In defence of patriotism


In defence of patriotism

George Orwell's criticism of leftish disdain for patriotism still speaks to us today.

Michael Crowley


Patriotism is a contentious word; a territory disputed by left and right. Those in England who dare to admit to it these days usually qualify their allegiance with a definition that condemns colonialism, largely because patriotism is too readily confused with nationalism – a quite different condition. What makes it trickier is that patriotism is more of a sentiment than it is a concept. George Orwell described it as ‘mystical’, ‘a bridge between the future and the past’. He wrote about it a great deal in his many essays, but it is also present in the background of his fiction and other books. In Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is the absence of any possibility of national affection, the complete estrangement from the society, that underlies the dystopia.

Orwell’s essay ‘My Country Right or Left’ was written in the autumn of 1940, after the retreat from Dunkirk and the respite won at the Battle of Britain. Orwell had returned wounded from Spain in 1937, having fought for the republican government against Franco’s forces. He had faced fascism down the barrel of a rifle and, back in England, there was a widespread feeling that the establishment was not prosecuting the war effectively because of the impediments of an outdated class system – that in order to defeat fascism, fundamental economic and social change was required.

‘Patriotism has nothing to do with conservatism’, Orwell wrote.

‘It is devotion to something that is changing but is felt to be mystically the same, like the devotion of the ex-White Bolshevik to Russia. To be loyal both to Chamberlain’s England and to the England of tomorrow might seem an impossibility, if one did not know it to be an everyday phenomenon. Only revolution can save England…‘

Patriotism was required, but one that looked to a future England as much as it drew on its past. In the same paragraph, he writes of his own reticence and the left’s inability to relate to patriotic instincts:

‘To this day it gives me a faint feeling of sacrilege not to stand to attention during “God Save The King”. That is childish, of course, but I would sooner have had that kind of upbringing than be like the left-wing intellectuals who are so enlightened that they cannot understand the most ordinary emotions.’

Orwell then makes an interesting comparison, establishing a connection between the patriotic poetry of Sir Henry Newbolt and the work of poet and former comrade John Cornford, who was killed fighting in Spain. Cornford, like Orwell, was public-school educated to defend king and country, but gave his life in another country for a different cause. In Newbolt’s There’s a Breathless Hush in the Close Tonight and Cornford’s Before the Storming of Huesca, Orwell can see an emotional content that is ‘almost exactly the same’, despite the differences of period and place. His point is that the spirit of patriotism can be enlisted for the cause of socialism – ‘the possibility of building a socialist on the bones of a Blimp’. One loyalty transmuting itself into another.

Orwell develops these themes at the end of 1940 in a pamphlet-length essay, ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, which examines the character of England and the English and sets out a programme for an English revolution. In it, we see how much we have changed over the past 80 years, but also how some traits march on.

‘England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings.’

The left in England today is by no means synonymous with the intelligentsia, and their anti-patriotism, like much of their politics, is part self-righteous affectation. But, if anything, it is more prevalent, more pronounced now, than in Orwell’s day. I spent many years among the leftist intelligentsia and I can report that it was considered blasphemous to support the England football team during World Cups – it even appeared as an agenda item at Socialist Workers’ Party branch meetings. Should England actually ever win the World Cup, it was believed that it would necessarily feed the right in British politics.

Culturally, the left locate their tastes overseas, which they consider a mark of sophistication. When Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was asked about his reading habits, he naturally spoke about Nigerian novelists. One couldn’t imagine him, or anyone in the current Labour leadership, citing Evelyn Waugh, and I can well remember being at an SWP meeting in the 1980s when the speaker, journalist Paul Foot, said he thought Brideshead Revisited was a great novel. Almost the entire room booed him. I have always found ‘books are weapons’ among the most depressing of political slogans.

