Dear Lucy and Isobel,
“One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognises the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilisation it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it.”
George Orwell wrote these words in 1940 when patriotism was very much to the fore. It was the time of the Blitz when, as he wryly observed, “highly civilized human beings are flying overhead, trying to kill me.” The outcome of the war was then unknown. The German war machine was inexorably marching through Europe and it looked as though nothing would stop it. Yet it was stopped. It was, as Churchill claimed, our finest hour. Patriotism at a time of war is to be expected; national identity crystallizes under serious threat. People come together and perceived differences and petty disputes are forgotten in the need to defend one’s country. But in peace as well as war is patriotism the positive force as Orwell claimed? That is what I want to explore in this essay. Its relevance – the reason why it is on my mind – lies in the momentous events at home and abroad that took place in the past year. Here in the UK a majority of voters voted to leave the European Union in an ill-starred referendum that the Prime Minister David Cameron called.Across the Atlantic many Americans voted in a narcissistic real estate magnate and TV celebrity to be their President, someone who is manifestly unfit for office and they did so because the slogan, Make America Great Again resonated strongly with them. Elsewhere in Europe populist parties of both the right and left have gained support by beating the patriotic drum. Patriotism doesn’t seem such a force for good.
By the time you read this, these events will be history. Their importance may well have diminished for if history teaches us anything, it is that what seems significant at the time is not necessarily deemed significant in the years to come. Yet these events seem to me to be momentous. They have forced a realignment of the political spectrum in the UK while, in the USA, concerns about the links between Trump’s team and Russia suggest the President may not be long in office. In both countries the electorate is divided and politicians distrusted. Democracy itself is creaking.
We want our country back
Last year Mary and I saw a play at the Dorfman Theatre in London called My Country. A work in progress. It was specifically constructed as a response to the 23rd June referendum that resulted in the vote for the UK to leave the European Union. In the theatre programme the director, Rufus Norris, described the play’s genesis and its aims:
In the days following the Brexit vote a team from the National Theatre of Great Britain spoke to the people nationwide, aged 9 to 97, to hear their views on the country we call home. In a series of deeply personal interviews, they heard opinions that were honest, emotional, funny, and sometimes extreme. These real testimonials are interwoven with speeches from party leaders of the time in this new play by Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate, and the director Rufus Norris.
The Dorfmann theatre is a small and intimate space. We sat in the front row of the circle peering down at an open stage on which there were seven chairs each with a ballot box on it. A woman entered and rearranged the chairs. We learned that her name is Britney and that she represented Britannia. One by one other characters arrived, each one representing a region of the UK. Each had a distinctive accent and during the play the actors spoke the actual words of the people Rufus Norris and his team had interviewed.We were here to bear witness, it seemed, to listen to the views of ordinary people about what homemeant to them, what they thought about the referendum and why they voted the way they did. In essence, the project was about patriotism and what that meant to a snapshot of ordinary men and women in Britain today. For various reasons the project didn’t work as a play. It was mostly static and although the chairs were moved around and there was some interplay between the actors, we were essentially listening to them speaking other peoples’ words. Because a single actor spoke the words of six or so people from the region they represented, it was difficult to pick up the differences between them; we couldn’t always tell when one person ended and another began. Even so we heard the voices of many people who felt marginalised and left behind. They had voted to leave the European Union in the referendum because they had lost the sense of who they were, their sense of home, and blamed that on the influx of more and more immigrants from the EU, distorting their culture and way of life.
I came away from the theatre feeling sad. Over centuries Britain has benefited from its proximity to continental Europe. Wave after wave of people have migrated here, some as invaders like the Danes, the Vikings and the Normans, and some seeking freedom from persecution like the Huguenots and the Jews, and many like your great grandparents looking for a better life. Over the centuries we have fought both against and with other European countries, the Hundred Years War against France, for example, the terrible attrition of the 1stWorld War, and the defeat of fascism by the Allied Powers in the 2nd. The EU was set up with the laudable aim of preventing more intra-European wars. It was reasoned that countries that are linked by trade, cultural exchange and the free movement of people are less likely to fight each other. That proved to be correct with the exception of the Balkan wars in the early 1990s when the former Yugoslavia broke up. Yet, despite this, and despite the pleasure many obtain from freely travelling through Europe, the majority of those who voted in the referendum voted to leave the European Union.
