Patriotism and History

If nations can be said to have ‘identities’, most of them have multiple ones. Usually these are based on ‘history’, or on what has been cherry-picked out of their histories by people wanting to make patriotic or counter-patriotic points. Often they change fundamentally over time. The dominant British image of the Germans in the mid-19th century, for example, was of a dreamy and impractical people; the contrast with today could hardly be greater. National self ‘identities’ – even at the same time – can vary according to a number of factors: race, class, gender, ideological preferences, and what you were taught at school. I’ll bet, for example, that the histories of Britain that Boris, Rees-Mogg and Sunak were taught at their Public schools differed from mine, a grammar school boy’s. (I once wrote to Eton College to enquire about its history syllabus, and received no reply, so I can’t be sure; but Rees Mogg’s dreadful The Victorians – ‘a clichéd, lazy history’ that ‘often reads like it was written by a baboon’: that’s the Daily Telegraph, no less – may give some idea. Or was Jacob not listening properly?) In their cases it seems to have given them a glorified view of Britain’s past, which they believe can be extended into the present now that she has broken free from the shackles of Brussels. It also, of course, lies behind their present ‘culture wars’ onslaught on the ‘woke’ history that they believe is designed to undermine Britons’ pride in their past, and hence their patriotism.

My recent Britain’s Contested History: Lessons for Patriots (Bloomsbury, 2022) is intended to put them right about all this; not by denigrating Britain’s past, in order to make it something to be ashamed of – slavery, imperialism, and all the rest – which tends to be the approach of the counter-patriots; but by showing how complex that past was – the causes, motives and situations behind events – and so how superficial and misleading judgements about it, either way, can be.

British imperialism – one of my historical specialities – is a key example; and my research into which was probably the main reason why my view of Britain’s entire history has been – as you might call it – ambivalent. But the ambivalence went back further than this. I don’t remember much of my school history, in the 1950s, except that it omitted wars, the Empire and ‘kings and queens’ entirely; as did the undergraduate courses I took at university. That’s not at all to say that all these courses were devoid of at least an implied ‘patriotism’; but it was a very different kind of patriotism from the one that our Old Etonian (and perhaps Wykhamist) rulers seem to have imbibed from their educations two or three decades later. In my school I remember learning about the growth of political freedom in Britain; of various forms of emancipation – Jews, nonconformists, Catholics, the working classes, women (finally), homosexuals, slaves, and then the colonies; of the extension of ‘liberalism’ (understood as it was then, not so much today); of heroic movements of protest; and of the gradual amelioration of life for everyone – called ‘social reform’ – culminating in the welfare state. Resistance to Fascism was another of the themes we were made aware of, and which provided the main context for our study of World War II.

These were the cherries we picked; movements and events that ran through the ‘narrative’ of Britain’s modern history as we were taught it, and hence our ‘national identity’ there and then. It was also the narrative I broadly kept to when I started teaching modern British history in my first university job; not without acknowledging the counter-narratives of wars, oppression, upper-class domination, racism, atrocity and all the other evils that today’s anti-patriots emphasize – indeed, I dwelled on them; but preferring to believe that the ‘progressive’ features of our history had as much claim to define our ‘national identity’ as any others. That obviously tied in with the climate of ‘hope’, which, as I suggested in my last post, was a characteristic of the 1950s; and is no longer.

Today it is presented as irretrievably ‘woke’ on the political Right, including by the new ‘National Conservatives’, who have suddenly intruded upon our national scene (inspired, as I understand it, by the American Right). The ‘NatCons’ clearly have a very different notion of British ‘national identity’ from the one I was taught – and then taught myself – all those years ago. My sort, according to one of them – the awful ‘30p Lee’ Anderson – should ‘emigrate’ if we don’t like their version of ‘patriotism’. – Is it too far-fetched to be a little worried by the prefixing of the term ‘Conservative’ by ‘National’, in this context? Much as was done with ‘Socialist’, in pre-war Germany?

About bernardporter2013

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

  1. AbsentMindedCriticofEmpire says:

    I’m heartened by your post having read a succession of depressing snippets from the National Conservatism conference over the past few days. The way I see it, the main danger is not of imminent fascism (an over-the-top accusation the NatCons actually lap up and use to discredit their opponents as paranoid) but of the mainstreaming of policies and values which do indeed share territory with the far right – by which I mean people like Vox in Spain and the Sweden Democrats (as I understand) in Sweden. Talk about Christianity, birth rates, Marxism and an assault on the West – this is all the stuff of right-wing populist filter bubbles, and dangerous to inhale.

    I think the history of “freedoms hard earned” you describe is important and crucially different from Whig history in its emphasis on struggle from below and lack of complacency about the present. It is here that I would voice one minor question over your choice of words. One of the features of the seventies and eighties was a reappraisal of which struggles mattered and which actors were central to them. For example, when I was at school it was possible to study the great reforming Liberal governments without needing to know anything about the fight for female suffrage. This all changed then, I think for the better, and to me a book like “Civilising Subjects” is a model of thoughtful enquiry, by no means dismissive of reformers but foregrounding their significant flaws. Hence my slight reservation about the words “counter-patriots” and “anti-patriots”. It would be ironic if modern-day critics of empire were to be assailed with the same charge of a lack of patriotism that their late C19 equivalents faced. I don’t think for a second that’s what you intend – you’re clearly targeting lack of nuance – but it might be misread. Either way, what is clear is that the NatCons will try to portray any critical histories of empire as unpatriotic; one of the great virtues of your “Critics of Empire” is that it establishes the importance of that critical tradition (limitations and all) within British history.


  2. John Evans says:

    Dear Bernard, Did you know Richard Shepherd at Brentwood? I knew him both at School and at UEA…he was a different person in each place. I am going as much to say thanks – silently – to his now departed father for starting me off on my Russian adventures….and for his firm but gentle encouragement at UEA….. You are right to be nervous of National Conservatism…..we are being punished for Brexit and now have to suffer the likes of Braverman and co who are barking, sinister and absurd all at once. Otherwise, take heart – all things might pass…..( which is different to saying ‘All things must pass”! John E



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