Monday, 1 July 2013

Who owns patriotism?

People count, not battles – yet the right, looking back in wonder, seems only to love only a sliver of Britain
Annual battle of Hastings re-enactment
Enthusiasts dressed as Saxon and Norman warriors re-enact the 1066 battle of Hastings. Photograph: Matthew Lloyd/Getty Images
George Osborne has pledged £1m to restore the battlefield of Waterloo (1815) in Belgium, which paves the way for the restoration of the sites of all kinds of victories abroad; ministers are also excited about Agincourt (1415). If they continue on this trajectory, the Tories will eventually find themselves back at Hastings (1066), which should really mash their heads. (I think they have been watching the White Queen too much, which is a shame, because TV history has the same relationship to real history as gastronomy has to kebab vans.)
I am not sure how this works – how do you renovate a battlefield, anyway? – and I admit to limited faith in such memorials. They have too many emergency exits for places that have witnessed catastrophe, and too many children throwing chips. I would always prefer a book to a battlefield, if I could find a decent public library. Mud doesn't do analysis, and tea shops illuminate nothing. This is the politics of the National Trust.
It is clearly part of the Tory plan to make Britain feel like a wonderful country, even though it may not feel that wonderful beyond Whitehall: food banks; rising inequality; homelessness; and the ghastly spectacle of the wealthy enjoying a parody of homelessness by camping at Glastonbury in yurts, and treating litter as a sort of fascinating art installation that somebody else will buy.
Surely we must agree with Edmund Burke when he said: "To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely"? No, that is too complicated and presumably expensive; it is better to look to the past when the future seems so foul, and austerity stretches into the horizon like an ever-receding phantom. We have the horrid plan to send children from state schools to the battlefields of the western front – and the second prize is? – and we have Michael Gove, a man who always looks, to me, in need of a chin to stroke, attempting to rewrite the national curriculum in the style of Enoch Powell drugged by Jean Plaidy.
Who owns patriotism? The left has been too quick to surrender its spoils to the right, largely because so many progressive ideas came from across the Channel, along with the plague. (Did you know the plague ship docked at Weymouth? That is surely worth a plaque). Socialism's relationship to internationalism did it harm, although it should not have done, because the right's definition of patriotism is elitist, confused and often completely bogus. Nigel Farage of Ukip, who is considered dangerously patriotic, at least by the Tories, based more on his ownership of a Barbour, I think, than on any coherent political philosophy, is exposed as a (failed) tax avoider – how patriotic! – and the track where Jessica Ennis trained will be shuttered, due to the cuts.
Obviously monarchy confounds everything, because it drugs us into confusing love of country with hierarchy, obedience and submission; too often patriotism simply means surrender to the status quo. To applaud the monarchy for spending £5,000 a night on the Duchess of Cambridge's lying-in, for instance, might be considered patriotic, while to complain that she should make do with a world famous NHS hospital is not. Patriotism stripped of proper definition is a cheap political trick and it lies all the time; who remembers, for instance, that in Churchill's five-man war cabinet of 1940, two Tories (Chamberlain and Halifax) were for negotiating with Hitler and two Labour men (Attlee and Greenwood) were not?
It is obvious that the right loves only a sliver of Britain; and so it is time for Labour to claim patriotism for itself. It began with Ed Miliband's theft of Disraeli's One Nation creed at the party's 2012 conference, which is not as improper as it sounds; Disraeli toyed with many things before he chose Toryism, and his series of progressive social reforms were a Victorian marvel.
Ed Balls has called for Labour to "recapture the spirit and values and national purpose" of 1945; translate the rhetoric into policy and who knows what worlds we could build? A patriotic nation loves all its citizens, and does not only look back in wonder. Greatness lives in the day; even dogs know that.

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