Was patriotism the driving force behind the vote to leave the EU? The phrase that carried particular resonance for many leavers was, “We want our country back.” It implies an idea of a country, a nation. It is ourcountry, the one we know and love, the one we identify with, the one we cherish. Not, by implication, the country that the UK has become. Many people, including my sister Evelyn, believed that the constant flow of EU members to the UK was placing too big a burden on the country. We are a small, crowded country, Evelyn said, and we simply can’t take more and more people. If we remain in the EU, we are committed to the free movement of EU nationals and that means we have no control over the numbers of EU nationals who come to the UK whether to study, to work, to join relatives or, as many seemed to believe though without any evidence, to live off our benefit system. There has certainly been a significant increase in net EU migration in the last few years. In 2010 the figure amounted to around 70,000. In 2016 it was around 190,000. There has been an influx of Poles, Romanians, Czech, Latvians and others, often young people from poor countries who are prepared to work at low paid jobs to the benefit of private businesses like seasonal fruit-picking and the building trade, and in public services such as the NHS and the social care sector. Shops sprang up selling Polish and other Eastern European foods. Cafes and restaurants are frequently staffed by non-English Europeans. Economic analyses show that immigrants are on the whole financially beneficial to the host country. Yet many people did not see it that way, or more likely did not know or did not credit it if they did. What they saw were foreigners taking British jobs. That most British workers were not prepared to work for such low wages only increased resentment. Both the last Prime Minister and the current one, who served as Home Secretary in the last administration, promised to reduce the numbers of EU migrants to “tens of thousands.” The promise was undelivered and in truth undeliverable whilst we remain in the EU. Prior to the referendum David Cameron had gone to Brussels in an attempt to negotiate a special deal on EU migration that would reduce the numbers coming to the UK. He was firmly rebuffed. This strengthened the hand of those who wanted Britain to leave the EU. Who are these people in Brussels who impose EU immigrants upon us? What do they know of the conditions that people here are currently living under? Why add to the strain by taking in more and more people? Surely we will be better off if we controlled the numbers ourselves?
We are currently living through a time when harsh austerity measures have been imposed upon the country for almost a decade. This is largely as a consequence of the 2008 financial crash that almost brought Western capitalism to a juddering halt, the effects of which are still being felt. Politicians of all parties are unpopular. There is a perceived disjunction between what ‘ordinary people’ are experiencing and the views of the so-called ‘Westminster elite.’ Under conditions of increasing hardship and of bitterness at the failures and sometimes venality of politicians, it is all too easy to scapegoat the EU project, attacking the ‘faceless bureaucrats’ who are on ‘massive salaries,’ and to spin false stories about stupid EU regulations [the ‘bent bananas’ story, for example, that was deliberately invented by Boris Johnson, now our Foreign Secretary]. From the Daily Mail and other right-wing media there has been a constant drip of anti-EU propaganda allied to the promotion of a patriotic story in which the UK, England in particular, would fly the flag again and take back controlof our borders, another resonant phrase of the campaign, significantly reducing EU immigration if not bringing it to a halt. England would be its own nation again.
Patriotism: a yearning for a lost past?
It is noteworthy that in the United States and the United Kingdom, patriotic rhetoric looks back in time. Thus, Make America great againand We want our country back. These rallying cries contain an evocation of a lost ideal, nostalgia for the Englandor America that we imagine there used to be. “When you come back from a foreign country,” Orwell wrote, “you have immediately the sensation of breathing a different air.” You can feel the sense of relief in his words. We are back in Blighty, to use the affectionate term that soldiers used. Britain is a small island from which a vast empire was built. The stirring and beautiful words that Shakespeare put in the mouth of John O’Gaunt in Richard llare often quoted as an affirmation of the greatness of this country:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars
This other Eden, demi-paradise
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war
This happy breed of men, this little world
This precious stone set in a silver sea
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house
Against the envy of less happier lands
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England.”
