I am British. But first and foremost, I am a human being.
A fair few insults have been lobbed my way over the last six months. “Snowflake.” “Moron.” “Condescending prick.” “Cuck.” “Elitist.” “Libtard.” Most of them hit with all the force of a bullet thrown by a child, because most of the lobbers know nothing about me, and the rest know nothing at all. The most interesting one, by virtue of its sheer absurdity, was “traitor”.
The reasoning, I think, is that by arguing for the UK to stay in the European Union, or at least to remain on the closest terms possible, I am somehow denigrating it. Because I would prefer that my motherland remain a member of a progressive trade and customs union than become an inward- and backward-looking pariah state, I deserve, in the eyes of some, to be thrown in the Tower.
This is wrong-headed on so many levels that it’s hard to know where to begin, but here goes: I love my country. I love the gnarly combes of Exmoor, the wind-lashed crags of Gwynedd, Oxford’s defiant skyline, Whitby’s apologetic charm, the breathless majesty of the Lakes, Edinburgh, august and Escherian, the clumsy clash of then and now that is London. I love the internationally scorned food and the wildlife and the literature and the heritage and the majority of the people, and I don’t even mind the climate (England’s rainy reputation is overblown, and it’s never too hot or too cold for more than a few days). Crime is low, unemployment is low, the police and judiciary aren’t a law unto themselves, and until recently at least, most of our politicians seemed to rate the common people’s needs almost as highly as their own.
In short, I’m a reasonably well-travelled man, and I’ve yet to find another place on earth I’d rather live.
Now I’ve always been under the impression that when you love something, you want the best for it. And I happen to think that close cooperation with your neighbours, unfettered trade, attracting the best talent from around the world and open borders (with appropriate security checks) are beneficial to the UK — more so than isolationism, anyway — and 40 years of relative peace and prosperity would seem to back me up.
Only in the mind of a raving lunatic could taking a sober view of your country’s strengths and weaknesses be equated with hating it. Only someone who has read the Daily Express and nothing but the Daily Express could pretend that an aversion to huge risks being taken with your country’s economy and reputation is tantamount to treason. If your dad wants to bet the family house on a poker game, it is not treacherous to try to dissuade him. You’re doing it for his welfare as well as yours.
You are free to disagree with any of my reasoning here, any of my logic, or indeed my conclusion (provided you have reliable evidence to back it up) — but don’t you fucking dare question my motive. I may not be your kind of patriot, but I will defend the values of this country with my dying breath.
Whether I am proud of my country is a different question. Yes, I feel lucky, and grateful, to have been born in a relatively safe and prosperous country, where the citizens enjoy extensive choice, wide-ranging freedoms and where many, if not all, have opportunities to improve themselves. And during major sporting events, I generally root for England or Team GB, because, well, it’s more fun if you pick a side.
But proud? What’s your definition? In my view, you can only truly be proud of something if you have personally contributed to it. If you write a good book, or help build a sturdy house, or raise a child who wins a public speaking competition, then you are perfectly within your rights to be proud. But I don’t believe you have that privilege if your connection to the success is entirely coincidental.
Between 1845 and 1852, a million Irish men, women and children died during the potato famine, thanks largely to negligence by the British. Does that make you feel bad? From 1899 to 1901, 28,000 Boer women and children and at least 20,000 black people died in concentration camps set up in South Africa by the British Empire. Do you accept personal responsibility for that? During the Mau Mau rebellion of 1952 to 1960, at least 5,000 Kenyans were tortured by British soldiers. Shouldn’t you be ashamed?
Of course not. You had nothing to do with any of these events. But if that’s your logic — if you won’t carry the can for things you didn’t do — then how can you bask in the glory of England’s 1966 World Cup victory in 1966? How can you take pride in the Industrial Revolution or the Battle of Waterloo when you had no hand in either? How can you take any credit for Team GB’s Olympic medal haul in Beijing?
I’m careful not to litter, I pay my taxes, recycle, hold doors open for people, give odds and sods to the homeless, donate to a few charities and generally try to show consideration to my fellow man. But since I consider such behaviour the baseline for human decency, and since none of it has made Britain appreciably greater, no, I can’t say I feel proud, per se. And unless you’ve personally done something to add to the country’s wealth or reputation, neither should you.
I have a theory as to why the Brexit debate has divided the country so bitterly — why facts and reason are so often tossed aside in favour of emotion and aggression, and why so many people, from both Leave and Remain camps, have “doubled down” since the vote, becoming ever more convinced of their own rectitude and ever angrier with their opponents. It all boils down to this question of national pride and to our core sense of identity.
Most psychologists are agreed that humans base their self-image — the picture you have of yourself in your own head — on a few simple concepts. There’s no consensus on which is the most important, and they probably vary from person to person anyway, but chief among them are gender, ethnicity, religion, nationality, region, sexuality, age, political affiliation and job. If someone were to ask, “Who are you?”, you’d probably reply something like, “I’m a middle-aged straight white British male writer.”
