“Do you love your country?” The smirking phantom of the pinko-hunting Senator Joe McCarthy hovered over Labour’s Keith Vaz as he uttered those words. Who knows if they were intended to menace or support the Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, who was being interrogated by the home affairs committee over the Edward Snowden leaks. But the phrase is creepy nonetheless, not least in the febrile atmosphere over the National Security Agency revelations. Newspapers that have wailed over Leveson as a mortal threat to press freedom have indulged Government threats over the leaks. There is talk of journalists being locked away: and indeed, if the state begins prosecuting those who hold power to account, Britons interested in protecting our freedoms must surely take to the streets.
But patriotism is often subverted and manipulated by those with wealth and power. Loving your country means being subservient to the Establishment, or so goes their logic. Make the ruling class and the country interchangeable concepts, then those challenging the powerful can simply be swept aside as near-treasonous fifth columnists. To engage in a debate with those who question the ruling elite means legitimising their criticisms, treating them as reasonable criticisms, however wrong they may be. Far easier to discredit them instead, as those who despise the nation and whose motives are to do it harm.
The “Do you love your country” card is probably most notoriously used at times of war. It is patriotic to send young men and women to foreign countries to be slaughtered and maimed, but it is unpatriotic to bring them home to safety. It is used to strip civil liberties away, too, in the name of national security. Stripping away freedoms that our ancestors fought for becomes patriotic; defending our hard-won liberties becomes unpatriotic. It is used to oppress minorities. The rights of gay Britons becomes an insult to British “family values”. Immigrants may have helped build this country, but they are posed as a threat to national identity.
Questioning patriotism is a long-standing technique to crush dissent, not least from the left. Margaret Thatcher smeared the miners and their allies as “the enemy within” who, she claimed, were more of a threat than “the enemy without”. The Daily Mail recently, and infamously, smeared the socialist Ralph Miliband as “the man who hated Britain”. The absurdity of a newspaper that backed Hitler’s genocidal regime smearing a Jewish immigrant who fought the Nazis has been widely ridiculed. But actually the entire episode underlined how the very concept of patriotism is like a Rorschach inkblot test, where we all look at “the nation” and see what we want to see: we love aspects, and dislike, or even loathe, other features of it.
When defending the Mail’s smear that Miliband despised his country, the paper’s deputy editor reeled off a list of “great British institutions” that the left-wing academic had criticised: the likes of the Royal Family, the Church, the military and “our great newspapers” (don’t all choke at once). But of course, it is possible to reel off “great British institutions” that those on the right froth about: like the NHS (once described by the Tory Nigel Lawson as “the closest the English have to a religion”), the BBC, the public sector, and trade unions (once championed by Winston Churchill as “pillars of our British Society”).
Our history inspires pride and regret in different people, too. Some might champion monarchs and governments of centuries gone by, where I would want to honour courageous, often faceless Brits who stood up to power and injustice: like the Chartists, the suffragettes or anti-racist activists who were ridiculed, attacked and persecuted in their time. Some may relish the traditions of Empire, out of jingoism or ignorance or a combination of both, while I would regard it as a shameful and murderous stain on our nation’s past.
I love living in London partly because of its diversity, a feature of modern British life that others despise. Some prefer the tranquility of the open English countryside; others find it dull and claustrophobic, opting for the chaotic excitement of urban life instead. There are those of us who spend Sundays in Church, while others regard all incarnations of religion as a toxic blight on humanity. Some, like myself, hold that free-market capitalism is the engine of a profoundly unjust distribution of wealth and power; others devoutly believe that it is the catalyst for growth, prosperity and progress.
Not a single living Brit can honestly claim to love everything about something as complex and contradictory as Britain. But whatever Britain is, it certainly is not synonymous with those who rule it. And those who attempt to trash those holding power to account as somehow un-British need to be faced down. We owe it our British ancestors who, in the teeth of opposition of other privileged and often tyrannical Brits, built this democracy, at such cost and with such sacrifice.
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