Keeping the local in the bigger picture

PATRIOTISM is a deeply divisive concept. It shouldn’t be. It should be absolutely fine to be patriotic, to care about and be loyal to your country. In America it’s virtually a requirement and definitely a civic duty. In some undemocratic countries (North Korea lurches to mind) it is essential to proclaim fervent patriotism simply to have a chance of surviving the wolf-traps that lie all around.

But for some reason, it has become difficult in this country. The quick answer to the question “Why?” is that certain aspects of patriotism were hijacked by undesirable elements of the far right, so that to wave the flag of St George was to automatically ally yourself with those who want to exclude anyone of another nationality, ethnicity or religion and to adhere to abhorrent ideas of sexism, racism, homophobia and anti-semitism.

Samuel Johnson famously declared that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” and there are many who would echo this aphorism. Some great thinkers and great wits go further. Bertrand Russell said:“Patriots always talk of dying for their country but never of killing for their country.” Oscar Wilde put it even more bluntly when he said: “Patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.”

Albert Einstein eloquently voiced his contempt for the unthinking patriot who marches to order to the sound of a national anthem. He wrote: “Heroism at command, senseless brutality, deplorable love-of-country stance and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is.”

The continuing First World War centenary events remind us how pervasive the “my country right or wrong” attitude was, and how persecuted were those people who questioned the reasons for the war. Mark Twain, who was wise as well as witty, commented: “Loyalty to country ALWAYS. Loyalty to government, when it deserves it.” And one of our most brilliant and insightful contemporary writers, Julian Barnes, wrote, in Flaubert’s Parrot: “The greatest patriotism is to tell your country when it is behaving dishonorably, foolishly, viciously.”

We are going to hear a lot about patriotism, I suspect, over the next couple of years, with one side or another in the EU referendum battles wrapping themselves in the flag and calling down economic mayhem if not the dogs of war on those who do not agree with their position.

So it has been interesting in the past few weeks to spend time in both Scotland and Wales and to see how patriotism is working in a (generally) positive way there, in contrast to the (generally) negative way in which it is viewed in England. We often hear talk of a “little Englander” but “little Scot” is never mentioned and “little Welsh” would be seen as yet another example of English sneering at the Welsh. It’s true of course, that many English people do – for reasons that pass understanding – think they are vastly superior to the Welsh, and there is a historic hostility between England and Scotland that  can be well expressed and explored on the rugby pitch but generates a great deal of nastiness in the columns of right wing tabloid columnists and among the more militant of the ScotNat fraternity.

Visiting Wales occasionally over many years it has been interesting to see the gradual growth of self-confidence in a country that has a long and fascinating history and a deep-rooted spiritual and poetic culture. From times when native Welsh-speaking children were publicly humiliated in schools to today’s near ubiquity of bilingualism, the resurgence of Welsh nationalism is a Good Thing, as 1066 And All That’s Sellars and Yeatman would have put it.

It is even easier to understand Scottish nationalism if you spend any time north of the border with your eyes and ears open. Read the merest fragment of Scottish history and you can’t blame even the most anglicised of Lowlander from feeling less than warm to the government and military powers to the south.

Dig a bit deeper into the dark stories of the Highland Clearances, the brutality of (largely absentee) English landlords, the ruthlessness of invading English armies and the disregard of the English (ie national) media for Scottish culture and interests – and then ask yourself, why would they NOT want to have their country back? I don’t want Scotland to leave the union, because I have Scottish forebears and a deep attachment to the country, its music, its history, its literature and its matchless landscape and coastline – and I was born in England and am mostly English, albeit a patchwork mongrel like most of us. But if I lived in Scotland, I suspect I would vote with the nationalists and I am a fan of Nicola Sturgeon, a strong woman with a vision and the skill and intelligence to voice it clearly and without being diverted by the mindless sexism of English journalists.

Just for interest, I looked up definitions of patriotism and the consensus is: “love for or devotion to one’s country” or in an American dictionary, “devoted love, support, and defense of one’s country; national loyalty.”  According to Wikipedia: “Patriotism is, generally speaking, cultural attachment to one’s homeland or devotion to one’s country, although interpretations of the term vary with context, geography and political ideology. It is a set of concepts closely related to those of nationalism.”

That phrase “cultural attachment” is an interesting one because it can be linked to “local distinctiveness” the concept coined by Common Ground, the environmental arts charity and celebrated in the book England In Particular: An Encyclopaedia of Local Distinctiveness. In a nutshell, local distinctiveness is what makes our place special – anything from dialect to landscape features, names of rivers and fields, apple varieties or breeds of cattle, folklore and feast days, regional  foods, local sports and vernacular architecture, piers, postboxes and pottery.

We will be pulled this way and that over the coming months and years over the in-out EU referendum and what our relationship with our European neighbours should be. We need to ask what it is we value about that relationship and what we value about our “united” kingdom. And we need to make sure that within that greater relationship – EU or UK – we don’t lose sight of the things that make our place special, that local distinctiveness that we should treasure. The Scots and the Welsh are showing us how to value our localness while remaining part of a larger whole – if we can learn to value what is wonderful about England and its constituent parts, perhaps we will be less afraid of the idea of patriotism.

Fanny Charles