If Rishi Sunak wins the Tory leadership election next month, he has resolved to categorise as ‘extremists’ people who ‘vilify Britain’, and hence render them subject (one presumes) to existing counter-terrorist laws and procedures. (See https://www.standard.co.uk/news/politics/britain-extremists-prevent-radicalisation-rishi-sunak-tory-leadership-conservative-b1016364.html.) ‘Putin: hang on, we’re catching up’.
But might this not be a little tricky? For a start it would depend on how low the bar of ‘vilification’ is set. Another Tory, Lia Rici, MP for Grimsby, suggests that ‘pride’ in the Flag and the Queen should be the determining factors. If people don’t share these, she writes, they should ‘move to a country they prefer’. (See https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/robert-jenrick-union-flag-lia-nici-tweet-b1819586.html.)
Well, that could cover me, living as I do in a country I currently prefer. I feel no particular ‘pride’ either in Her Maj (though I quite like her), or in the somewhat garish ‘Union Flag’. I also pretty much hate the present British government, and the condition to which it has brought my country of birth, leading me to ‘vilify’ it frequently – in this blog, for example. Does that count? Am I under surveillance by MI5 and GCHQ already? (It would be almost flattering to think so.)
All this so-called ‘patriotism’ is of course directed to the old Tory soaks who comprise the majority of the constituency that both the contenders in this extraordinary election are having to appeal to; as are their summoning up of the ghost of the sainted Margaret, and of the not-yet buried corpse of Boris, who remains their darling despite his cruel betrayal a month ago. It’s all of a part too with the highly illiberal policies of Priti Patel at the Home Office, bent on abolishing the European Human Rights Convention as it presently applies to Britain, especially with regard to refugees seeking asylum in Britain (the Rwanda wheeze), and the right of effective popular protest against governments. That may seem ironic, in view of what many – especially historians – would see as the centrality of human rights, and indeed of protest, in most Britons’ view of themselves and of their national identity (at least at home) in the quite recent past; which makes Patel, Sunak and Rici less essentially ‘patriotic’ than they may think, and the ‘vilifiers’ more so.
For it is arguable that the true ‘patriot’ is the person who wants to make his country better, rather than to glorify it as it is or as it has been in the past. This is one of the themes of my new book, Britain’s Contested History: Lessons for Patriots, which seems to have got under the skin of the Spectator’s reviewer in its current issue. (See https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/these-polemics-against-brexit-both-fall-into-the-same-trap.) I wouldn’t mind; but he entirely misunderstands its central thesis; which is not that Britons generally are more obsessed with history than other peoples, but that those few who are – usually on the Brexit side – should have a more sophisticated understanding of their history than they appear to do presently.
OK, so this may seem to be purely ‘academic’. But it could have serious practical repercussions in the not-very-distant future, when inflation, energy prices, food shortages, and the true effects of Brexit lead to a degree of civil unrest that Britain hasn’t seen since the final days of Margaret Thatcher, the security services are given the green light to come down hard on protesters and ‘vilifiers’, and those of us who live abroad will find Priti, Rishi and Lia lying in wait for us if we ever dare to return.
(Let’s not make too much of the fact that those three – and Farage, remember – all have foreign names. It’s unlikely to be for that reason that they don’t really understand the more liberal forms of ‘Britishness’. ‘Identity’ is not something in the blood. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that, sounding foreign, and therefore anathema to Tory racists, they feel they need to express these more extreme forms of ‘patriotism’, in order to win over the old soaks.)