Wednesday 15 April 2015

Patriotic Games

I remember a TV interview with writer Alan Bennett in which he discussed his 1983 film about the Cambridge spy, Guy Burgess, (An Englishman Abroad), In it, he said this: 

"For the Englishman, to be sceptical about his inheritance is part of that inheritance."  

This was, I think, in a context less of wanting to exonerate Burgess's treason than to explain it: viz that Burgess was ironically too English not to betray his country. Perhaps the kernel of truth I recognised in it then explains why I remember the comment 30 years on. I recalled it when I heard David Cameron describe himself as "a patriot" (pronounced with a short a - why do I say paytriot?) at the launch of the Conservative party manifesto for the 2015 UK General Election.  I reflected that such a sentiment would be entirely normal, indeed probably expected, in an American and perhaps a French election; but that in Britain, it will have undoubtedly made some people wince.  I have no doubt that it was partly aimed at those flirting with voting for UKIP as the only truly patriotic party in England; but I think it was genuine.  Rather like his neither-hot-nor-cold Christian faith and his promise that we will have seen the back of him by 2020, the wonder is not the fact that this is how he feels, but rather that he doesn't mind saying so.

For it is a truth universally acknowledged that the English (I do not include the Scots, Welsh or Northern Irish in this) are embarrassed by overt expressions of patriotism.  We regard it as in slightly poor taste, somehow, to appear to extol the virtues of our own country, perhaps for fear it suggest they might in some way exceed those of any other. We don't mind patriotic feelings; we don't even mind singing Jerusalem along with the Last Night of the Proms, but we'd rather not sing it in church, thank you very much.  Harmless flag-waving is fine for festive national occasions, especially those associated with the monarchy; but most us wouldn't dream of flying a Union Jack or a flag of St George in front of our houses.  Those who do are dismissed as ignorant, nationalistic bigots.  How different from the USA and Scotland (and even, I've noticed, Sweden).  The English are allowed to be patriotic if they wish, as long as they keep it to themselves.

Yet having a love for one's country seems to be a natural enough instinct.  I can love my country while remaining realistic about it - indeed critical of it (rather as I am with my Church, and even certain, well, persons) and I would never claim that it is better than another.  I just have a special feeling for it. I think it is beautiful. Love is like that.

Over the past century, Britain has been in the front line of two world wars, one of which robbed it of half a generation of its young men, the second of which devastated its cities and left it bankrupt. It has lost a vast empire, and almost its entire heavy industrial base.  It has lost its former confidence, self-esteem and religious moorings, and many of the institutions which bound it communally.  It is divided within itself and uncertain about its place in the family of nations. It does not know who it wants to govern it. 

And yet. This morning (15 April 2015) the IMF announced that Britain now has the second largest economy in Europe, and the fifth largest in the world. Geographically, it is the size of one US state (Nevada). As we might say these days: "How is that even possible?"