Just remember, there’s nothing about being British which makes us good

By Sam Tomlin

Patriotism is proud of a country’s virtues and eager to correct its deficiencies; it also acknowledges the legitimate patriotism of other countries, with their own specific virtues. The pride of nationalism, however, trumpets its country’s virtues and denies its deficiencies, while it is contemptuous toward the virtues of other countries. It wants to be, and proclaims itself to be, “the greatest,” but greatness is not required of a country; only goodness is. — Sydney J. Harris

Like most around the country, I am very much looking forward to the Jubilee celebrations. It will be a great time to spend time with loved ones and enjoy time off work. I must admit I am rather ambivalent towards the monarchy. Certainly it brings tourism and is something that brings consistency throughout the often tumultuous political system. However I understand anti-monarchic, republican arguments of inherited privilege and un-democratic influence.

Does this show a specifically British value or a cultural activity?

What I react more strongly against is the idea in some circles that there is something about being British which somehow makes us stand out in a positive light compared to other countries. The quote above suggests this is more of a ‘nationalist’ perspective, glossing over a country’s errors and blindly viewing its virtues. Not many, it would seem are particularly ‘nationalistic’ (I would hope).

The position of patriotism sits more kindly with the majority of British people and will be frequently seen this weekend. I would suggest, however, that even this should come under greater scrutiny. Being ‘proud of a country’s virtues’ suggests there is something inherent about the country which promotes these virtues. It could be said that Britain promotes freedom of speech, women’s rights, democracy etc., which broadly speaking is true (especially compared to some countries in the world). However, I could easily find other Western democracies which promote these values just as well or better than Britain.

What certainly is specifically British would be eating picnics on village greens, fish and chips and the British flag. These, however are not values, but activities and things. There is nothing about these things which make us better people or more virtuous. Of course, it is not necessarily a bad thing to be proud of these things. But if we are to celebrate being British and cite these things, then we also need to remember the ‘deficiencies’ both in history and the present. ‘Britishness’ may mean ice cream on the pier and picnics but it also means brutal oppression and subjugation for many throughout our Empire’s history. It also means an education system which fails thousands of children and leads to current record levels of youth unemployment.

The other side of Britishness & jubilee – Banksy

Ultimately what I am trying to say is that as a socialist Christian, I will have more in common with a socialist Christian from France or the USA than I do with a conservative atheist who lives across the street from me. On the surface we may have more in common, but at a deeper level there is nothing ‘British’ which connects us where things really matter: How we choose to live our lives and what we believe.

Will I be celebrating this weekend? Yes, but primarily for the opportunity the celebrations give to celebrate what I really think matters, community in particular. Neither patriotism nor nationalism do it for me I’m afraid.
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6 comments
  1. Joel said:

    I have to disagree Sam. Your position is a fairly common one in this country, and I consider it to be a truly lamentable one. There is a lot that our country should be proud of. Of course it doesn’t mean that we are better than anyone else, but why does being patriotic have to entail such a belief??? Celebrating ‘Britishness’ surely means celebrating what is different, what is unique, what is quintessentially ‘ours’…not celebrating what is ‘better’. Most other countries are patriotic, and like to show off what is the best of their country. I rejoice in that too, as indeed do most people (the English are much better at celebrating St Paddy’s than St George’s!). Why do we have this tedious and truly sorry contemporary belief that Britain’s greatest current virtue is to apologise for everything? I think most foreign countries/peoples find that odd.

    • I’m not sure Sam was “apologising” for being British, but rather emphasising that its not the Britishness that should make people proud, but the values that Britain holds – values, which as Sam points out, are not exclusive to this or any country. The sort of kneejerk “my country right or wrong” patriotism is the sort that he decries. Do you disagree with that?

    • Sam T said:

      Thanks Bobby, yes that’s exactly right. No one can help where they’re born so of course we don’t need to apologise for being British. But the line is thin between celebrating British cultural activities and deciding they are good because they are British. It’s actually precisely because we can’t help where we’re born that we must make that divide.

      Also and importantly, as I said, I think we’re far too happy to celebrate the good bits & ignore the bad bits. If we are celebrating being British, then we have to remember Britishness means oppression and disappointment for many. I would suggest its easier to celebrate Britishness for those for whom being British has given benefits such as a job etc. If you’ve been unemployed for 3 years, seen benefits, social services etc cut and the future looks pretty bleak, then there’s not much reason to celebrate Britain which for all intents and purposes has failed you.

