Brexiteers have been accused of xenophobia, bigotry, racism, or of being small-minded ‘little Englanders’ who cannot look beyond their own patch to appreciate the wider world. And yet as we struggle to escape the bullies of Brussels, ‘Darkest Hour’, the new film about Winston Churchill that has won spontaneous standing ovations in cinemas, may herald a revival of that much despised virtue: patriotism.
Churchill was half-American, G. K. Chesterton had Scottish as well as Swiss blood – though he was never neutral on anything – and many Brexit supporters are not exclusively of English heritage. The fall-back position is to accuse Brexiteers of being right-wing, but as well as ignoring large swathes of Labour voters and their Parliamentary representatives, this tells us more about the accuser than the accused. Churchill famously ‘flipped’ between Conservative and Liberal and back again; Chesterton began as a Liberal and ended up a Distributist. I have been a socialist and am now a floating voter – born and brought up in a council house, I attended a state secondary school and left at age 16. My father was a manual labourer who as a child spent time in the workhouse – his baby sister died there. Patriotism is not a party political affair.
As to condescending remarks about ‘ignorant’ Brexiteers, I also have a degree, although educational attainment is not, and never should be the sine qua non of participation in a democracy. The vast majority of people with no formal qualifications are quite capable of running their own lives and making a contribution to the democratic system, and in a further irony it is mainly those on the Left who echo the eugenics argument that those lacking a higher education are not qualified to vote. Neither Chesterton nor Churchill acquired a university degree; it was their acquired wisdom that struck a chord in Britain and around the world, not their formal qualifications.
But accusations of narrow-mindedness levelled against patriots are nothing new. Nobody would hold Churchill’s patriotism against him, but during his ‘wilderness years’, in warning against appeasement, he was regarded as a warmonger, a bloodthirsty leftover from a bygone age. For the crime of patriotism Chesterton, ‘prince of paradox’, ‘apostle of common sense’ and a prolific author, was accused of being a ‘little Englander’.
His patriotism did not, however, stop him from criticising his country, famously remarking that ‘my country, right or wrong’ was like saying ‘my mother, drunk or sober.’ A Francophile who nonetheless criticised other countries when he thought they were in the wrong, he preferred to laugh at foreigners rather than fight them.
Dr Johnson said that patriotism was the last refuge of the scoundrel – but that was a joke against scoundrels, not true patriots, for Dr Johnson was also a humorist. Churchill and Chesterton illustrated the fact, little appreciated by the dour purveyors of PC, that humour is the first refuge of the English patriot, in the sense that joking about foreigners is not the precursor of violence but a substitute for it – a way of defusing tense social situations, of gently lancing the swelling boil of aggression.
Jokes about fighting the French hinge on the fact that actually we have nothing against the French; the joke is against ourselves. Lacking a sense of humour – and its close relation, humility – the PC brigade would outlaw jokes, purportedly in order to prevent violence; but such a ban would be much more likely to lead to it, since real humour needs no passport; it is universal. Take away humour and we are left with aggression.
It was to be expected that someone with a sense of humour could not remain long on the left of politics, and after a brief, youthful flirtation with socialism, Chesterton returned to the Liberal fold. However, while he later supported the Allied cause in the Great War, he was a severe critic of the Boer War, and his objections were based on patriotic concerns. While Churchill was a staunch defender of Empire, Chesterton was a staunch opponent, seeing the Boer War as exemplifying all that was wrong with England – the suppression of other people’s patriotic aspirations in the name of patriotism. Patriotism, he held, is about love of country; nationalism is about seeing one’s own country, right or wrong, as superior to all others, and imposing that view on them – in effect, Imperialism.
He saw free will as the basis of democracy, and this view informed his very early opposition to ‘racial’ theories which divided human beings into ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ races – into ‘overmen’ and ‘undermen’ defined by their biological heritage, rather than as one human race composed of individuals making individual choices. He deplored attempts to link Englishmen with Americans as Anglo-Saxons, or with Germans as Nordics and Teutons. These ‘racial’ movements, aimed at uniting peoples across national boundaries were, he said, mere ‘pedantic fads’ based on spurious scientific grounds and embellished with ‘preposterous prehistoric theories.’
As a patriot he sympathised with patriots everywhere; he supported Irish and Polish self-determination and the idea of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, although, post-Holocaust, non-Jewish Zionism has proved controversial. However, as with the pro-Semitic Churchill, Chesterton was one of the first to warn about Nazism. Chesterton’s Zionism fitted with his views on patriotism and the importance of ‘place’ to human beings – especially that holiest of places, the Holy Land. As a politician Churchill was able to make a positive contribution to the Zionist cause in Parliament, but both were deeply influenced by the Bible in this respect.
Both recognised the problem of two different peoples laying claim to the same place, something Churchill alluded to in Parliament, and Chesterton raised the subject in ‘The New Jerusalem’ (1920).
‘Place’ is important to everyone except the most self-conscious of internationalists – even for nomads there must be something special about a place for them to want to stop there. Chesterton was suspicious of ‘cosmopolitans’ like H. G. Wells, who resembled Canning’s ‘steady patriot of the world alone, the friend of every country but his own’. Wells believed in world government, which by its very distance from the people could not be democratic, but his answer to such problems was even more bureaucracy – a ‘world committee’ to prevent tyranny. In opposition, Chesterton declared that the ‘world committee’ would be more likely to impose tyranny; given the problem of direct democracy operating over large areas, ‘world government’ would amount to ‘despotism.’ Wells’ internationalism was just another form of imperialism, and we can see from the EU experience that the bigger it grows, the less democratic it is and the farther away Brussels drifts from the concerns of the European peoples, stamping on every sign of local patriotism.
[To be continued in Part Two tomorrow]