Left politicians are suspicious if not fearful of patriotism, particularly when it is expressed by the working class

Of course, left politicians will congratulate England’s cricket team occasionally, but far from knowing how to take advantage of a sense of patriotism, they are suspicious, if not fearful, of it, particularly when it is expressed by the working class. In 2014, Emily Thornberry, now a Labour leadership candidate, tweeted a photograph of a house in Rochester with flags of St George outside. She was canvassing ahead of the Rochester and Strood by-election, and the inference of course was derogatory. She was rightfully accused of snobbery, but there is another question here. Why did she assume that the people who lived there would not be Labour supporters? That this marked Rochester out as infertile territory for socialists? Because being patriotic is now considered to be incompatible with the left. Incompatible because the left believe it to be veiled racism, and when expressed by the working class, a whisper away from fascism.

Notions of patriotism in England today are not restricted to ethnicity. That kind of ethnic patriotism is on the backfoot and almost extinct, certainly taboo. In fact, I would argue that the English patriotism of today is more likely to pride itself on its anti-racism. Black and Asian people can feel, and have every right to feel, as patriotic or as unpatriotic as white people. Instead of despairing and posting a photograph of the front of the house online, Thornberry would have been better knocking on the door and opening a dialogue. As Orwell puts it: ‘An intelligent Socialist movement will use [people’s] patriotism instead of merely insulting it.’

In ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’, Orwell extols what he considers to be the innate, natural anti-authoritarianism of ordinary people in England, summed up as an attachment to liberty and to privacy:

‘All the culture that is most truly native centres round things which when they are communal are not official – the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the “nice cup of tea”. The liberty of the individual is still believed in, almost as in the 19th century. It is the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time… The most hateful of all names in an English ear is Nosey Parker.’

Orwell would despair at the England of today, where people are reported and even arrested for what they have written online, for expressing an opinion, for refusing to write something on a wedding cake. He would recognise it as befitting the totalitarian regimes he satirised in his fiction. While he says that ‘the English are hypocritical about their Empire’ – something I think is no longer true – he maintains that ordinary people are averse to the glorification of militarism. English literature, he writes, ‘like other literature, is full of battle-poems, but it is worth noticing that the ones that have won for themselves a kind of popularity are always a tale of disasters and retreats. The most stirring battle-poem in English is about a brigade of cavalry which charged in the wrong direction.’

Eighty years and numerous wars later, I think this is still the case — we have remembrance rather than glorification. Yet the left’s antipathy towards patriotism in England is more exaggerated than ever. It is at the heart of their reaction to Brexit. The Leave vote can usefully be described as intrinsically patriotic since it expresses a desire for national sovereignty; characteristically, the left defamed the vote as racist and did all they could to block the implementation of the result.

Indeed, during the General Election, Labour engaged in Orwellian doublethink, by talking about ‘the many, not the few’ while campaigning against the will of the majority. It made Labour increasingly sound like an Eastern European Communist Party, and a major part of its problem is its growing remoteness from ordinary people.

Being patriotic is now considered veiled racism, a whisper away from fascism

In Orwell’s day, the trade-union movement provided at least some Labour MPs. Emily Thornberry is a former barrister married to a High Court Judge — they are millionaires with a ‘property portfolio’. Corbyn has seen very little working life outside of politics and the membership of his party is skewed towards the public sector and students. I left Labour after the referendum result, but though it was growing in numbers, I also felt it was increasingly insular.

Orwell, though he went to Harrow, made it his quest to live among and learn from ordinary people, poor people. He did so to write The Road to Wigan Pier, Down and Out in Paris and London, and he took a bullet through the throat for Homage to Catalonia. He wandered between the intelligentsia and the common people writing in a style that was deliberately plain, particularly in the context of his era, because he sought a readership that was lower middle-class and self-educated working-class. He was not an intellectual writing for other intellectuals. He believed the common man and woman, not the politicised proletariat or a professional elite, were the best hope for civilisation.

Orwell’s essays were required reading on the left I grew up in. We discussed him and decided our socialism would be different to the one he lamented. Ours would be more human, for we were Trotskyists. But in many ways, we were the same. We could be found on his pages, wagging fingers at people who wore poppies, verbally cuffing comrades for listening to the overtly religious Van Morrison.

