SINCE Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, patriotism has all of a sudden become respectable again. We have seen ordinary Ukrainian people rally in immense collective effort and bravery. And while they have many reasons to fight, a simple love of their country clearly shows through. Many on the liberal-left have long denigrated patriotism, seeing it as self-deluding self praise. While some of us have always embraced the notion and regard our loyalty to country as fundamental and ongoing. Who is right? And if patriotism is a virtue, does it only have a place in times off extreme stress, such as war?
Oscar Wilde considered it to be ‘the virtue of the vicious’. Bertrand Russell saw it as ‘the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons’. George Bernard Shaw went even further, claiming it was a ‘pernicious, psychopathic form of idiocy’. To an orthodox Marxist, patriotism is simply a sin, for as Marx wrote: ‘The working class has no country’.
Certainly, patriotism might not always be rational, but we are not creatures of pure reason. Attempts to turn us into such have a pretty dreadful history. Whether rational or not, it’s a force that can bind us together, sustain us during crises and help us find the collective will to overcome difficulties.
The more aggressive strains of nationalism, with their atavistic ideas of blood and race, will sometimes try to claim patriotism as their own, co-opting national symbols and identity to their cause. But they mustn’t be allowed to do so.
Patriotism can ignore skin colour or where your grandparents came from. It recognises that those who identify with the community are the community. It is not about putting down others, or the idea that we might be God’s special anointed ones. Instead, it can encourage respect for other cultures and peoples. Loving your own home makes it easier to understand the love others feel for theirs and to recognise that people in countries we see as far away feel the same emotional pulls as we do.
I know that my granddaughters are the world’s most adorable little girls, but I understand that other grandparents disagree. This doesn’t make me dislike those grandparents. We share something, it brings us closer. My patriotism helps me understand and appreciate the patriotism of people from other countries.
Beyond our country, we are part of wider humanity, sharing its qualities, faults and heritage. Much of being human transcends borders. But sometimes, nation trumps species, and identifying as a human is not enough. If we are threatened by an external force at a national level, it will be by humans who hold little fellow-feeling towards other stripes of human. Just ask the Ukrainians.
Patriotism doesn’t need to whitewash a country’s faults. Our history has much that’s shameful, though not necessarily more than others of comparable size and strength. Name me a country you think hasn’t bullied or exploited others when given the opportunity and I’ll bet you either don’t know its history very well, or it didn’t have the might or ability to do so. We should acknowledge evil actions in our country’s history, but remember that almost all of humanity has a violent and selfish past.
What stands out is not the commonplace of wickedness, but what was good, the actions and ideas that enabled humanity to move forward and improve its lot. Without ignoring the achievements of others, we can be proud of Britain’s role in human progress. Not because we are a superior race: we aren’t. We are made from the same clay as everyone else. And much of our history has been determined by factors for which we can take no credit. But still, Britain’s contribution to the modern world has been immense.
In science and industry, in spreading ideas such as the rule of law, democracy, or the worth of the individual, or in culture and language, we have done much. And that is still true, despite the many hypocrisies and cruelties that went with our treatment of our former colonial subjects.
As individuals, we might have played no part in our country’s achievements; but the individuals who did were nurtured and nourished in our communities, as were their ideas and institutions. Their culture and traditions are ours and we are entitled to lay claim to them.
Many in the woke movement essentially despise this country and see patriotism as no more than a means to cover up past evils. The best you could say of their knowledge of history is that it’s hopelessly one-sided and very limited. A harsher interpretation of their views is that they are looking for any excuse to tear our way of life to pieces. They should be resisted.
I don’t feel any need to wrap myself in a Union Jack or have God Save the Queen as my ringtone. But I have no embarrassment in saying that ours is a country, whatever its faults, that is more than worth defending. And I’m happy to call myself a patriot.