Image credit:

The rhetoric from the Conservative party around asylum seekers, immigration, and British Values is becoming increasingly sinister and alarming.

Performative patriotism is being used as a distraction from life-threatening and life-shortening poverty and inequality. People who can no longer afford life’s essentials are expected to use the heat of their anger at ‘small boats’ to keep them warm.

But what exactly are these British Values, so stridently proclaimed by people who seem to have lost all sense of decency and humanity? A belief in the rule of law, perhaps? Not any more. This government does not now feel obliged to comply with any law which hinders their xenophobic and racist policies. A belief in the rights and freedoms of the individual? Hardly – the government is cracking down on protests and preparing to spy upon the bank accounts of millions of people, simply because they receive state benefits. A sense of fair play? One glance at Britain’s history would tell us that fairness has never been a priority for Britain’s ruling elite.

And of course, aggressive colonialism has not been reserved for distant lands. Scotland, Ireland, and Wales have suffered under it, to varying degrees. Even Northern England was not spared from the oppression of what became the ruling elite,  a North-South divide in power and resources which continues to this day.

In reality, perhaps there never has been such a thing as British Values. Perhaps they have been a story which the English ruling class told itself in order to feel better about the exploitation of their compatriots and the peoples of the Empire. It is certainly apparent that much of the United Kingdom does not share the same values – voting patterns illustrate this. There are huge swathes of Britain where the values are not C/conservative, but more progressive, egalitarian, communal and internationalist than our current government would ever countenance or reflect.

Indeed, the whole idea of patriotism can be troubling. The idea that we must love or take pride in our country is all too often associated with military domination, or a sense of superiority which can easily slip into racism or xenophobia. Yes, Britain has achieved some extraordinary things, but there is another side to our history which, looked at honestly, can only inspire regret and shame. The flag-waving Rule Britannia style of patriotism is, thankfully, not attractive to a great many people.

Recently however, I came across the purest and most poignant expression of English patriotism I have ever seen, and which I think is the one kind of patriotism which we actually need today. Just two sentences, it was a quote from a Sheffield factory worker. In 1902 he was donating 2s 6d to a National Trust appeal to acquire Brandlehow, an estate on the west shore of Derwentwater, for the nation. He said: “All my life I have longed to see the Lakes. I shall never see them now, but I should like to help keep them for others.”

Brandlehow is just over 140 miles from Sheffield, a three hour drive today. To think of this man, toiling in a Sheffield factory, longing to see the Lakes all his life, but resigned to the fact that he never would, was intensely moving. And then, the fact that he was not bitter about this, but had the generosity of spirit to donate some of his hard-earned money to preserve that landscape, which he only knew in his imagination, so that others could enjoy it in the future. What altruism.

Imagine if our politicians had one fraction of the unselfish and peaceful love for our country which that Sheffield man expressed so purely, and demonstrated through his sacrifice? Imagine if they thought, not of their own future prosperity, but the future welfare of others? Our country would be a happier, more secure and harmonious place in which to live. Our natural world would be protected and flourishing, not polluted and dying. All children would have secure homes and enough to eat. And those who seek safety would find a compassionate welcome, instead of being used as ammunition in a grotesque and inhumane brand of politics.


© Bernadette Meaden has written about political, religious and social issues for some years, and is strongly influenced by Christian Socialism, liberation theology and the Catholic Worker movement. She is an Ekklesia associate and regular contributor. Her latest book is Illness, Disability and Caring: A Bible study for individuals and groups (DLT, 2020).  Her latest articles can be found here. Past columns (up to 2020) are archived here. You can follow Bernadette on Twitter: @BernaMeaden