words: Patriotism

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VARIOUS adjectives, not all of them complimentary, were applied to Michael Portillo after his "don't mess with Britain" speech at Blackpool last week. Pro-European Tories said he was "shameless", while the Daily Telegraph's political editor wrote of his "unashamedly nationalist stance" (there are nuances here). Labour followers called him xenophobic. Meanwhile his biographer Michael Gove has described the young Portillo as having been robustly patriotic.

You choose your word according to your view of the man. Patriotism good, nationalism bad. I forget who wisely said that patriotism was a lively sense of collective responsibility, whereas nationalism was "a silly cock crowing on its own dunghill". Patris was the Greek for "of one's fathers", and suggested everything that was honourable. Natio was the Latin for a tribe, probably a tiresome one, or barbarians who might have been making life difficult for Roman patriots.

The two words haven't always been true to their origins. Patriot could be a dirty word in the 18th century. Johnson used it in the same sense as many people might use nationalist, or perhaps separatist, today. His famous remark about patriotism being the last refuge of a scoundrel has therefore been misunderstood, particularly by those whose world view prevents them from believing in ethnic boundaries, and who love having the old man on their side. Boswell makes it clear: "He did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest." But back to Mr Portillo. Whatever his motives, he should have remembered that this month marks the 80th anniversary of the martyrdom of nurse Edith Cavell, who said on the eve of her execution that patriotism was not enough: "I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."

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