Few read on to the end of the speech. John O’Gaunt is in fact mourning the passing of England’s greatness. This “dear, dear land”, he says, “is now leased out…like a tenement or a pelting farm.” He concludes that “England that was wont to conquer others/Hath made a shameful conquest of itself,” a sentiment that now echoes resoundingly some 500 years later. When Orwell wrote about patriotism, he evoked an England that is somehow different, special.“There issomething distinctive and recognizable in English civilization. And above all, it is yourcivilisation, it is you…Good or evil, it is yours, you belong to it, and this side the grave you will never get away from the marks that it has given you.” Famously, Orwell listed “the dozens of small things” that conspired to give this essence of England in his eyes, a list that 50 years later the Prime Minister, John Major, drew upon when he sought to define what Englishness was. “The old maids biking to Holy Communion through the mists of an autumn morning” is best remembered because, like “the clatter of clogs in the Lancashire mill towns” it is archaic, redolent of a time long gone.
Is this the deep well that patriotic feeling is drawn from? Is this anything more than nostalgia? Is it not a delusion, one that is boosted by perceived imminent threats to our wellbeing such as the religious mania of Al Qaida and the Islamic State? After all, patriotism comes to the fore at times of war. We see it at its best in poetry.
Patriotic poetry in times of war
In 1914 when the First World War broke out, patriotic feelings were sky high. The young poet, Rupert Brooke, who in 1915 sailed with the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force, wrote his famous patriotic poem, The Soldier:
IF I should die, think only this of me;
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven
On board ship Brooke contracted sepsis from a mosquito bite and died on 23 April 1915. He is buried on the Greek island, Skyros. He found his ‘foreign field.’ His grave remains there to this day. The poem’s romantic sentiments echoed an earlier poem by Robert Browning, Home Thoughts from Abroad:
Oh, to be in England,
Now that April’s there,
And whoever wakes in England
Sees, some morning, unaware,
That the lowest boughs and the brushwood sheaf
Round the elm-tree bole are in tiny leaf,
While the chaffinch sings on the orchard bough In England – now!
To both poets their vision of England is one of an enduring and beloved landscape, a physical place with its distinctive features. When another poet, Edward Thomas, was asked why, at the age of 37, he had volunteered to fight, he picked up a handful of earth and replied: “For this.” Thomas died at Arras in 1917 when a shell exploded next to him. Encouraged by his friend, Robert Frost, to write poetry, he wrote his poems in a great rush of creativity in the final years of his life. Most were published posthumously. Like Frost, Thomas eschewed ornamental and literary language, preferring to draw on the rhythms and cadences of common speech. The enduring appeal of his poetry lies in its simplicity and in the evocation of a landscape that seemed to him to define what the essence of England is. In his poem, Home, three fellows are returning from a walk:
‘How quick’ to someone’s lip
The words came ‘will the beaten horse run home.’
The word ‘home’ raised a smile in us all three,
And one repeated it, smiling just so
That all knew what he meant and none could say.
Home. The sense of belonging to a particular place. This is perhaps where Orwell believes the positive force in patriotism lies. Thomas captures something of that feeling in one of his most famous poems, Adelstrop:
Yes. I remember Adlestrop—
The name, because one afternoon
Of heat the express-train drew up there
Unwontedly. It was late June.
The steam hissed. Someone cleared his throat.
No one left and no one came
On the bare platform. What I saw
Was Adlestrop—only the name
And willows, willow-herb, and grass,
And meadowsweet, and haycocks dry,
No whit less still and lonely fair
Than the high cloudlets in the sky.
And for that minute a blackbird sang
Close by, and round him, mistier,
Farther and farther, all the birds
Of Oxfordshire and Gloucestershire.
