Terence Blacker: Something wholesome to feel patriotic about

Love of country can be expressed in the butcher's, the greengrocer's, the kitchen
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The Independent Online

For most serious-minded English people, there is something distinctly dodgy about the idea of patriotism. The dyed-in-the-wool patriot tends, we assume, to put his country not only before his friends but also before thought, perhaps even conscience. However mighty it may be, a country that insists that its children pledge allegiance to the flag every day seems politically callow - at least, to a nation that is shy about such things.

In these islands, patriotism has unattractive associations: football hooliganism, bowler-hatted Orangemen marching to the sound of a muffled drum, twerpish right-wingers arguing that St George's Day should be celebrated with more noise and passion.

Politicians have done little to help, and love of country has often become grubby and unconvincing when advocated for political ends. Robert Maxwell, the fat fraud, once ran an "I'm Backing Britain" campaign while ripping off his pensioners. So, in 1968, did Harold Wilson, soon after he had been obliged to devalue the pound. A song, written by the hit-makers Tony Hatch and Jackie Trent and sung by Bruce Forsyth, merely added to the national embarrassment. "I'm backing Britain/ Yes, I'm backing Britain/ We're all backing Britain," sang Brucie. "The feeling is growing/ So let's keep it going/ The good times are blowing our way." At that moment, the Sixties officially stopped swinging.

But now, rather cleverly, a politician has returned to the theme of patriotism, giving it a gently contemporary twist. Food patriotism is what matters in 2007, says David Cameron; love of country can be expressed in the butcher's shop, at the greengrocer's, in the kitchen.

As a call to arms, this idea works on several levels. We are obsessed as never before by the buying and the cooking of food; we fret about what the growing of it does to the planet and the eating of it does to our bodies. The proposal that we can be patriotic every time we go shopping is not startlingly original, but few politicians have made it before.

Cameron has noticed that, over the past five years, the countryside has taken on a new political importance. Under past governments, no connection was made between the image of England, its much-loved landscape, and practical decisions made about the land. When the Conservatives were in power, farmers were encouraged to put productivity before everything else - habitat, hedgerows, wildlife, the way their land looked. Under Labour, there has been a general lack of interest in, or understanding of, the countryside. A tidy-minded, municipal approach has become evident: the Government's rural vision has large agribusinesses selling to large supermarkets, with smaller farmers and local businesses on the sidelines, there to keep vaguely alive the traditional idea of the countryside.

The food patriot, by buying products grown and produced locally, restores the connection between the decisions made in our daily lives and the way the countryside looks. As a result, there is just a chance that smaller farms, supported by environmental subsidies and a fair price from local shops and markets, will produce an alternative to over-cultivation by factory farming or theme-park prettification by government quangos.

Consumers, it turns out, can contribute to diversity and the landscape, and are beginning to do so. In response, supermarkets, like some evil giant in a fairy-tale, pretend to be smaller and cosier than they are - "Every little counts", as one of their more cynical slogans has it - but, for all the Union Jacks scattered about the stores, and the deployment of words like "local", "neighbourhood", and "home-grown", they only promote what makes them most money.

So Danish bacon, marginally cheaper than its British equivalents because our standards of animal welfare are more scrupulous, is piled high and marketed hard. When there are complaints from environmental groups, the government line has been that the market must decide.

Almost by accident, ethical shopping has pointed up the fact that there is different kind of patriotism than that of the bulldog, supremacist kind. The fact that we treat farm animals better than they do elsewhere should be a source of pride, rather than an excuse for higher prices. The way our landscape has evolved out of a tension between what it produces and how we want it to look is not an accident but an expression of national character.

On the whole, we have a scruffy, shambolic desire to do the right thing without being bossed around by large businesses or government. In a non-flag-waving and, one might think, not particularly Conservative way, that is something to feel patriotic about. The feeling is growing, as Bruce used to sing, so let's keep it going.

terblacker@aol.com

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