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Home > Culture and Society

Patriotism: the angry whimper of fear

12 June 2004

One of the many joys of Euro 2004 is seeing St George's crosses everywhere. It's like the birth of a new nation.

While the countries of the United Kingdom have always competed individually in footie, the St George's cross has only really caught on in the last few years. Now they're popping up more often than the evil mushrooms in Chorlton and the Wheelies. Maybe it's something to do with devolution - the Union Jack isn't quite appropriate now that we're three separate countries at a legislative level.

Whatever the reason for its popularity, the St George cross remains the subject of debate: is it racist?

Fans of the flag say 'of course not'. Supporting your country's football team doesn't make you a racist. And traditionally, the national flags of any nation are hijacked by the far right anyway.

But people get into murkier waters when they start proclaiming their pride in being English. In a 'debate' on BBC Talking Points, the same old question kept coming up: 'What's wrong with being proud of your country?'

This defensiveness suggests that flag flyers know there's something a bit dodgy about it. Not only that, but they want to fly a flag but can't really explain why. This is understandable - patriotism is something that is incredibly difficult to pin down.

It's pride in your country, but what does that mean? England (or the UK) has much to be proud of. To pick a few random examples from history: Sir Isaac Newton, the British Empire, the industrial revolution, resisting Nazi Germany, the welfare state... but making lists like this is a fucking weird activity, for several reasons:

- You can't 'own' other people's achievements. You can admire or respect them, but they're not yours. We all enjoyed The Office, but that doesn't mean we're entitled to royalties just because Ricky Gervais is British too.

- It's arbitrary. For example, another country could easily have been the home of the industrial revolution had the historical conditions been right at the time.

- It's simplistic. Every nation in the world has events in its history that can be sources of 'pride' or 'shame'. And even if you accept this simplistic view of history, historical events aren't our responsibility. There's a certain decency in acknowledging that 'your' country may have done bad things and written them out of history, but it's not the same as actually having played a part in them. Unless you're Jurgen the German.


Patriotism is really just a huge, amorphous blob of symbols and ideas. If being patriotic about relatively clear-cut historical events is meaningless, can we be patriotic about the present?

For example, are we proud of our government? New Labour has done some good things. But are we collectively proud to have elected Tony Blair? (Assuming you voted for him in the first place.) And if you did, where's the personal connection? It was just one vote, after all. And can you be proud of voting for a party that has (broadly) supported the NHS but also the bombing of Iraqi civilians? What has all this got to do with being English anyway?

And why don't we stop asking all these unanswerable questions?

That's the problem with patriotism - it's so abstract it makes discussing quantum physics look as straightforward as uncomplicated as Donna Air's face. And the vague nature of patriotism means it can be whatever you want it to be. But one of the worrying aspects of patriotism is that it works best in opposition to something else, such as competition with other countries in sport. Or in war, particularly if there's a risk of being invaded. Sound familiar?

Maybe we're reading too much into England football flags, but perhaps people who fly the St George's Cross feel under threat. The hysteria (and that's what it is) about immigration and the European Union is the most obvious cause. It's an angry whimper of fear: 'I'm afraid of something but I'm not sure what. Leave my flag alone!'

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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