Write in the Observer this weekend, UK Culture Secretary Lucy Powell says Labor is “the party of patriotism”.
Given the largely derogatory attitudes of Labour’s predominantly middle-class support base towards Britain – its history, its people and no doubt its future – Powell’s assertion is best eaten with a bucket of salt. . Indeed, before and even during the Platinum Jubilee celebrations, we saw an outpouring of snobbery and sniffing from the Labor-leaning intelligent ensemble towards everything from ‘fascist’ Union flags festooning Regent Street until the Independent described as the “vomiting patriotism” of the Jubilee. A former Labor MP of Corbynite vintage even called the ‘Jubilee Marching Band’ ‘disgusting’.
But then, we shouldn’t be surprised by the arrogance of the right and liberal left towards the Jubilee. Nor should we be surprised at the disdain these people have for patriotism in general. After all, it’s been that way for at least a century.
To understand the nature and politics of patriotism, it is worth revisiting the work of George Orwell, the writer who most explored what he called “the devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life”. , who one believes to be the best in the world, but does not wish to impose on others” (as he said in Notes on Nationalism). And it is worth looking in particular at the The Lion and the Unicorn.
Written very quickly at the height of the Battle of Britain in 1940 – when “highly civilized human beings were flying above me, trying to kill me” – The Lion and the Unicorn is a passionate defense not only of the need to fight for one’s country, but also of the fundamental decency of British customs, institutions and values (he uses Britain and England interchangeably).
It is by no means Panglossian. Orwell was nothing if not an extremely honest writer. He writes scathingly about the British people’s propensity for “hypocrisy”, especially when it comes to the crimes of the Empire. He denounces the misery in which many live and the persistence of “slums that taint civilization”. And, of course, he attacks the enormous social inequalities that mark the nation: “England is the most classified country under the Sun. It is a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by old people and fools…’
Yet, he argues, “it’s a family. She has her private language and her common memories, and at the approach of an enemy she closes her ranks. A family with the bad members under control – that’s perhaps the closest thing to describing England in one sentence.
There are sections of The Lion and the Unicorn that attack the ruling class’s diminishing ability to govern, as evidenced by its “infallible instinct” to make the wrong decisions, especially when it comes to Hitler’s Germany. But Orwell arguably reserves much of his anger at two segments of the English middle class – the imperialist Colonel Blimp “with his bull neck and small brain” and, above all, the “leftist” intellectual, “with his domed forehead and stalk-shaped necks.
In the 1930s, airships, for Orwell, were a declining force. Yet members of the ‘left-wing intelligentsia’, often blood relatives of the Blimps, continued to fashion themselves against the ‘vantage’, ‘flag’ and all the ‘Rule Britannia’ tricks’ of their rivals. They were “simple anti-airships”, raging against the most extreme expressions of imperialism. Yet they also saw patriotism itself as the preserve of jingoist blimps, just as today’s left-wing cultural elites see it as the preserve of the mythical, immigrant-haters. Daily mail readers. Love of one’s own country was, as it often still is, anathema to the left. Consequently, middle-class and left-wing intellectuals always seem much more in love with other nations than with their own, Orwell argues:
‘[They] take their cuisine from Paris and their opinions from Moscow. In the general patriotism of the country, they form a sort of island of dissident thought. England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles, there is always the feeling that there is something slightly shameful about being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snicker in all English institutions, from horse racing to tallow puddings. It’s a strange fact, but it’s undeniable that almost any English intellectual would be more ashamed to stand to attention during “God Save the King” than to steal a poor box.
Tallow puddings may no longer be a popular staple. And horse racing has lost a lot of its appeal, the Grand National aside. But the same sneering animosity among our leftist cultural elites persists today towards other aspects and figures of national life, from Brexit and ITV talent shows to the forever demonized football fan.
This turn against his own nation, argues Orwell, was a terrible mistake at the time. This undermined morale during the war against the Nazis. And, more durably, it led left-wing intellectuals to “detach themselves from the common culture of the country”.
Because, as Orwell rightly saw, there was much about Britain’s indigenous culture and way of life that was valuable and worth fighting for. He notes that many British hobbies and activities, from gardening to going to pubs, are characterized by their “privacy”. That is, they are informal rather than state-organized, “community…not official”. For Orwell, the common culture of the country, dear to those who live there, is imbued with this feeling of freedom on a daily basis. “We still believe in the freedom of the individual, almost like in the 19th century,” he writes. “But it has nothing to do with economic freedom, the right to exploit others for profit. It’s the freedom to have a house of your own, to do what you want with your free time, to choose your own entertainment instead of having it chosen from above. Indeed, people in England, especially in the big cities, he writes, “are not Puritans.” Quite the contrary: “They are gamblers, they drink as much beer as their salary allows, they indulge in ribald jokes and use probably the most foul language in the world.
Along with a belief in everyday freedom, Orwell notes other commonalities that unite Britain as a nation. He points to the “widespread belief in ‘the law’ as something above the state and above the individual”. And he argues that “concepts such as justice, freedom, and objective truth are always believed.” British society may rarely live up to its ideals, but that does not diminish the esteem in which they are held. “They may be illusions, but they are very powerful illusions,” writes Orwell. “Belief in them influences conduct, national life is different because of them.”
And then there is democracy. “The electoral system, for example, is an almost open fraud. In a dozen obvious ways, it is manipulated in the interests of the wealthy class. But until a profound change occurs in the public’s mind, it cannot become completely corrupt. You don’t get to the voting booth to find men with guns telling you which way to vote, or miscounted votes, or outright bribery.
This is typical of The Lion and the Unicorn. Everything valuable about British culture, from its democratic bent to the popular attachment to freedom, is recognized as imperfectly realized, sometimes harshly. But that doesn’t mean that the values and ideals that inform our common culture should be thrown overboard, like lies or veils for some “systemic” bias. Rather, we should seek to achieve them better.
Indeed, patriotic devotion “to a particular place and a particular way of life” is not the same as blindly affirming it as the best of all possible worlds. “Nothing ever stops,” writes Orwell in the conclusion of The Lion and the Unicorn. “We must enrich our heritage or lose it, we must grow or diminish, we must advance or retreat. I believe in England and I believe we will go forward.
This is why patriotism is not inherently right-wing or the preserve of rabid conservatives. As Orwell says, “Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism. It is actually the opposite of conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is constantly changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same.
Old Etonian Orwell may have struggled with his own class-bound snobbery – he admits in The Wigan Pier Route to be repulsed by the dirt and the smell of working-class life. But he possessed what too many of our cultural and political elites now lack – a faith in the British people. According to Orwell, they needed more political power if the nation was to prosper. This nation “only below the surface, in factories and newspaper offices, in planes and submarines, must take charge of its own destiny”, he writes in The Lion and the Unicorn.
Perhaps the members of the Labor Party today have truly decided, in the words of Orwell, to “use [people’s] patriotism instead of simply insulting it”. Yet, given its leaders’ aversion to Brexit and their previous attempts to overturn the referendum, they clearly have little faith in people’s ability to govern themselves – “to take their own destiny into their own hands.” “. And a patriotism stripped of all faith and trust in your fellow citizens is not patriotism at all.
Tim Black is a dope journalist.