Not-that-great Britain: land of hope and cruelty

“If you don’t love it here, why don’t you leave?” someone suggested – not to me personally but to those like me who criticise, regret or deplore recent developments in our home country, and choose not to be patriots. Since the word packs so much heat that it’s often inflammatory, its connection with the war it fuels is inevitable. And this in itself begins to explain my aversion to it. As a Quaker and Pacifist, I don’t believe in violence and see war as a failure, crime against humanity and nature, and terrible human tragedy. But even if I set aside my faith, in love and in the God or Light in everyone, patriotism remains for me a problem rather than a virtue. And my rejection of it feels, for an emotional and instinctive person, coolly rational.

We don’t choose our country of birth, so pride in it because it’s ours seems less than objective. There’s a sense in which as humans we grow to love the familiar because it’s the context of our lives, and that’s natural and positive but simply a personal reality for each of us. I love the natural beauty of our hills, lakes, forests, rivers and coasts, but I don’t imagine this landscape to be superior to all others around the world. My allegiance is to Planet Earth. It just happens that I function within a small area of it that is, like the rest of it, both glorious and damaged. I don’t consider it world-beating. It’s true that I was pleased when Max Whitlock, who grew up a few miles away from me, won gold. I’m attached to Andy Murray, but if I’d been born in Spain I’d feel the same about Nadal and if I lived in Switzerland I’d know Federer better. Yes, I’m partisan when watching athletics, which adds to the excitement, but it’s a fleeting, surface tribalism: trivial, random and arbitrary. It doesn’t count for anything that matters.

Patriotism is a kind of pride, and whether I’m looking back at UK history or at the present appalling, dangerous and corrupt shambles of a government, I struggle to feel any such thing. Pride in the slave trade and colonialism? No, that would be shame. In our leading role in the industrial revolution? Well, with hindsight, looking at the carbon graph, sadly no. In our literary heritage? Yes! In Shakespeare, George Eliot, Dickens and others living and dead we have gifted wordsmiths with deep humanity and wisdom; their work enlightens, broadens and develops empathy through understanding beyond our own narrow individual perspectives. But I also recognise that there must be many, many wonderful writers in other languages from whose wisdom I will never learn. It’s not a competition.  In the campaigns that have brought about justice, yes – but what injustices Britain has perpetrated and continues to do so. Reading Why I No Longer Talk To White People About Race opened my eyes to the widespread and systemic nature of racism in this country. We have police officers who will take their cue from the US and kneel on a black man’s neck. Inequality in the UK has widened in my lifetime, as The Spirit Level showed (it’s updated regularly on the website) and in this country our deeply seedy press is controlled by five billionaires while child poverty and homelessness are on the rise.

Am I proud of our government’s silver medal position in the arms trade? How could anyone be anything but ashamed of our readiness to arm conflict and oppression? See Saudi Arabia, so valued a trading partner that we continue to sell them the weapons that kill schoolchildren, bomb weddings and year on year decimate Yemen, identified by the UN as the world’s greatest humanitarian disaster. Well, as our Prime Minister said as Foreign Secretary, if we don’t sell them someone else will. See Bahrain, Israel, the streets of America. See Belarus where a dictator’s forces have been trained here. Consider our record of military intervention – Iraq, Afghanistan – and the ongoing consequences. See 68 million refugees and displaced people and our reluctance to reunite children with family members here. See a media that whips up callousness and hostility when we take just 1% of the world’s asylum seekers. Shame on us.

And then, last but most important of all, there’s the issue that overwhelms all else: climate breakdown. Am I proud of our ‘leadership’ as we fail to meet Paris targets, score 1 out of 20 on our own identified objectives, continue to bail out and expand aviation, build roads, destroy ancient woodlands and subsidise fossil fuels abroad as well as failing to shut down coal, oil and gas when a just transition is both possible and necessary now? The UK’s record is one of inaction, massaged statistics (as Greta clearly explains) and greenwash. Neither my previous MP nor the current incumbent seems to have any understanding of the seriousness of the threat to life on earth, yet the science is clear, robust and terrifying. I have never voted Conservative but honestly, if the CEE bill is passed I will be overjoyed beyond imagining (and I admit it’s hard to imagine). If the Tories hand responsibility for climate action to a Citizens’ Assembly I will applaud them. Like Jonathan  Bartley, I don’t care who does the right thing as long as it’s done.

In the meantime, I can’t be patriotic. Not while the world abhors our toxic press, while the BBC remains largely silent on climate, while the government is found guilty of lies and corruption (endless examples of misinformation along with rampant cronyism). Not while leadership through the Coronavirus pandemic has been lamentable: death toll that could have been so much lower with early protection of Care Homes, a swifter lockdown, adequate PPE, airport testing, an efficient track and trace system in place sooner, clearer messaging, more compassionate and less profit-driven priorities, integrity in power…

When I see the patriotism of Trump’s MAGA supporters I’m horrified that love of country seems to involve surrendering all other love, compassion and respect for human rights. Nationalism involves an enemy and often means turning on compatriots too. Its narrow focus claims special status and ignores the big, human picture. Like a child who hasn’t yet learned to share or to see another perspective, it demands without giving, Me, Me. Yesterday Twitter was alive with opposing views on Land of Hope and Glory and Rule Britannia. Like Roman porticos they have historical importance, offering an insight into outdated attitudes with no place in our global reality at risk. But do we want them to represent us now? Patriots – also traditionalists – clinging to that past when we saw ourselves as victorious and glorious, demand the right to sing and hear those sentiments. Butthese are records of a time we should recognise as indelible history but with deep regret – not sing them with gusto in crowds either complicit in their racist, colonialist jingoism or disengaging from the shocking truths they conceal. I hope at the Albert Hall many fall silent in compassionate acknowledgement of the victims behind the lyrics: the collateral damage of patriotism.

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