IT SEEMS THAT patriotism is the current must-have for politicians. It is not only the Conservatives who are pushing UK exceptionalism at every opportunity. The Leader of the Opposition has now embraced the Union Flag backdrop and this is annoying the left of the Labour Party considerably.
But maybe it shouldn’t. Perhaps it is time to rethink and to frame our concept of patriotism as an index of equality and commonality, eschewing the divisive outcomes of the co-option of the flag by some elements of the Right.
Those elements know how to push the buttons of attachment to place and country which are strongly felt by many working-class voters. That is one of the reasons for the crumbling of the ‘Red Wall’ in the 2019 general election. If people who have a strong loyalty to their town, region and country feel themselves sneered at by those who would govern them, they are less likely to feel themselves part of a progressive future or to return to Labour. Keir Starmer is realistic about this and though many of us might like to remind him that “our hearts can’t be held in a flag or a crown”, we need to combine around the challenge of creating a realistic national story about who we are, what we have been – warts and all – and where we want that identity to take us.
If we want justice, we should not flinch from owning the injustices of our history. If we want a better future for citizens who do not look exactly like us and who may have a very different relationship with Empire, colonialism and slavery, it is no good either pretending that our history did not happen or to permit ourselves to be divided into ‘woke snowflakes’ versus ‘gammons’. We are all citizens of a group of small nations, which is, albeit with some unease, still officially a ‘United Kingdom’. If the future of these component nations is is to develop what is best in their past, we will have to unite around a new narrative which honours difference whilst including all who have, and are, building and changing our country. In refusing the equally toxic extremes of accepting our past uncritically or of totally rejecting our national history, we can begin to address the hurts of the past and offer ownership of the future to as wide a range of people as possible.
If patriotism is not to be a scoundrelly refuge, it cannot be allowed to be kept as a reservation for those who have little sense of how diverse and unequal our population is in the early years of this century. The Gove and Rees-Mogg view of ‘our island story’ with its Imperial heroes and ‘bwana/sahib’ binaries has next to nothing to say to the children and grandchildren of the Windrush generation or the serfs of the gig economy. To build notions of patriotism around Boys Own Paper stereotypes offers no sustainable or inclusive pattern for love of place and country and the greater solidarity which could be achieved by exploring commonalities.
The concept of civic nationalism – embraced by Scotland – should be our model here, as should taking a good look at the financial morals of some of patriotism’s more strident evangelists.
Rigging the system to your own advantage, making donations to political parties to receive lucrative government contracts, profiting from the privatisation of public goods, offshoring your assets to avoid tax, these are not actions which serve the national interest: they are tools for enriching and advancing the already wealthy and powerful. This is the territory of spivs, not of patriots.
Are not corner shop proprietors, dinner ladies, bus drivers, street cleaners, NHS workers, teachers, shelf stackers, bin men and so many others who will never receive honours or have statues erected to proclaim their status, the true builders of our communities? Are they not patriots though they may not think of themselves in that light?
Who really serves the nation’s interest? Who will be recognised as makers of its future? We have to consider a new story. It is time to rescue patriotism from its abusers and ourselves from the consequent cringe factor. Only by doing this and following through on its implications, can we start to build a better post-Covid future. My grandparents’ generation would have called it the New Jerusalem.
© Jill Segger is Associate Director of Ekklesia, with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. She is the author of Words out of Silence, published by Ekklesia in May 2019. Jill is an active Quaker. Her columns are available here and her pre-2021 articles can be found here. You can follow jill on Twitter here.