The poem evokes a time when trains chugged along rarely used branch lines to all parts of England. Thomas captures that lazy, luxuriating feeling of stasis on a hot summer’s day: the stationary train, the deserted station, the willows, willow herbs and grass, and the blackbird’s song. The opening line – ‘Yes. I remember Adelstrop’ – tells us that this is a memory. In the poet’s mind this pastoral idyll stands for the English landscape, for England.
In his poem, A Shropshire Lad, A. E. Housman, another distinctively English poet, captured that sense of something loved from long ago that is terribly missed:
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain.
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
I suspect that something of this sentiment drove so many people to vote to leave the EU. It was a nostalgic desire for a past in which things were simpler and did not involve the baffling complexities of a modern, interconnected, globalised world. That could explain the generational difference in the voting in the referendum: 71% of the under 25s voted to remain while 64% of the over 65s voted to leave. It is conveyed in the intense yearning that throbs beneath the two famous stanzas of Housman’s poem. “The land of lost content” is a mirage: when we look back on the past from a position of unhappiness and discontent we see it as we imagined it was, creating a comforting fantasy of how the world was better then.To quote Orwell again, “Patriotism…is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet it is felt to be mystically the same. It is the bridge between the future and the past.”
Patriotism or nationalism?
Throughout my schooling I had been told how great the British Empire had been, how it had helped bring civilization to the poorer and less developed people in all parts of the world. For a long while I felt fortunate simply to be born British. As my political consciousness matured – and it was a slow business I confess – I began to question this assumption. Was Britain truly great? Was the Empire really a force for good? Why should one nation be heralded as greater than any other? Adolescence is a time of critical awakening, of questioning what had previously been accepted as true, and of searching for a different truth. I decided I believed in internationalism though I had only a hazy idea what that might be. I hoped for world peace in my lifetime. I embraced a socialism that transcended nation states and brought all people together to live in harmony. Had I read Orwell’s essay at the time I would have dismissed it as sentimentality or something worse, jingoism. Nations were the source of the problems of the world and patriotism was “the last refuge of the scoundrel,” a phrase I had heard though in truth I didn’t really understand.I recall a debate we had in the 6thform at school on the subject of nation states, whether they were a force for good or bad. Most of us, callow liberals that we were, believed that nations were a bad thing. But, to my surprise, my Jewish friends made an exception for Israel. This was justified on two grounds, one Biblical, it was the land of the chosen people, and the other for security given the persecution Jews had suffered over the centuries. That’s illogical, I argued. But logic was not the driving force and it was my first inkling that emotions could, and often did, override rationality.
Orwell recognized the gross inequalities of wealth and the class distinctions that bedevilled England at the time, and still do today if in different forms. Yet he understood that people of all classes could be proud to be English.“Patriotism is usually stronger than class-hatred,” he wrote, “and always stronger than any kind of internationalism.” He was at pains to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. In his essay, Notes on Nationalism, Orwell defined nationalism as “the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognising no other duty than that of advancing its interest.”Patriotism, in contrast, was a devotion to a particular place or way of life with no desire to force it upon anyone else. Nationalism, he argued, is inseparable from the desire for power: it is “power hunger tempered by self-deception.” No argument, no fact or evidence can change the nationalist’s belief that his country is the best and that it deserves to be. The nationalist is unshakeably certain he or she is in the right. We can all recognise this appeal to a unique and superior state that we happen to be born in. ‘We have the best [armed forces or whatever] in the world,’ politicians are wont to declare. But is this nationalism or patriotism?
In truth Orwell’s distinction is problematic. For many who voted to leave the EU there was no desire to dominate other countries, nor to advance this country’s interests in Europe or elsewhere; it was more of a wish to retrench and return to an England that they felt had changed and for the worse. If we follow Orwell’s distinction this is closer to patriotism than nationalism. Whether it is called nationalism or patriotism, this state of mind is fundamentally about identity, the sense we have of who we are and where we have come from. Despite my German ancestry I have never thought of myself as anything but English. I was born and raised in England. The history of England is myhistory. It makes no difference that before the 20thcentury my ancestors came from elsewhere. After all, at some point in time past, whose didn’t? England has shaped me, left its marks upon me, made me who I am. But it is not an exclusive identity and it is not an unthinking one. There are aspects of being English that I dislike. The hypocrisy of politeness is one, how English people prefer to avoid upsetting others, and so politely lie. “It’s lovely seeing you. You must come round to dinner sometime,” which means I have no intention of inviting you to dinner. I am as guilty of this as anyone. At a funeral of a close friend, I said to her husband, “You must come to Oxford and we’ll do something.” I never made an effort to contact him nor did he seek to contact me.