      • Joel said:

        I still remain very unconvinced. Now I do agree that it is good to celebrate those values which are common to all humanity (though I’m not entirely sure what they are;-as a Christian I would want to celebrate that we are all created in the image of God, but this is hardly something shared by all), but it’s nonsense to say we don’t have institutions and traditions which are uniqely British (such as our monarchy) which we should equally celebrate. And a true patriot would not take a stance of ‘my country right or wrong’. Being a patriot does not mean you want everyone to be like us. Far from it. I rejoice in the patriotism shown by Indians or people from the countries of Africa or the Carribean (and incidentally they all do patriotism better than us).

        Sam, I agree that we need to remember the ways in which we have oppressed people in the past, and in which we fail people in the present, but it’s hardly a cause for celebration. We should celebrate what is good, and I doubt we’ll achieve justice for all if we don’t. It can work the other way too (and indeed often does in this country) whereby we concentrate so much on our failings that we forget what is so good about our nation. Constantly wallowing in our failings will get us nowhere; it will become like a self-fulfilling prophecy and we’ll never find ourselves capable of celebrating anything.

        And often the liberal wing of political correctness can find itself almost unconsciously making out that we are ‘better’. Take Lynn Featherstone, the defender-in-chief of political correctness, who in talking about forced marriages on the radio this morning said ‘even in Pakistan they have criminalised that’. What do you mean even in Pakistan, Ms Featherstone? Are you implying that we are more backward than even a country of the middle East? Subtly racist I would say.

    • Joel, a brief thought on your second comment:

      A few values that are universal (i.e. not strictly British) which Britain can be proud of, and aspire to promote: freedom, fairness, democracy, compassion, tolerance. Britain doesn’t display them all to perfection, but better than most places, and they are just a few of the things that I think we should celebrate. I also think these are things we have good reason to be prouder of promoting than the monarchy, and I believe this was what Sam was alluding to.

      Your last paragraph is almost completely absurd. To begin with, Pakistan is most certainly not a “country of the Middle East” as you seem to think. It is a country of South Asia, broken off from India, and which, geopolitically speaking, is very much eastward-looking (given that it defines itself by its opposition to India). Second, forced marriages are a far more common phenomenon in Pakistan than in the UK, given that it is ingrained in Baloch and Pathan tribal customs, and yet the Pakistani state has criminalised it (with almost no effect, it can be said, given the very limited reach of the Pakistani state). I do not know the context in which Ms Featherstone made her comment, but I imagine she was merely alluding to this empirical point: Pakistan, where the phenomenon is much more common, has taken ostensible steps to prohibit forced marriages, but the UK is still to do so. Why exactly, is such a comment racist? And how exactly is the idea that she is “the defender-in-chief of political correctness” (whatever that means) at all relevant?

      • I believe our monarchy has defended our freedoms and our democracy and in fact ensures fairness and tolerance. The recent celebration of our monarchy has been a celebration of each of these things. I think these values have come about because of, and not in spite of, our constitutional monarchy, our British institutions and traditions. This is quite useful because our monarchy is something tangible to celebrate rather than celebrating freedom, fairness, democracy etc… in the abstract.

        I don’t wish to quibble over the geographical location of Pakistan. You’re probably right but it’s not particularly relevant here. I inferred from Ms Fetherstone’s comment, given the emphasis on her ‘even’ that we are somehow more backward than Pakistan for not having introduced a law against forced marriages. If Pakistan have done it than surely a progressive nation like ourselves should have done it by now. Given the fact that she is Equalities Minister tasked with overcoming prejudice I felt this was a rather unfortunate choice of words.

        My point was that one can be a patriot and can believe that our counry is a great nation, and at the same time not be prejudiced, and to remain committed to justice for all (I like to think I fall into this category). On the other hand one can be an Equalities Minister and can show signs of prejudice. I guess I have come to the not all that impressive or unique conclusion that whatever one’s commitments may be, and whatever one seeks to celebrate, one is still prone to discrimination and still prone to failing others. That’s human beings for you.

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