Flag fervour: It’s possible to be patriotic without lapsing into insularity (Ian Patterson CC BY-SA 2.0)
Patriotism has long been loathed by some. Albert Einstein denounced the “love-of-country stance” as “deplorable”, further declaring: “How violently I hate . . . all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism.” Oscar Wilde labelled it “the virtue of the vicious”. Today, the P-word is increasingly associated with the ideology of the far Right.
Yet patriotism does not deserve its bad reputation. The OED defines it as “marked by devotion to the well-being or interests of one’s country”. Patriotism, when channelled positively, can enhance a country’s standing on the global stage. Tocqueville describes patriotism as a “passion” that “may save the state in critical circumstances”. And he is right. Used wisely, patriotism can even drive internationalism. And as we edge ever closer to the divorce from Brussels, reviving patriotic sentiment has never been more important.
Theresa May touched on patriotism in her speech at the Tory party conference, condemning commentators who criticise it: “They find your patriotism distasteful,” she said, as she emphasised the importance of building “a new united Britain”. Some felt uncomfortable when she declared: “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.” But while the new Prime Minister shows signs of being more conservative than expected, the essence of her speech carries weight across the political spectrum: it is important that now, at this time of unprecedented risk, we stand united.
Patriotism, therefore, need not be threatening — indeed its absence may be more so. Look at the Labour Party: it has a leader who refused to sing the national anthem at St Paul’s Cathedral. The shadow Foreign Secretary, Emily Thornberry, lost her job as Ed Miliband’s shadow Attorney General in 2014 after appearing to sneer at people who fly the flag of St George. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has praised the IRA.
At its most basic, patriotism encourages merriment among citizens — look no further than the Royal Wedding of 2011, or the London Olympics of the following year as evidence. On a more complex level, loyalty to an institution is usually beneficial. Students who work hard, get on with their peers and relish extracurricular activity are likely to do well. Those who attend church regularly are comforted by the belief that they will reap the rewards of their adherence on the other side. Couples who are united appear, to the outside world, happier. This translates to society: patriots, who thrive on their communal identity, appreciate shared values, enjoy shared history, are likely to drive positive progress.
We would do well to remember this now, more than ever. Be it the royal family, sporting heroes, or the Battle of Waterloo, our greatest strength lies in each other. If we reflect upon this, learn from and replicate the success of others, rather than jealously guard our shores, the risks that we may now dread will become unprecedented opportunities. We can love fish and chips, cricket and the Queen, and take pride in our Britishness without lapsing into insularity built on fear.