Another aspect that we English are not easy with is openly expressing strong feelings. Unless, that is, you are supporting a football team or very drunk, which usually go together. And has anyone ever thought of the English as wonderful lovers? The French, the Italians, yes. Not the English. Steady, steadfast, stolid and emotionally placid, at least on the surface, like the two would-be lovers in the film Brief Encounter. Of course these are stereotypes. There is a spectrum and there will always be people who are at one end or the other. I have just finished reading The Essex Serpentby Sarah Perry, a highly enjoyable book. It is set at the end of the 19thcentury and simmers with powerful feelings of love and hate, of envy and loss and the benefits and difficulties of enduring friendship. In the afterword Perry wrote that she wanted to debunk the notion of Victorian England as an emotionally repressed place. Her protagonist, Cora Seaborne, recently bereaved from her controlling, abusive husband, is full of life and lights up every room she comes into. She is unafraid of saying or doing anything. Yet at the same time she couldn’t be anything other than English.
I think Orwell is disingenuous to assert that patriotism is a positive force and that there is nothing better. Too often it is a negative force turning people away from understanding other cultures. There are other positive forces that are at least equal to patriotism. Solidarity with the human race, for example, irrespective of where people happen to live or what their country or culture happens to be. The Christian value of love for all people is another. The commitment to honesty and public scrutiny in science is another. The problem with patriotism is that it is easily harnessed to support an unpleasant rhetoric of national superiority. This ran through the Leave campaign and has persisted since. It is responsible for an increase in hate crimes, the desecration of mosques and synagogues, and the shocking attacks on refugees and other people who look or speak differently. Claiming to be patriots many people are emboldened to express racist and extremist views in the press and on social media. Their vicious attacks and racist views spread like an out-of-control wildfire that becomes impossible to stop and leaves desolation in its wake.
Where I can agree with Orwell is in his valuing of patriotism when it is independent of political or xenophobic beliefs and practices, when it is something deep in the soul of people, a sense of belonging, a sense of home. In that sense I am a patriot. Where I disagree with Orwell is his claim that it is a positive force beyond all others. In my view it can be positive or negative depending on how it is expressed or to what purpose it is put. In these times patriotism is too easily appealed to and too often used to glorify an England that doesn’t exist and never has.
John Marzillier. Letters to Lucy and Isobel. 2017
Like Orwell in his essay I deliberately refer to England, not Britain. Each of the three other countries that make up our United Kingdom has its own sense of national pride as is evident when there are sporting fixtures between them.
P G Wodehouse is the great exponent of this form of fantasy. The world of Blandings, of Jeeves and Wooster, is a fictional one. Yet when we read his novels, it feels part of our English heritage. The same might be said of the Victorian world in the Sherlock Holmes stories that Arthur Conan Doyle created.
Boswell tells us that Samuel Johnson made this famous pronouncement that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel on the evening of April 7, 1775. He doesn’t provide any context for how the remark arose, so we don’t really know for sure what was on Johnson’s mind at the time.
Orwell consciously uses ‘England’ and ‘English’ in his essay. The Scots, the Irish and the Welsh have a different form of patriotism that is governed by their emotional attachment to those countries. In the film, Oh What a Lovely War! the German and the British soldiers play the famous football match in No Man’s Land at Christmas. They are talking together when there’s the sound of artillery starting up. ‘Yours, I think,’ says a German soldier. ‘Not ours. That’s the bloody English,’ the Scot replies.
Orwell saw nationalism as an ideology and claimed the term can be used to refer to ideologies of all sorts such as Communism, Christianity, Zionism, Islam. But then surely nationalism is not the best word for it.