For some reason that I’ve never understood, Englishmen and women seem to have an inherent fear of showing patriotism. It’s not exactly like we’re lacking things of which to be proud. England has some of the most beautiful landscapes and sights in the world, with glorious architecture and wonderful countryside. England has fought against and brought down tyrants and conquerors and has for centuries been a haven for those that have needed one. England has sired some the greatest geniuses, artists, scientists, writers, composers, explorers, engineers, politicians, philosophers, mathematicians, musicians, and heroes of all time, and has conquered pretty much every profession there is going. England’s history is fascinating and while there are blemishes, I defy anyone who doesn’t see England’s legacy as one which has made the world a better place.
I was always tempted to believe that it was British understatement; that we British don’t exhibit our nationality in the same vulgar way that other countries do. But it doesn’t take long to see that this isn’t the case. On Saint David’s day entire fields of daffodils suddenly spring up on Welsh lapels, and when the rugby’s on it is striking how many people suddenly remember that their great-grandmothers were half Welsh. Meanwhile the Scots have always been wonderfully proud of their identity and homeland; so much so that they now have a political party based on a policy not seen since the emperor Hadrian. Across the water you can see a healing Northern Ireland that is heading towards the better, with a new pride forming out of today’s stability. Outside of the UK the Irish have a day of national pride that has swept the globe and is loved by drinkers everywhere. Even the French out do us in showing their national pride, and quite frankly there’s a lot less for them to be proud of.
Why then are the English against showing feelings of patriotism? My inner optimist would like to believe the argument that it’s a matter of semantics. For centuries the words English and British were interchangeable. Disraeli for example almost exclusively relied on the term “English” when referring to Britain, and when Napoleon said that “[t]wo powers like France and England, with a good understanding between them, might govern the world”, he didn’t envisage that good relations should cease west of the Severn. Yet the desire for devolution has caused this old definition to become out of date. Scots and Welsh no longer fall under the definition of “English” and some dislike the idea of even being “British”. In effect their desire to re-establish their own national identities has been the act of splitting from England in a manner which has left the English lagging behind. The English have been left in a position where it is no longer clear as to how they ought to identify themselves, whether they ought to use the inclusive and unionist term “British” or to utilise their own individual identity as “English”. The result being that the English are theoretically uncertain as to whether they ought to be flying the Union flag, or the flag of Saint George, so fly neither.
More pessimistically, and probably a greater contributor for this lack of patriotism lies in extremism. Understandably, people do not want to be seen to be condoning groups like the BNP or EDL. These two dangerous and racist groups claim that their message of hate is somehow linked to patriotism. It isn’t. Ever since they took the Union flag and flag of Saint George as emblems for their own odious agendas, a fear of guilt by association has arisen. This is a huge pity, both for those living in England and English society as a whole as it detracts from the sort of unity that that this country used to enjoy, and which other countries still enjoy today. The racism of thugs has nothing to do with patriotism.
Real patriotism is a shared sense of national personality. It is pride in the heritage and cultural history of your country. It’s an appreciation of your nation’s environment and sights, both its natural beauty and its inspiring man-made structures. Patriotism is being part of not just the community around you, but of institutions and achievements which might be hundreds of years old. It’s the celebration of who you are and where you call home. It’s an appreciation of your own identity and yet also a feeling of kinship. It is in fact one of the best, most selfless and noblest things a person can feel.
Oscar Wilde is attributed as having said that “patriotism is a virtue of the vicious”. If he actually said that, then he was wrong. And so too are all the people who jump to the assumption that someone flying a Saint George’s flag outside of a sports match must be racist. Not only is proper English patriotism something that people ought to show proudly, it would also greatly deflate any arguments that racist groups may have. So long as flying the flag is seen as taboo by the chattering classes and automatically dismissed as the act of a racist or a lunatic, those who want to show their patriotism will always feel alienated.
But I would go further than that. I don’t just think that we should be more tolerant of patriotism; I think that on the whole the English ought to embrace it. So my suggestion for this summer is to really get involved. The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the London Olympics both promise to be staggeringly good events, and as ever there’s a myriad of other events throughout the year for people to not just feel proud of their nation, but to show off the fact too. I say, go out there, fly the flags and make the absolute most of a wonderful time.