Terence Blacker: Proud of our absence of national pride

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The Independent Online

Over the next seven months or so, we shall become used to certain rather obvious questions being asked about our country and our nation. Where does Britain now stand in the world? Are we happy as a people, or sad? Where is modern Britishness to be found – in the good-humoured dignity of Helen Mirren, the leering irony of Ricky Gervais, or the tattooed integrity of David Beckham?

By tradition, the build-up to the Olympic Games sees a quickening, if brief, interest in the nation that will play host. For a few months, this country will be an object of low-level curiosity to the rest of the world.

The most basic question of all is likely to be the most divisive. Are we actually proud to be British? Reading the press, one would tend to doubt it. It is bad news about Britain which traditionally dominates the news pages. No article is more guaranteed to elicit an outraged response from readers than one which dares to suggest that these islands are really not such a terrible place to live.

Bravely, the think-tank Demos is proposing this week that, if we look beyond the whining media, a genuine British patriotism is to be found, but of a new and rather particular kind. In a poll of more than 2000 people, 79 per cent of those questioned agreed with the statement "I am proud to be British". Significantly, the figure rose to 83 per cent among Muslims.

It is the nature of the new patriotism which is most interesting. Asked what aspect of modern Britain instilled most pride in them, those in the survey voted Shakespeare top, followed by the National Trust and the armed forces. The monarchy limped home in seventh, below the NHS and just above the BBC, while Parliament, perhaps less surprisingly, was well down the field in 12th place. It turns out that modern British patriotism is not really about nationhood at all, and certainly not about the past. According to the poll, the most telling indications of national pride concern private conduct and character. Volunteering tops the list, followed by politeness and patience.

Politicians would be wise to steer clear of patriotic rabble-rousing in Olympic year, the Demos survey suggests. The very people who believed in the importance of contributing to the community were most vocal in their opposition to Cameron's Big Society. Not only was it a dishonest way of disguising cuts, but it belittled the act of giving, exploiting private generosity for political gain. As Andrew Mycock, an academic who specialises in British identity, put it, "Given the choice of things that make them proud, people will go back to their local communities."

Here is something of a welcome surprise. British national pride is the very antithesis of the massed uniformity presented by China three years ago. It is personal rather than national, expressed by everyday decency rather than flag-waving and grandiose gestures. Contrary to conventional wisdom, what truly elicits national pride is people's involvement in what happens in their own back yard.

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