As we approach the 80th anniversary of ‘My County Right or Left’, those on the contemporary left should take a look at it and the two volumes of his essays that were published in his lifetime. Indeed, we all should, for Irving Howe called Orwell the ‘the greatest English essayist since Hazlitt, maybe since Dr Johnson’. His essays are not accessories to his other books. They lay claim to his greatness as a writer, covering a wide field of culture and politics, from Dickens and Yeats to ‘Anti-Semitism in Britain’ to ‘How the Poor Die’.

He said he wanted to make political writing into art and he succeeded – his work has endured and, if anything, become more prescient. His writing is plain, but also splendid because of its vision. He sees into the recesses of our humanity and its opposite. He writes speculatively, mockingly, without self-regard. He is understated and those who arrogantly claim his mantel, to be the nation’s conscience, need to read him, for they will find themselves on his pages and thus may find a new direction. At the risk of sounding patriotic, he is among the greatest of Englishmen, a patriot and an internationalist – and that is a perfectly possible and admirable thing to be.

As Orwell wrote in ‘The Lion and the Unicorn’:

‘England is not the jewelled isle of Shakespeare’s much-quoted message, nor is it the inferno depicted by Dr Goebbels. More than either it resembles a family… with all its cupboards bursting with skeletons. It has rich relations who have to be kow-towed to and poor relations who are horribly sat upon, and there is a deep conspiracy of silence about the source of the family income. A family with the wrong members in control – that, perhaps, is as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.’

Michael Crowley is an author and dramatist. Visit his website here.

Picture by: Getty Images.

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Gerard Barry

10th January 2020 at 12:47 pm

To me, growing up in Ireland, being patriotic and/or nationalistic was and still is the most normal thing in the world. For me, it has nothing to do with hatred of other nations or a sense of superiority over them. Instead, it’s just recognition and awareness of the fact that different nations and peoples exist on this planet and that, even if we have a common humanity, we are still all different.

I feel sorry for people in larger, more powerful nations like England, Germany or the US (to name but three) where patriotism or nationalism are almost seen as dirty words.

david Oxley

26th December 2019 at 11:15 am

Slot of the comments seem to over look the specific period we are living in, nationalism hasn’t always existed, English people haven’t always fought fir king and country, look at the Civil War. What is perculiar about today is how the elites in the UK have given up on nationalism and prefers multi culturalism and the EU to run society rather than attempt to build an independent spirit of what makes the UK unique. It’s laws, traditions, pubs, food, pastimes and history which creates a national fabric on which we all have a common bond, and immigrants from outside the UK also have a common touchstone, parliamentary democracy, freedom of speech, fair play. On spiked the expression anti anti- nationalism is a hood starting point and as a life long hater of the England football team. ( l was a leftie, and considered England too boring too dull compared to Brazil ), I enjoyed the success in 2016 as I saw my friends and family finally having something to be proud of , that brought us together, gave us something shared.

Steve Huckle

23rd December 2019 at 12:27 pm

As a Socialist who visited Russia for England’s semi-final, I like this piece – patriotism vs nationalism is a complex narrative, but one which Orwell treads brilliantly.

Emily Thornberry, capable though she is, will not become Labour’s leader precisely for bemoaning white van man. That was unforgivable; the Labour membership has not forgotten such snobbery.

Far from, “campaigning against the will of the majority”, Labour’s position was far more nuanced than that. Too nuanced, in fact – like many on the left, I regret their not representing LEXIT and the chance to divorce from the Neoliberalism of the EU by investing in public services – a much more socially inclusive version of EU divorce than the Conservative’s flavour of BREXIT and their supposed free-trade nirvana.

Gerry Mohan

22nd December 2019 at 8:06 pm

Can’t agree with that.
Patriotism is over, innit?

Patriotism, everyone’s heard of that. Proud to be Irish, French, American? Comedian George Carlin: “Being Irish isn’t a skill. It’s a fuckin’ genetic accident.”
Could try another one: how about anti-patriotism? C’mon, give it a try, just for a minute…
Ah well, not so popular I think, but a guy called Gustav Hervé wrote a pamphlet in Paris with that title about 100 years ago, while sitting in jail for inciting soldiers not to go to war to die for their betters. Unfortunately in later life he became a patriot himself; succumbed to metastases from the childhood infection I guess.

