Patriotism & Me

Great Britain

Recently a good friend of this site asked if I was too Londoncentric, and thinking about this led to a bigger question about patriotism.

We live in divisively patriotic times. Putin is attempting wholesale western disruption in the name of Mother Russia. The US President’s risky me-first strategy will either start a trade war that collapses whole economies or will buy him a second term. The French president wants French to be the lingua Franca, as it were. The Austrians are lifting the ban on smoking, using a bizarre argument about patriotism. And Brexiters have destabilised the country with fact-free fantasies – one LBC caller complained that the presenter was giving her facts to debunk Brexit myths.

When I talk to friends with family scattered from Ireland to the Far East I always feel a twinge of jealousy. I was born in South London and my entire family lived there. Nobody had any connections with the countryside. The first time I ventured into a rural area alone I was 26 and was thrown out of a field. I managed to go to the North-West and completely miss the Lake District. I’ve still never been. Great swathes of the country are missing to me. I would love to go, but heading off for a weekend into the wet countryside is much harder if you don’t know anyone who knows the terrain.

As a consequence I never thought of myself as English in the way that, say, people from Somerset or Manchester might consider their nationality. I was a Londoner, and the whole world was in London, therefore my identity was international. Without a family reason to go to York or Edinburgh I simply didn’t; life was hectic in London and I had friends from other countries rather than other parts of the country.

Patriotism mystifies me. I admire the Queen immensely, but have zero interest in the marriages of royals. I never had to fight in a war, I’ve never been caught up in national fervour – when Maggie Thatcher sank the Belgrano I was living in America, which is rather removed from the rest of the world. My knowledge of the shires mindset – in villages which Stewart Lee calls ‘a one-way system and a Pizza Bella’ – is zero. But I’ve been to most large cities except Newcastle and Liverpool, and can feel the anger at being ignored by the moneyed capital. It is outrageous that for so many years half the country has been denied equality, stemming from Thatcher’s ‘managed decline’ slur onwards.

In a country that’s nearer to Europe than to the rest of its own kingdom, claiming that the return of blue passports represents some kind of national identity is stupid and irrelevant. There is much I respect and admire about my country. There is much I’m ashamed of, too. When you look at both parties’ candidates and quickly start wondering if it’s possible to revive the Liberals, you know we’re in trouble.

One of my favourite SF/fantasy writers is Ian R Macleod, whose ‘The Summer Isles’ posits an uneasy alternative timeline for Britain which results in the adoption of Fascist ideals. It feels all too real; a sidelined country living out its dotage in a racist, repressive state. When does patriotism become totalitarianism? As long as the subject is relevant questions of of what constitutes patriotism will remain.

23 comments on “Patriotism & Me”

  1. Brian Evans says:

    That’s an interesting snap of Brexiteers you have posted today. Interesting too for having very few women in it. They’ve probably got more sense.

    I’m the opposite from Admin. I moved from Liverpool to London years ago as it was, for me, THE place to live. I loved it but moved back up north 17 years ago as I didn’t want to grow old in London and have never regretted it. We kept our flat on in Kings Cross and my partner goes back a lot, partly to use the British Library, but I go less and less, and it is really only to keep in touch with friends. “Been there, seen it, done it, got the T Shirt”.

    On the other hand, as one of Britain’s leading anoraks, I started a bucket tour of England, Scotland and Wales eight years ago “collecting places” on my camera. I also take pics of any cinema and theatres that remain-in whatever use they are in now-and as many railway stations (please don’t say “train station” in my hearing) as I can. Just to make it more difficult, I do most of it by public transport

    Chris-you are missing out on so much! Though it’s best to avoid Scunthorpe, and indeed most of Lincolnshire, though the city of Lincoln is a beautiful place.

    A really good way to see the country is to hire a narrow boat for a few weeks-it’s a quite and peaceful way to take it all in.

    Well, ta-ta for now. I’m starting my first trip of the year tomorrow-four nights in Abergavenny, during which time I will visit Hay-on-Wye, the world’s book capital, and the Brecon Beacons. I always wait till we alter the clocks in March before I start.

  2. SteveB says:

    Most countries are patriotic especially outside Europe. Not to mention racist. China is for the Han Chinese. Pakistan for the Muslims – if you are the wrong sect you get a stamp in your passport, never mind Christian. India for the Hindus. Even in Germany refugees who can’t pass a German test in two years are sent back.
    Timothy Snyder’s book Black Earth is well worth reading on why nation states matter. If you are old, poor, ill, unintelligent, unemployed, a racial minority, a religious minority, who will take care of you if not your country?

  3. Brooke says:

    As you note in your examples, the word patriotism is used to justify an extraordinary range of behaviors, causes and economic/power plays…usually, if recent history is any guide, to bad effect.

    Brian E. is correct–you are missing out. A black single female from the USA, I wasn’t welcome in many places in the UK but the scenery, geography, history and yes, even the people are not to be missed. I too used only public transport–ferry crossings in winter storms make you take notice of life!

