Are we becoming less patriotic? This is a question recently raised by the Telegraph in both its news and its comment columns. It comes in the wake of a report by the British Social Attitudes Survey. Apparently, the number of us claiming to be “very proud” of our nationality slipped from 43 per cent to 35 per cent between 2003 and 2013. On the other hand 82 per cent of us still feel generally proud of being British – a figure unchanged across the decade.
What stands out from the data, however, for better or for worse, is a generational difference. The percentage of the 75+ age group who feel “very proud” to be British rose from 60 per cent to 66 per cent. Amongst 18 to 19 year-olds it fell from 32 per cent to 20 per cent.
Given Dr Johnson’s maxim that, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”, it could be argued that things are taking a turn for the better; not only here but even more so, it seems, in Germany and France.
It should be recalled, however, that The Communist Manifesto is equally dismissive of patriotism. Its authors, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, state that, “The working men have no country” and “the supremacy of the proletariat will cause them [national differences] to vanish still faster.”
Across the globe, however, things look different. In ‘emerging’ nations – South Africa, India, China and the Philippines, in particular – patriotism is very strong. It, also, remains vibrant in the USA where a left wing president, Barack Obama, readily invokes it:
“We, the People, recognize that we have responsibilities as well as rights; that our destinies are bound together; that a freedom which only asks what’s in it for me, a freedom without a commitment to others, a freedom without love or charity or duty or patriotism, is unworthy of our founding ideals, and those who died in their defence”.
Marx, Engels, Johnson and Obama make strange bedfellows but they had one thing in common. All four reached their conclusions on the basis of knowing something about the past.
Sadly, survey after survey in the UK reveal that the younger generation know much less about the past than their grandparents. Prior to its “Battlefield Britain Series”, for example, the BBC issued a press release headed: “Alexander the Great won the Battle of Hastings… Gandalf defeated the Spanish Armada… the Battle of Britain was a turning point in the 100 Years War… the Romans never invaded Britain…” It went on to explain that a survey it had commissioned on landmark events in British history revealed “the older generation are far more clued up on their history then the supposedly sharper 16 to 44 age group”.
Among 16-34-year-olds a third could not spot the victor in the Battle of Hastings from these five options: (a) Napoleon (b) Wellington (c) Alexander the Great (d) William the Conqueror (e) Don’t know
Half of this younger generation did not know that the Battle of Britain happened during World War II and almost half could not connect Sir Francis Drake to the battle against the Spanish Armada, naming, instead, Gandalf, Horatio Hornblower or Christopher Columbus. 71 per cent of over-65s knew that the famous battle marked every year on 12th July by the Orangemen in Northern Ireland is the Battle of the Boyne. In contrast, this was known by only 18 per cent of 16-24-year-olds. 15 per cent of these youngsters thought the Orangemen were celebrating the victory at Helms Deep, the fictional battle in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.
A few weeks ago, on this 950th anniversary year of the Battle of Hastings, English Heritage published a survey of knowledge about 1066. Only 39 per cent were able to name William as the victor at Hasting and only 25 per cent could identify Harold as his opponent.
Ignorance of the events that define our national identity is a weak foundation on which to build a view for or against patriotism. Even more concerning is the politically correct sludge that has been filling the knowledge gap.
The recent Mail on Sunday revelation about a GCSE history exam topic on “Migration to Britain” is illustrative. According to a key book on the exam reading list, “There were Africans in Britain before the English came.” This references a group of 500 North African soldiers who were stationed for a time on Hadrian’s Wall. To claim these were pre-English inhabitants is as misleading as claiming the presence of Brits in the Roman army in Hungary makes them the pre-Magyar inhabitants of that country.
If we wish to redefine national identity then the fiction of early African settlement in Britain works well. It would have been better, however, for pupils to learn about the “out of Africa” palaeontology theory for all humans than to so distort history.
Pro- or anti-patriotism, let’s revive historical knowledge in the classroom and allow opinions to be built on facts rather than on fictions.