Wednesday, September 13, 2017

On being patriotic

It’s interesting now to go back (such a long time ago!) and read the White Paper released by the UK government in February on exiting the EU. It beggared belief then; it still does now.

Here is Theresa May, in her barely literate foreword, on the national sentiment: “after all the division and discord, the country is coming together.” It is hard to know which is worse: that she might genuinely think this is so, or that she knows it is not. Either way, she and her supporters have been assiduous in their efforts to prevent it.

An illustration of that is Norman Lamont’s article in the latest issue of Prospect. That it is moderately and elegantly worded makes it no less contemptible.

Lamont wants to perpetuate the picture of a “cosmopolitan elite” sneering at the cheap patriotism of the masses: “my cosmopolitanism is superior to your parochialism”. “Many intellectuals”, he says, “sneer at patriotism.”

So there’s your choice (once again): get behind Brexit and be a patriot and, or oppose it and be unpatriotic. Loyalty to country (and thereby to “democracy”), or loyalty to the EU: it’s one or the other.

This is frankly repulsive. It is the choice of the Daily Mail. Lamont quotes Siegfried Sassoon: “We write our lines out of our bones and out of the soil our forefathers cultivated.” Sassoon was of course writing in another time, before the nationalistic notion of a “blood and soil” fatherland had the connotations it does today. Lamont is writing now, and that he can unproblematically invoke a quote like this gives us an idea of the kind of sensibility we’re dealing with.

What Lamont illustrates, though, is well documented human behaviour: you must prove your in-group loyalty not merely by statement of it but by active and perhaps destructive rejection of the Other. Robert Sapolsky talks about it in his excellent new book Behave. In the extreme cases, gangland members establish their fealty by executing a rival, and child soldiers are trained to show their allegiance to the movement by their willingness to kill family members. And they do.

It is Us or Them, and nothing else. The notion that feelings of kinship can be multiple and overlapping seems alien to Lamont. The European identity, he asserts, is “extremely shallow.” He can speak for himself, but he has no business intimating that he speaks for us all. I share a sense of identity with Londoners (defying the ugly political climate that washes all around us in southern England). I share it with my local community, and with Englishness (yes! – more of this below), and Britishness, and also with Europeans, and with all of humanity. These feelings of kinship have different complexions in each case, but I don’t feel conflicted by them. The customs, languages, histories of Europeans are varied, and of course there are big differences between nations, just as there are between national regions. But there is also a great deal of shared culture and history, and when I am in (say) the Czech Republic I feel I am still in some sense within a familiar “homeland” that I can’t claim to feel in Tokyo. How small and withered Lamont’s sense of belonging must be if it is invoked only in the Cotswolds and not in Paris or Prague.

It’s a peculiarity of the Brexit vote that it has deepened my love of England and Britain. Deepened, that is, those aspects of it that I value all the more for seeing them vanish: the tolerance, good humour, open-mindedness, invention. More than once my partner and I have discussed emigrating to escape the poison and political apathy that has overtaken these isles. And each time I’ve resisted the idea because there is so much here that I love.

Shortly after the referendum, I found a copy of Defoe’s A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain abandoned on a wall on my way home, and picked it up – and felt immense sadness that the Union, still finding its feet in Defoe’s day, might soon be shattered. If that looks a bit less likely now, it is because the people of Scotland have more sense than those of England in letting economic interests be a part of decisions about trans-national partnership. All the same, Defoe’s book sharpened the pangs of feeling that my home nation has lost something it may never recover in my lifetime.

Lamont implies that we pro-Europeans (so he’s anti-European then?) don’t accuse Scottish nationalists of being xenophobic in the way we do English nationalists. Could this be because Scotland doesn’t seem to have a problem with the rest of Europe, perhaps? There is plenty of ahistorical sentimentality in Scottish nationalism, as well as some kneejerk (as opposed to totally understandable) anti-English sentiment. But can anyone blame Scotland for resenting the fact that, having voted overwhelmingly to stay in the EU, it is being dragged out of it by the English?

Lamont talks about a “fusion” of national identity into the “larger whole” of the EU. This is utter nonsense. Does anyone believe that France, Germany, Spain, Italy, have lost one whit of their national identity? Nor have they ceded their sovereign power. Which brings us to that notorious line in the White Paper: “Whilst Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that.” Here’s the factual content of that sentence: “Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU.” The rest is intangible and subjective sentiment. It hasn’t felt like it to whom? In what way? But “feeling”, without any tangible benefit, is all Lamont can offer for a position that looks daily more catastrophic.

His yoking of Brexit to the health of democracy is particularly shameful. “To weaken the nation state is to weaken democracy,” he says. But if “Parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU”, how has our nation state been weakened? Well, maybe it hasn’t. But maybe, to Lamont, it just felt like that. What does weaken a nation state is the collapse of its currency, the loss of trade deals, and the blind pursuit of an extremely divisive national policy, complete with a determination to label the half of the nation who didn’t want it traitors and “saboteurs”. What weakens democracy is to invoke ancient clauses that allow ministers to bypass parliament, and to attempt to impose on parliament decisions that the courts have, now on three occasions, ruled as incompatible with the laws of the nation, some of them put in place in the wake of the Civil War in order to ensure good and stable governance. What weakens democracy is a parliament so craven that it will not even stand up for its own rights (and obligations) on such occasions, making it necessary for a brave private citizen to do so. What weakens a nation is a government that refuses to condemn press attacks on the very legitimacy of the judiciary. What weakens a nation is to portray doubts about the wisdom of a course of action as a lack of patriotism.

If this is the best defence of Brexit that Lamont can offer, we are truly shafted.

If it is patriotic to take pride in the values that our neighbours used to praise us for, and to want to see one’s country economically healthy and presenting a confident face to the world, willing to engage in international institutions, then I am a patriot. But for Lamont, as for German nationalists in 1933, it seems that patriotism demands a rejection of internationalism: we can only “be ourselves” by rejecting Others. So if patriotism now demands that one endorses the pursuit – in the most shambolic manner imaginable – a course that is isolationist, financially and economically damaging (potentially ruinous) and, to most outside observers beyond the far-right fringes, is a barely comprehensible act of self-harm, all on the basis of sentimentality about what “feels” right, then you will have to count me out.


Unknown said...

Have been in Belgium and Germany this week and the number of cases of Belgian/German flags hung right by Euro flags has been striking. It's clearly possible to be patriotic about your country and Europe.

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