Magazine

A Point of View: What does it mean to be a modern patriot?

  • 25 July 2014
  • From the section Magazine
Reveller at the Last Night of the Proms

What does patriotism mean in the 21st Century, asks novelist Will Self.

One of that great phrase-maker Samuel Johnson's most famous remarks was: "Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel". This bon mot was noted down by Johnson's amanuensis, Boswell, as was his inveterate habit. However, uncharacteristically, he failed to note the context. One thing we can be certain of - Johnson by no means intended by this that patriotism was an ignoble emotion. What he meant was that the scoundrel, having worn all other cloaks of virtue until they are threadbare, dons the patriotic one to hide his shamelessness. Johnson himself was a great patriot, and one of the most affecting incidents in his life came towards its end, when George III invited the great lexicographer into his own library so he could practise regal reading habits.

For Johnson, royalism and patriotism were completely entwined - and I think he was right about this. Which is not to say that a republican state cannot have its patriots, only that they, like the subjects of a monarchy, need some thing or one in which to invest their loyalty - the entire nation is too amorphous for this. We can see this if we analyse what "loving one's country" might involve. Does one need to feel passionate about every blade of grass and each sticky crumb of asphalt? Need we love all our fellow countrywomen and men - or only some? And what about its institutions, its customs and its folkways? Again, is pick-and-mix allowed, or does the true patriot embrace everything unswervingly?

Surely not. To love so indiscriminately is to love not at all, so instead we invest the idea of sovereignty - which in turn, is sort of idealisation of the national will - in an individual. In Britain this individual is the Queen - or rather, it is an idealisation of who she is, decoupled from the living, breathing, perspiring and micturating reality. This Queen is unfailingly wise, calm, pacific - a true mother of the nation. And if her government happens to do things that are at variance with her goodliness, that is only because their power is contingent upon an evanescent electoral mandate, while her shadow-power-play is founded upon time-out-of-mind heredity - and at least residually, upon the Lord's will. Naturally, patriotic Britons are reluctant to admit to all of this, preferring to be seen as modern and up-to-date, but if they examine their consciences carefully I think they will concede that a discrete love-of-country object is required for full patriotic attachment.

The accidental genius of the British system is that the sovereign is practically decoupled from the exercise of sovereign power. In order to understand the consequences for a nation of the two roles being combined, we need look no further than our cousins. In the USA, the presidency incorporates both the actuality and the mystique of power - and by extension the living, breathing person of the president embodies these attributes. I always remember an American friend of mine - a savvy, liberally-inclined publisher - describing a close encounter he had at the White House during the Clinton administration. Having attended some wonk-ish briefing, he was in the lift down when it stopped and the president himself stepped in. My friend was stunned to be in Bill's presence - not least because the Great Triangulator was in his shirtsleeves, said "hi" just like a regular guy, and (this was the paradoxical confirmation of his ethereal nature) was carrying a tray with a couple of sandwiches on it. "It looked to me," my friend gasped, "like he'd just been down to the kitchen and made them himself for him and Hillary." The idea of these Olympians eating late night snacks just like any other middle-aged couple overawed him - yet Clinton was his own age and came from the same part of the south.

Child with flag at US naturalisation ceremony

E pluribus unum - out of the many, one, indeed. The reverence accorded to this one president, then the next, and then his successor is separable from the multifarious mudslinging of US politics, but arguably it has played its part in encouraging a hubristic and imperialist exercise of power. However, the true patriot - whether British, American or a Pitcairn Islander - always distinguishes between the merely contingent and temporal aspects of her nation, and the eternal and inviolable ones. It is this patria which it is a great and glorious thing to die for - in droves if necessary - and the inculcation in the armed forces of a belief in nationhood as a kind of super-consciousness is a necessary part of steeling their homicidal purpose, and inculcating discipline. To ask someone to lay down their own life - or indeed accept the sacrifice of a close relative's life - purely in order that some stranger should be able to continue selling life insurance or going fishing, or running a cafe, is a very big ask indeed. So the universalised national interest is the carrot that's matched with the existential threat of an evil enemy in order to goad us all - civilian and soldier alike - into bellicosity.

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Samuel Johnson 1709-1784

samuel Johnson
  • Poet, critic, lexicographer, and one of the most celebrated literary figures of the 18th Century
  • Among his publications were the Dictionary of the English Language, Lives of the English Poets and the novel Rasselas
  • Many of his sayings were recorded by his friend, James Boswell, whose book, Life of Johnson, is one of the most famous biographies ever written
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Except that we really aren't that goaded. The more comfortable and anaesthetised our lives become, and the more polyglot and culturally heterogeneous our societies become, the less manifestly patriotic we are. For the state, and all that sail in her, this is worrying, and so it - or rather, they - try to arouse our flagging patriotic desire with flags and ceremonials. Lavish regal weddings are counterpointed with footage of scions of the Royal House dealing militarily with the existential threat. But in a largely secular society, where people have lost the habit of connecting individual conviction with collective action through ritual, these efforts are pretty unsuccessful. We will insist on wandering off abroad, otherwise ignoring them - professing allegiance instead to some other entity, such as a Premier League football club, and worse, confusing the Queen's personification of British nationhood with other, cheesier forms of celebrity with which we like to amuse ourselves. Under such parlous conditions we have to ask who it is who maintains a strong sense of patriotism.

Liverpool fans bear flags proclaiming their allegiance
Flying the flag for your football team: A different sort of allegiance

Well, for a start, there are those who have a vested interest in the state's monopolistic practices. Nowadays almost everything that can be done by governments has been hived off to one private company or another, but there remains an understandable urge to hang on to the use of force - abroad in the form of military intervention, and at home in the form of policing prevention. So it's no surprise that the armed and so-called security services should both cloak themselves in patriotism, and boast a lot of patriots in their ranks, that "dulce et decorum est pro patria mori" ("it is sweet and proper to die for one's country") is an increasingly speculative fiction to maintain in the mill race of trans-national capital flows and turbulent geopolitics, but maintain it they must... And then there are still the old-school patriots, who, despite all evidence to the contrary, believe there simply is something intrinsically superior about Britain. When asked to identify what this might be they speak of landscape, tradition and democracy readily enough - but if pressed the mask often slips and they acknowledge that by "the country"' they mean its people, and specifically its indigenous people, whoever they may be.

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More thoughts on patriotism

"No man can be a patriot on an empty stomach." William Cowper

"My country, right or wrong," is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, "My mother, drunk or sober." GK Chesterton

"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country." EM Forster

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French officer salutes French flag while police and fire workers stand to attention

It seems to me that the politics of the past 40-odd years has been marked by a profound shift. In the past, ideologues of both right and left propounded the view that a better society could be achieved so long as we recognised that most individuals' salient attributes - especially their class - were contingent, and that change should be effected by effacing these with forms of equality. However, with the rise of identity politics, wholly arbitrary aspects of individuals have begun to be viewed as essential to both them and to a properly constituted civil society. I have no problem with the historical abuses suffered by people because of their ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation or religion being rectified, but the idea that these should be considered as fundamental to their nature makes them uncomfortable bedfellows with patriots who also believe that their British or US citizenship is integral to who they are, rather than a mere accident of birth.

Under such topsy-turvy circumstances we might counter Dr Johnson by observing that patriotism, far from being the scoundrel's last refuge, is more often than not his or hers first - not, I hasten to add, that the British patriot ever considers themselves to be a refugee, or a slave for that matter.

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What does it mean to be a modern patriot?