On patriotism

Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.

Doctor Samuel Johnson

Let me begin by distinguishing firmly between love of one’s country, on the one hand, and love of one’s government on the other. Governments of all stripes routinely wish to conflate the two, for the obvious reason that a government’s life would be much easier if everyone loved them, or at least felt that they ought to.

But what, in the final analysis, is one’s country? According to my passport, I belong to something called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I have never felt this, on an emotional level. If someone were to ask me my nationality, I would describe myself as English, but that doesn’t really answer the question.

For one thing, there doesn’t seem to be such a thing as England, at least legally. There is this legal entity called England-and-Wales which can surely not be satisfactory either the English or the Welsh. My mother’s maiden name was Morris, but that’s about as Welsh as I get. I very much doubt whether many people west of the Severn consider themselves English. But there you go, that’s the British legal system for you. There is a certain neurotic insistence that Wales is “merely” a principality, whereas Scotland is a proper kingdom; this has a lot to do with the history of the reigns of Edward I of England and James VI of Scotland who later became James I of England, more or less by accident.

When I moved to Edinburgh for a while, I was a little taken aback by a plaque on a church commemorating James VII, the bloke I’d always thought of as James II and who was of course both. In the same vein, the late Queen Elizabeth II was always referred to simply there as Queen Elizabeth; Elizabeth Tudor was never queen in Scotland. And so forth.

What struck me about living in Scotland was how ready it was, at a moment’s notice, to resume its separate identity as a nation. The money was different, the stamps were different, the legal system was different, the hats the police wore were different, they even had their own version of the National Trust. Because I have – or at least I did in those days – a reddish beard, people tended to assume I was Scottish so long as I kept my mouth shut, and I remember a shopkeeper apologising to me for giving me a non-Scottish pound coin in my change.

Scotland has a national costume, a national poet (Burns), a national musical instrument in the form of the Scottish pipes, and its own language, even if practically nobody speaks it. Wales also has a clear identity, and the Cornish are working on it. But what about England?

There is no English national costume. There is not English national anthem – there has been a vague attempt to claim Parry’s setting of a poem by William Blake as such a thing, but there’s something fundamentally unconvincing about the title Jerusalem for an English anthem. (Hilariously it’s not even a setting of Blake’s poem of that name; the lyrics are taken from his “Preface to Milton.” But I grant you it’s a very good tune.)

England does have a patron saint, St George, whose cross appears on the flag shown at the top of this post. (His saint’s day is 23rd April, hence the timing of this post.) On the other hand, he also doubles as the patron saint of a number of other countries, including Portugal and – not unreasonably – Georgia. That doesn’t seem terribly specific. The face that foreign ambassadors present their official credentials to the Court of St James is also not much of a vote of confidence.

This is my guy, apparently.

The English, I sometimes think, are simply the people left over when you subtract all the people living in the UK that have some other ethnic affiliation – Scots, Welsh, Irish, Cornish, Manx, and I haven’t even started on the numerous immigrant diasporas that are the usual legacy of a world empire. (Rome had plenty in its time.) But there’s still quite a few of us knocking about. Who are we? Are we a nation?

I don’t know. Perhaps I’d be better off identifying with the county of my birth, although I was born in Staffordshire, only for the town I was born in to be placed in something called the West Midlands county, an entity with all the storied history of your local McDonald’s. To be honest, Staffordshire was already the kind of place where nothing much happened for many hundreds of years, but then that’s pretty much the definition of the kind of place you want to live. There’s a lot to be said for attaching yourself to the Staffordshires of this world.

In the future, states will be smaller and less self-important. That’s simply a function of the fact that the resources available to them are going to decline. A geographically smaller state is always going to be more responsive to the needs of its citizens; in his book The Breakdown of Nations, Leopold Kohr provocatively claims that the Principality of Liechtenstein is about the ideal size. Its area of 160 km2 would fit over 1,500 times into the 244,820 km2 of the UK, and over 800 times into the 130,278 km2 area of England, so maybe I’m thinking too big here. Hell, you could even fit it three and a half times into the 598.2 km2 area of Staffordshire.

We need to think smaller; as Kohr’s pupil E. F. Schumacher reminds us, Small is Beautiful (and if you haven’t read that book, you probably should). But having that said, there’s value in being loyal to something, even if that thing is just your house, your land and your village. There are people out there who would like to take those things away from you, and they’ll do it in the name of patriotism if that’s what it takes. Beware.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: