These days patriotism, that is loyalty and support for one’s country, seems out of fashion, regarded sometimes as a quaint irrelevance, a potentially threatening ideology or a source of morally repugnant behaviour; and something to lampoon. Yet is this the whole story and if we neglect the beneficial effects are we letting ourselves in for something much worse? Are we likely to be better served by a patriotic politician or a self-serving party apparatchik?
Patriotism is a glue which holds together people; people who want roots, a shared identity and to be part of an established national community. Without this glue, what is there to hold them together? And it can be a strong glue crossing divides such as origins, social status and income, education etc., perhaps best said in the song I’m an Australian ‘We’ll share a dream, And sing with one voice, I am, you are, we are Australian’.
Patriotism can exert another benign influence through being proud and appreciative of something worthwhile. Starting with pride in ourselves, in our achievements, in our communities or organisations we work for, and then by extension in our country, acts as something of an incentive and reward for efforts. We can see something of value to us individually and collectively in the best or ‘good’ side of achievements by our country or fellow countrymen and women, our history, and heritage. Such sentiments are expressed in Land of Hope and Glory ‘Mother of the Free’. Pride in country and appreciation of its better qualities then encourages supporting the common good, rather than selfishness.
Patriotism can also focus on preservation, protection and furtherance of what is best in our national way of life, including liberty, democracy, culture, heritage and history etc. Perhaps we are naturally inclined to protect ‘territory’ and the familiar. Typically, Rule Britannia includes the words: ‘Thee haughty tyrants ne’er shall tame: All their attempts to bend thee down, Will but arouse thy gen’rous flame’. In times of greatest danger love of country leads to greatest sacrifice, as typically expressed in I vow to thee my country ‘The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice’ and in Rupert Brooke’s The Soldier ‘If I should die,….there is a corner of a foreign field that is forever England’.
Patriotism can also provide us with inspiration for creativity, innovation and perseverance. One way is through incorporation of existing elements from our national culture into art, music, literature etc., or in developing a unique national style. But inspiration can also arise from other activities, not least from existing acts of bravery or defying omnipotent power. Re-discovery of what our countrymen and women, including ordinary people, did can provide a boost to efforts and an exciting interest.
Underlying patriotism generally is a philosophy of reality and knowledge. Patriotism can be founded on empiricism, where knowledge comes from experience and fact, or on idealism, where reality is largely a creation of the mind. Empiricism acts as a reality and humanity check, and making patriotism outward looking towards also seeing and learning from the best in other countries and people.
Idealism as a basis for nationalism or anything else is potentially dangerous because there is little or no reality check. Thus, things can be manipulated to extremes, by for example the unscrupulous or deluded. Typical consequences include jingoism (aggressive or warlike foreign policy), xenophobia intense or irrational dislike or fear of people from other countries) and ideologically based nationalism (a passionate feeling of superiority over other countries). EU nationalism is obviously based on idealism which, when it suits itself, ignores reality.
We are fortunate that our country has a long tradition of patriotism heavily influenced by empiricism from at least the reigns of Alfred the Great and Hywel Dda, through the works of William of Ockham, David Hume and John Locke. Thus we are much less susceptible to such views as Might makes Right or My Country right or wrong. Our traditional patriotism is moderating and beneficial, and unlike forms of idealism based extremism. Typically I vow to thee my country also says: ‘And there’s another country, I’ve heard of long ago, …And her ways are ways of gentleness, and all her paths are peace.’
We can have good reasons for being patriotic towards our country and people. British patriotism, arising from empiricism, can help us, individually and as a country, to be prosperous in a competitive world, safe in a dangerous world and happier, comfortable with ourselves and at peace with each other. Indeed the Best of British can be a source of inspiration and hope to other less happy lands.