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, a soft news item to fill up the pages of their Sunday newspapers or to close their TV news programmes.
The only way of dealing with this degree of interest is to see it as a sort of national marketing opportunity. In the past Australia has chosen to play the bonzer-bloke card. China preferred to emphasise its scale and super-human efficiency. We have yet to decide on our pitch to the world, although the Olympic symbol we have chosen and our early promotional efforts have suggested that a sort of shambolic, good-hearted multiculturalism is to be the way forward.
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.
It may be a tough sell when it comes to the Olympics, but there is something refreshing about this small-scale, local brand of patriotism.
Let us leave some sods unturned
Among the more diverting spectacles in our culture are the occasional spasms of collective anxiety about manners. Now and then, the air of crisis is heightened by a row over so-called "bad language". It is an area of great sensitivity for some. When one panellist on Strictly Come Dancing called another "a silly little sod", there was such an attack of vapours in middle England that more than 600 people rang the BBC to protest.
There was more outrage when a judge sensibly decreed that a man fined for swearing at police officers was innocent. Journalists – famous for their horror of swearing, of course – have tutted and scolded, with many a reference to the "lout" and his "tirade of abuse". Even the dear old peeress who rather elegantly – though accidentally, she later said – raised two fingers to her fellow peer Lord King as he droned on about her age has been taken to task.
Of all the troubles around us, this controversy has got to be the silliest. The dancing show's little sod is incomparably ruder himself. The lout was not swearing at the police but was using the f-word as an intensifier: there is an obvious difference of intent. Lady Trumpington should be celebrated for refusing to be patronised.Reuse content