  4. Brian Evans says:


    I’m so sorry to have heard of your experiences in UK. So often I am ashamed to be British. I cannot stand patriotism as so often it is a euphemism for racism-eg the appalling tiny-minded Brexiteers.

    I am at a loss to elaborate-I am stunned by what you say. I am so Sorry!! Brian xx

  5. Roger says:

    The picture you show is actually of anti-Fascists demanding Mosley remain in gaol, probably in 1943. Mosley himself was an enthusiast for a united Europe – though not the kind we would like, I think.

    “The US President’s risky me-first strategy will either start a trade war that collapses whole economies or will buy him a second term.”
    …or both. I think he would regard the trade war as a perfectly satisfactory price to pay for the second term.

  6. Brian Evans says:

    Roger, the photo isn’t exactly clear. There seems to be both a for and against Mosley, though I have probably misread it.
    Funny to think Mosley was a Labour MP to begin with.

  7. admin says:

    I’m shocked that you had a rough time in the UK, Brooke. Fear of difference is what drives Brexit. I always imagined the world would continue to ameliorate, not backslide to more prejudiced times. Next time you come to visit, take the Bryant & May tour with us and see a good side!

  8. Jan says:

    Yeah I see what you’re saying Brooke a good friend of mine who is a black guy visited me frequently down in Dorset with his daughters when they were young. Although we never had any strife from people such as my landlady or friends of mine when we went to bbqs etc. People were fine then. But I can remember a couple of times in nearby resorts where people just presumed we were a family of visitors who were staying for a week or a fortnight and I was conscious of unfriendly states or people keeping their distances. It’s annoying + frustrating just something you never quite put your finger on but was there. And its not that great. It’s not everyone either that must be mentioned.

    I am sorry if you were made to feel uncomfortable or belittled by people like this.

  9. Roger says:

    Take another look, Brian: the swastika – the only unclear aspect – is on a coffin labelled “Mosley Here [in a coffin] or Holloway” – the prison Mosley was detained in.

    Where are the places you felt you weren’t welcome, Brooke? I’m sorry to hear it, but there’s a surprising amount of cultural differences and obsession with local identity in Britain although (or because) it’s such a small place. A friend of mine in Yorkshire was once told “You don’t have family in the churchyard.” in a village he’d lived in for over fifty years to put him in place as an outsider.

  10. Brooke says:

    Dear All: Thank you for the kind thoughts. While there were some little unpleasantness traveling in the UK, it was nothing compared to the really good times I had—like watching the sea birds on Iona or staying in an old inn complete with operating a mill wheel and reading beside a warm fire or sipping old Jamaican dark rum at Harvey Nichols bar on a cold wet day. Would love to take the B&M tour. For all its quirkiness, the UK beyond London is great; get out there and enjoy it.

  11. Peter Tromans says:

    I grew up in an area known as the Black Country. There was a ‘Keep the Black Country White’ group, but not for long. I was a British Steel apprentice at the end of the 1960s with colleagues of Indian, Pakistani and Afro-Caribbean ancestry. We all got along well. On the other hand, I recall standing on Clent Hills, admiring the panorama. A very middle class southerner was describing the area to his friends as a place of heavy industry and ‘appallingly working class’.

    In the end, there’s always an us and them, most often because we don’t know ‘them.’ Words like patriotism and homeland are too often a convenient cover.

    They tell us it’s not patriotic to have the wrong colour passport or to have it printed in another country. UKgov doesn’t seem to care that it’s throwing money away buying almost anything from anyone who doesn’t pay UK tax. But that’s another story.

  12. SteveB says:

    What drove brexit in my case was years of listening to people in the rest of europe laughing and sneering at britain. It’s kind of weird being at a conference where a german pension fund explained how they maximised their take from thames water. The european rules are specifically designed to maximise their take from assets owned in the uk. ‘What a stupid country’ – I cant count the number of times I heard people saying that as I listened to stories about how the UK was / is wide open for exploitation, from top to bottom really.

  13. SteveB says:

    Brooke I’m slso really surprised and sad to hear of your experience. My nephew is half black and gets on OK, he lives in Manchester now and has a good job. I can’t say he never had a problem but it’s never been a big deal for him. I think also in some places just from not being local you can be ‘foreign’ so it can be possible to misattribute attitudes. What does shock me in London is the level of prejudice against jewish people.

  14. Roger says:

    “a german pension fund explained how they maximised their take from thames water. The european rules are specifically designed to maximise their take from assets owned in the uk. ”

    That isn’t a result of being in the EU, SteveB. That’s a direct result of the way the UK privatised the water companies and other utilities. It was done so that the government couldn’t be blamed for increases in prices to pay for new work or the replacement of old infrastructure. Until recently Thames Water used to be controlled by Macquarie – an Australian bank known as “the kangaroo squid” – which had a policy of using its profits to pay for the shares they had bought and borrowing money – to be paid off by its customers – for work that needed to be done. According to Wikipedia “Currently the largest shareholders are Canadian pensions group OMERS (23%),[9] BT Pension Scheme (13%),[10] the Abu Dhabi Investment Authority (9.9%),[11] the China Investment Corporation (8.7%)[12] and the Kuwait Investment Authority (8.5%)”

  15. Denise Treadwell says:

    Brooke, I am sorry that you had bad experiences of feeling unwelcome. It’s hard to believe this happened to you in this day and age.I come from Norfolk and they treat everyone like that there even if you live in the next village. Foreigners are always treated with suspicion .