Donald Trump recently gave a speech to the UN in praise of patriotism. He says the US has embarked on “an exciting program of self-renewal” because “the future belongs to patriots”. Boris Johnson considers himself a patriot too, as do a flock of other toe-rag politicians in European capitals.

I have a lot of questions about this, but here’s just two for Brexit-or-bust Brits who work hard for not enough money; or are unemployed and being used to scare those in work with a fate they could share if they step out of line… What the fuck do you have in common with this overfed public schoolboy who’s never done a day’s work in his life? What can he offer you that made it worth abandoning the chance to work together with Polish or French or Spanish people in similar jobs…to get rid of the Borises and Rees-Moggses and the rest of the ponces we permit to run the show and our lives, for their own benefit?

Patriotism is a tool of divide and rule. It’s also over. Nations are over. They’re over because when people realize what’s happening across the border and they connect up the dots, there are no borders anymore. Moblie phones…the internet? That’s what they do, end borders. They globalize. You can put up custom posts at Dover, walls around Europe, or between Mexico and the US, or between bits of Ireland. But you can’t stop globalization any more than you can tell the tide not to come in. Ask King Canute.
Banks, corporations, multinationals, of course, never miss a thing. They’ve been globalizing for decades, actually a couple of centuries, snapping up everything they can regardless of the consequences for the rest of humanity.

We can leave it to them to expand their power even more, buy up whole cities and squeeze us for more rent, claim ownership of water, put locks on local wells and even charge for collecting rainwater as they’ve done in some places. All in the name of fundamentalist religion masquerading as a rational choice: The Market. Or, more modestly, One Market Under God. There is no limit to their greed if we don’t make them stop.

Or we can stop believing in the fraud of “Our Common Heritage”, our “British Culture”, and see that we have nothing in common with the people who own corporations, the banks, the City of London and who believe they’re entitled to own everything else including our lives. There is no Britain, there is no England uniting “ordinary” people with someone like Boris Johnson who’s no more than an empty suit, a privileged hole in the air: or with the “Duke” of Westminster or billionaire Jim Ratcliffe. If you want to know the meaning of shared heritage, otherwise known as class warfare waged from above, just try gatecrashing their next cocktail party or try to get into Annabel’s club in Mayfair, London, where black people serve the rich, enabling a fine nostalgia for the days of Empire. Forget class at your peril; it’s sucking the air from your lungs and the Duke of Devonshire is pissing in your soup while you’re singing “God Save the Queen”.

The EU is run by corporations too and it’s an undemocratic shithole but it has a population of over 500 million people. That’s a lot of people and a lot of real power to force change. Real international solidarity is possible in place of a belief in solidarity with a phoney band of local cheats who are busy selling as much of the UK as they can to the highest bidder so they can trouser the profit.
Patriotism is the catchword of those who never have and never will return solidarity with the rest of the population, who they despise and above all, fear. Trump didn’t quite put it rightly, got his words mixed up again. He must have meant to say – an exciting program of self-renewal…patriots have a great future behind them.

Steve Huckle

23rd December 2019 at 12:33 pm

Well said, Gerry x

William Clark

22nd December 2019 at 6:10 pm

Is there any parent who wouldn’t throw themselves into molton steel to save their child? I ask that because most parents would. We would almost certainly do it for our spouse, or the person you love. And if there was some threat to your village or town, would you be prepared to make sacrifices for it? Probably yes, but not your own life. The more distant the threat and the larger the community I am discussing, the less likely we are to mobilise ourselves to make sacrifices for others. Surely patriotism arises according to where you draw that boundary? In WWII Churchill did indeed rally a nation that was closer to calling a truce with Germany than one might think, simply by recognising a threat that would have seen people rounded up at midnight and taken away for liquidation or slave labour if we did not make a stand. Patriotism cannot be considered a sin if it is merely the definition of a moveable boundary, but blind patriotism is another matter.

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