my researches of the British press over nearly 200 years, I know this to be untrue. Yes, there are glaring examples you can cite (as Gove did) of journalistic malpractice and propagandizing over those 200 years: ‘Hurrah for the Blackshirts’, and so on; but a few precedents – or even more than a few – don’t necessarily indicate a joined-up tradition in any field of life; and certainly not as far as the British press was concerned, whose content from my reading of it was nearly always fuller, fairer and more intelligent than its equivalents are at the present day. This applied equally to the weekly newspapers designed to be read by the working classes, which were often edited by socialists. Here is one area of British life where things have definitely got worse – or, if you like, more right-wing – in recent years. As one commentator from across the Atlantic has observed (I’ve quoted him before: Britain now is ‘nastier’ and ‘more spiteful’ as a result.

Foreigners are aware of this, and of the harm that this behaviour – and certain policy decisions, including of course Brexit but also Britain’s flouting of international laws, plus the generally farcical nature of ‘Boris’ and his government as it is presented to them – are doing to Britain’s reputation abroad; which used to be fairly high, but no longer is. This is a crucial factor behind the ‘patriotic shame’ felt in particular by many Britons living abroad (like me), and who still cling on to what I now feel may be a somewhat roseate image of how the Old Country used to be. I’m thinking here of its ‘liberalism’, in ways that transcend the sterile field of ‘free commercial exchange’; ‘progressive’ reforms in penal, racial and gender policy – not yet completed but on the way there, which gave us all hope; social democracy as a solution to the old ‘capitalist/communist’ dualism; a ‘welfare state’ much admired and even copied abroad, before the tigers of the ‘market’ got their claws into it; rising living standards; school reforms replacing ‘private’ by ‘comprehensive’ education, hopefully; a position in the world no longer dependent on the ill-fated Empire, but resting now on the international comradeship that its successor, the ‘multiracial’ Commonwealth, was thought to represent; a terrific tradition of humour of course (‘Don’t mention the War’); and, as mentioned already, a ‘civilised’ public discourse, so that all these improvements – if that’s what they were – could be made gradually and gently, drawing the great majority of the country along with them, instead of alienating great sections of it, with the results we see today. Is this rose-tinted? It’s how I experienced things in the much-traduced 1960s and ’70s; the last period, as I see it, of progressive hope. Hurl as many of the less likeable features of the period you like at me – sexism, homophobia, late colonial atrocities, the Murdoch press, strikes and all the rest (and there are many more like these) – and it won’t alter my view of the period as one of hope, at least. Thatcher – or the forces behind her – destroyed most of that.

They also pushed to the front of the stage another kind of Britain, and of Britishness: the mean and nasty one that is represented by the tabloid press, and is supposed to attract our ‘patriotism’ today. It’s important to bear in mind that this is not the only sort on offer; and that you can still be patriotic, albeit shame-facedly, while rejecting it. (That is, if patriotism is important to you.)

About bernardporter2013

Retired academic, author, historian.
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