Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: You can't force patriotism on a people

After spending millions, Brown is giving up trying to fix a national identity

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A row has broken out between Trevor Phillips and New Labour after he accused his party of "institutional racism" that keeps down anyone who might become our Barack Obama. I can't get too excited about this contrived squabble. Far more interesting is what Phillips had to say about the President-elect just nine months ago.

In an article in Prospect magazine, the head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission offered up an intelligent, sharp and – I imagine – now regretted critique as the primaries were under way. He confessed his irritation with Obama as "a man whose African ancestors never endured transatlantic slavery [and who] has become the standard-bearer for the black presence in the US", adding that blacks who had prospered against the odds "don't buy Obamania" and furthermore that "Obama may be helping to postpone post-racial America".

The black American conservative Shelby Steele was approvingly quoted, a writer who argues that only white Americans believe that Obama as President proves that America has left its past behind and is the great nation it wants to believe it is. These diviners got it so wrong, as did Maya Angelou (who adamantly supported Hillary Clinton), Jesse Jackson, for whom Obama was a sell-out, and many other naysayers. This election made that nation surge with pride again, across the races, ages, states and political allegiances. Even Niall Ferguson, toyboy of the neocon Republicans, has jumped ship and joined the joyous. The country came out of the dark years, came right by turning just left enough.

My American friends can't stop smiling, still don't quite believe it has happened. They talk about redemption, a distorted and broken nation now starting to heal, joining the rest of the world, finding itself, proud America without the imperial hubris of Bush and his gang now in hiding from the gaze of public contempt. Many of these mates are African-American. Hannah, a primary school teacher, put it like this: "This is who we are, who we want to be. My mum always told us about Kennedy and King, when there was hope – soon shot down. We don't always live up to our founding ideals, but when we do, we can truly love our nation and the world celebrates with us." And so national identity is renewed, its candle rekindled.

We too in this country have had these moments of spontaneous, near-revivalist national joy when the most reluctant of nationalists (including me) feel partisan and proud. It happened when the beautiful Lewis Hamilton became Formula One racing champion, when our winning Olympic team came back, representing – in sport at least – our nation of many colours. Again when Gordon Brown rose magnificently to the challenges of the global economic crisis (didn't his serious, manly presence make Sarkozy look like a protesting muppet?). Even when an Indian was awarded the Booker Prize by fair-minded Britain – can you imagine India giving its top prize to a British writer writing about poverty in London?

Most invigorating for the national soul has been the engaging struggle and ultimate victory against the 42 days pre-charge detention proposed by the Government. Lest we forget, it was a child of brown-skinned immigrants, Shami Chakrabarti, who led the charge. Go see the exhibition at the British Library on liberty, the historical periods when the citizens of this small, plucky island fought and died for basic rights and freedoms. Your eyes will well up. Mine did, as they did at yesterday's remembrance ceremonies.

So what does this prove? That genuine identification with the nation is not in the gift of anyone, nor should it be. Nobody can force you to love your country, just as nobody can force you to love another human being. Children are turned in some societies into automaton flag-wavers, but that is just training. Love of country suddenly blooms, blossoms and breaks out from the heart, sometimes in rebellion against the head. Even in the US, there is strict ritual observance of national loyalism, and then the real thing we have just witnessed.

There have been political projects on both sides of the Atlantic to plant conveniently modified national chauvinisms designed to suit political purpose, usually when things are falling apart. Samuel Johnson would never know how right he was when he warned that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Under the Republicans, US patriotism was forced – in both senses – just as it was under Margaret Thatcher.

In the two nations, when new conservatism prevailed (much more ruthless than the old, patrician, conscientious conservatism of Disraeli and Heath), economic libertarianism divided people economically and emotionally, the self was bloated, and the bonds between people severed. Society itself was declared obsolete. And so up went the jingoistic cries. Just as the Falklands War buoyed up Thatcher's brand of super-managed nationalism, the 9/11 attacks on the US on bolstered Bush's manufactured unity, allowing him to do what he wanted abroad and at home.

New Labour paid obsequious homage to Thatcherism. They carried on with her economic ideology, drifted to the right on social policies and even borrowed her badgering nationalism. Gordon Brown was particularly obsessed with the last of these, and (supported by Trevor Phillips) sought ceaselessly to tame unruly Britons and make them believe in their country. This crusade is highly suspect, says the writer Frederic Raphael: "[It] is either an exercise in condescension (cf Lenin humbly consulting peasants before confiscating their lands) ... or a category mistake ... Since when can values be inserted as moral uplift into the body politic like prosthetic implants?"

Suddenly, it is over. After spending millions on public consultations (attended by embarrassingly few citizens), this government is giving up trying to fix patriotism. Thank Heaven for these unexpected mercies. Left alone, we will embrace the spirit of our nation, when it feels right, without instruction. We will also be free to withhold that kiss if the state disappoints, an ancient right that, as recent events show, is held dear in both the US and the UK.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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