What is patriotism in Britain today?

Carl Packman reviews Demos’s new report on what patriotism means in Britain today.

A recent report (pdf) by Demos, led by Max Wind-Cowie and Thomas Gregory, has surely set the terms for a new debate on what it is to be patriotic, counter to the narrative of nationalist symbols of the right and the “progressive patriotism” of the left; Carl Packman reviews it exclusively for Left Foot Forward

Questions raised in the report include whether or not the British are indeed patriotic or not, and whether this has any relevance to their lives. Furthermore, such notions as what inspires pride, and what the significance of shame is, within national belonging, also provide key milestones for situating what patriotism really is.

As the sample in the Demos focus group testified, many didn’t feel like what mattered to their sense of patriotism was “fetishized” symbols, for example, of the Empire or the monarchy – despite in large part being proud of them.

But also, interestingly, many were sceptical of specifically political values being attached to their sense of patriotism.

What patriotism is thought to be

To its credit, the report claims some rather counter-intuitive definitions of patriotism. It pinpoints the close relationship patriotism has with pride, and also of shame, but endeavours to explore how connected personal pride and civic pride are to patriotism.

Furthermore, rather than talk of patriotism as some epiphenomenon born out of symbolic events and arbitrary geographies, here it is seen more as an apolitical, aphilosophical connection between how people feel about themselves, their families and their communities.

This not only challenges notions of jingoistic nationalism, xenophobia and “little Englander” mentalities in this country, but the appeal by some to the Left who have aimed at appropriating patriotic themes to progressive terminology.

One may think of Gordon Brown’s own attempts at progressive patriotism, and indeed this is referenced in the report. But I was reminded of Billy Bragg’s book length search for how, in his own words, “a rehabilitation of patriotism [can] help the progressive cause?”

Bragg, in his book The Progressive Patriot, notes:

we need to challenge the Right’s monopoly on patriotism – not by proclaiming our blind loyalty to our country, right or wrong, but by developing a narrative which explains how we all came to be here together in this place”

But while there is something noble about reclaiming patriotism from those who exploit it to secure a certain end, like the British National Party do, it only serves to achieve another type of nationalism predicated on assumed conditions.

If patriotism is conditional, it is probably less about place and more about appealing to a set of ideas. But, as the report notes, patriotism is neither totemistic nor values-based; it is a felt emotional response to the personal, local and communitarian.

Bragg sees patriotism this way, the BNP see it that way, but if this felt emotional response is so subjective why not exclusively focus on that element of it.

That’s not to say we should not challenge such views, but we shouldn’t be challenging the BNP, say, on terms of its supposed patriotism, but on the grounds of its terrible obsession with ethnicity and whether groupings can rightly, and historically, call themselves British on racial terms (as well as its outright racialism).

The progressive and sentimental patriotism falls into the same trap of not engaging with the specifically existential, personal patriotism in the form of connection to place.

How patriotism is seen by the public

Most people polled by Demos, who were avowedly patriotic, attested to an unconditional pride, which was predisposed to the identification of elements which we can be proud of as a nation, and reinforces that pride rather than it being a predication for it.

I would want to challenge that view myself. Unconditional pride almost seems chained to a myth of England or Britain as a starting base. In my opinion, we should accept that we experience pride and shame only in those things we have proximity to, whether physically or emotionally.

We can be ashamed in, say, the Iraq war or on the grounds that it was fought with taxpayers money, or done in the name of the country which I find on my passport – but if patriotism is a local, existential and apolitical expression, is it necessarily relevant to this conversation?

Should whether we see right or wrong being done not appeal to our sense of right and wrong, and not necessarily to our sense of locality, and how we see ourselves participating in this locality?

Indeed, if this judgement is wrong, where should pride stop? European pride? Global pride? What is the cut-off point for what the authors refer to as a more “particularist” vision of pride?

A sense of nationalism that feels a oneness with others in the same country, through shared values or a shared vision for what is nationally beneficial, whether ethnic or civic, must accept that the nation to which they refer is “imagined” in the sense that Benedict Anderson used it in his influential book on the matter Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism.

But patriotism, against its previous definitions, usually a mask for personal ideology, seems to trade off of this problematic by not, strictly speaking, appealing to a set of arbitrary national borders.

Patriotism is not needlessly reflective or fetishistic, nor predicated alone on a set of conditions, but is pro-active and experiential.

What this means in the real world

Undeniably, the symbols that the report’s authors have tried to differentiate from patriotism proper are very important to the electorate and British citizens in general. But what the report found was the public, by and large, have little truck with politicians appealing to pride – it’s embarrassing and it misses the point.

Patriotism, according to the authors, is connected to the lived experience, and institutions should do less trying to capture, boil down and re-sell that lived experience, and concentrate on ensuring society is geared towards harnessing positive experiences from conflict, alongside citizens themselves.

See also:

The English Democrats welcome ‘ex’ BNP members into the fold – Alex Hern, October 28th 2011

Griffin’s friends the KKK come to Britain – Alex Hern, October 19th 2011

Chuka Umunna: My vision for One Nation Labour – Chuka Umunna, May 12th 2011

Hannan accused of “dishonourable” behaviour as Tory MEPs lurch right – Shamik Das, November 23rd 2010

Reflections on climate politics across the English-speaking world – Joss Garman, April 26th 2010

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