  16. Jan says:

    Mr Fowler you have still got a very distorted skewed view of the causes of Brexit. Sure it’s partly about fear and suspicion but you are wrong to write this off as lots of “little Englanders” Travelling around Britain (even with the agenda of visiting ancient sites!) it’s doesn’t take long to realise things are n’t too wonderful out there for a lot of people.

    You are in a privileged position living largely within the London bubble. Your Londoncentricity is a definite distortion of most people’s reality.

    Maybe not the folk who contribute to this blog or buy your books but the people who will probably watch the tv series about the old geezers if it gets commissioned one day. The people without the fall back position of private medical policies.

    It’s like two different worlds almost and you are wrong to be judging the decisions made by people who are surviving in a much harder reality than that of many of us. The people whose living standards were directly affected by competing cheaper forms of labour. The people living in a country seemingly forgotten by its leaders with second class transport, run down town centres and numerous social and economic problems.

  17. chazza says:

    Anti-Semitism amongst the young and remainers is very noticeable since it appears to have been adopted by the Labour party as official policy now that they are out to court the muslim vote . Socialists? More National Socialists to me!

  18. Adam says:

    Peter T – I grew up in Halesowen in the 70s and echo your comments, everyone got along and (as a boy) I thought it was a great place to live. Birmingham city centre was a bit shabby, but fun, lively and vibrant. The Clent Hills were beautiful – I must pay them a visit after 30 years away…

  19. SteveB says:

    Roger, it is, and the whole way things work in Luxembourg also. Believe me, I hear people discussing this all the time. Outside the European regs and all the foreign owners of UK assets can be given a much harder time.
    The bailout to Greece never touched Greece either, it went straight to Helaba and the rest. I saw the risk assessments while the whole thing was under discussion!
    The German mittelstand is buying up eastern europe with british money, factory by factory, hotel by hotel.
    Ireland will be screwed as well, just give it time.

  20. Brooke says:

    Roger and SteveB: very interesting discussion about impact of global money (SWFs, hedge funds et. al.) on…well, all the rest of us. If I recall it was Disraeli who distrusted democracy because (among other things) it requires a determinedly educated citizenry. That is, it would be great to have our leaders actually lead–e.g. openly discuss/debate these issues with us as opposed to focusing on passport color and what children say about brexit.

    Safe travel, all.

  21. Helen Martin says:

    I couldn’t get the reference to Thames Water at first until I remembered that it’s a public company. On behalf of Canadian retirees I apologise to the users of the water (although I don’t think my pension comes from there – that looks like the Ontario Municipal Employees.) Still, it is wicked the way governments, local and other, sell off public facilities so they can hold up clean hands. They expect a profit making company to be able to handle services more efficiently and cheaper than government can, but I don’t see how that could be expected to happen. Thank goodness our water is a publicly managed utility. Our electricity was sold off, unfortunately, and telephone always was provided by a company (unless, as my mother used to remind me, you lived in Saskatchewan where Sasktel was a wonderful organisation and had dial phones in the ’30s).
    Brooke, I think you would be mostly alright in any place where non-Caucasians aren’t perceived as being threats to jobs. I know what they mean about Norfolk where people are not perhaps as mobile as in other places. Any place like that is going to be cold to any incomer regardless of racial origin.
    I heard an interview this morning about the mass expulsion of Mexicans or people who “looked Mexican or spoke Spanish” from southwestern US during the ’30s. Thousands of people, many of whom had been born in the US, had lived there for decades, and had little or no connection with Mexico. There is racial prejudice in most societies but because the Caucasian race controls so many areas it is particularly bad in those communities.

  22. David Ronaldson says:

    My personal take on patriotism is that I generally limit it to support for our sundry sporting teams and competitors. Beyond that, I view my country as I view my family; I can criticise it, but outsiders can’t, unless it’s done constructively.

    The divide between London and the rest of the UK amuses me. As someone who has worked in London permanently or partially since the 80s, I always remind people that decisions made IN London are rarely BY Londoners. Some of the most annoying Yuppies from the Thatcher era were Northerners straight out of the Pythons’ Four Yorkshiremen sketch, rolling in money but still claiming to be working class. The Civil Service was heavily loaded with Scots, while a multi-national I worked for employed very few people from in and around the capital.

  23. John Griffin says:

    I really want to angrily respond (as a Labour Party member and a reluctant Remainer) to the disgusting and inaccurate slur by ‘chazza’ but I can’t be bothered to waste my breath. I also apologise to Brooke – far too many of my countrypeople are xenophobes or – like ‘chazza’ it seems – believe the vomit of the Red Top press. Well done to Chris for his inclusiveness (and Brian and Roger…)

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