These concepts are very important to us — fundamental, in fact, to our sense of wellbeing. When they are threatened, we become defensive, sometimes to the point of irrationality. This may be why people are often accused of being “hysterical” when they talk about race issues, or gender equality. Because these subjects are so precious to us, we don’t always think straight when thinking and talking about them. We use emotive language, we oversimplify, our hearts run away with our heads.
For some people, their race and/or nationality is such a core component of their self-image that it blots out everything else. It trumps values, personality, rational argument. According to their maddeningly simple world-view, things like me are good and things unlike me are bad. Tell them they must choose between saving the life of a white British paedophile and a Pakistani doctor and they’ll choose the Brit every time.
I am not immune to those impulses. When someone attacks my gender, or my town, or my football team, I feel that rush of blood, and I want to spring to the defence of the People Like Me. But I also know that this sort of tribal thinking is dangerous.
When your mind works this way, in this automatic, tribal, binary, type-1, caveman kind of way, you think of life as a zero-sum game. You think every gain for another tribe is a loss for your own. But history shows us that life is categorically not zero-sum. Trade benefits both parties. Marriage (happy ones, at least) benefits both parties. The most successful creatures on earth — ants, bees, termites, chimpanzees — are the social species, the cooperators, the traders, the sharers, the communicators, the dividers of labour. It is the unparalleled cooperative skills of humans that have propelled us to become the dominant life-form on earth.
Tribal thinking — the unthinking, slavish devotion to People Like Me — lies behind all the -isms: sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, transphobia. Tribal thinking has been a major factor in every war.
But we move on. Sexism, racism and homophobia are on the wane, for good reason. The more humanity shakes off this mindset, the further it advances. Our time on this planet has been marked with less violence and fewer wars because we have slowly figured out that US VERSUS THEM is not the answer. US WITH THEM is infinitely more productive.
That’s why I try to fight the tribal impulse. Certainly, nationality and race are measures of how we see ourselves, but they’re not the only measure, and they’re probably among the least useful ones. Instead of building our self-image on accidents of birth, we can use other foundations: the company we keep, what we say, what we write, what we do.
I am British. I am glad to be British. But I am not glad to be British simply because I was born in Berkshire. I am glad to be British because a majority of people with whom I happen to share this little isthmus share many of my values. Values of tolerance and curiosity and openness and inventiveness and hope. And if those values are ever eroded, I may well stop being glad to be British.
I am British. But first and foremost, I am a human being.
I had planned to bang on at my usual mind-numbing length about the relative merits and dangers of patriotism and nationalism and the differences between them, but while researching this post, I discovered that far finer minds than mine — some of the greatest intellects ever to stalk this earth — have already done most of the heavy lifting. So to round off, here’s their wisdom on the subject.
“Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.”
“Patriotism is the willingness to kill and be killed for trivial reasons.”
“Nationalism is an infantile disease. It is the measles of mankind.”
“The love of one’s country is a splendid thing. But why should love stop at the border?”
“Patriotism is your conviction that this country is superior to all other countries because you were born in it.”
George Bernard Shaw
“If I knew something that would serve my country but would harm mankind, I would never reveal it; for I am a citizen of humanity first and by necessity, and a citizen of France second, and only by accident.”
“I am not an Athenian or a Greek, I am a citizen of the world.”
“Borders are scratched across the hearts of men
By strangers with a calm, judicial pen,
And when the borders bleed we watch with dread
The lines of ink across the map turn red.”
Marya Mannes, Subverse: Rhymes for Our Times
“Nationalism is a silly cock crowing on his own dunghill.”
“Patriotism, the virtue of the vicious.”
“A patriot loves his country; a nationalist hates everyone else’s.”
“Patriotism is the love of one’s country and the desire to serve her; nationalism the hatred of others and the desire to do them ill.”
Pierre de Coubertin
“Patriotism is a kind of religion; it is the egg from which wars are hatched.”
Guy de Maupassant
“The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does; the first attitude creates a feeling of responsibility, but the second a feeling of blind arrogance that leads to war.”
Sydney J. Harris
“Nationalism is a state of mind permeating the large majority of the people and claiming to permeate all its members; it recognises the nation-State as the ideal form of political organization and the nationality as the source of all creative cultural energy and economic well-being. The supreme loyalty of man is therefore due to his nationality, as his own life is supposedly rooted in and made possible by its welfare.”
Hans Kohn, The Idea of Nationalism
[Thought I’d better put a positive one in, for balance. But there really aren’t many.]
“It is not easy to see how the more extreme forms of nationalism can long survive when men have seen the Earth in its true perspective as a single small globe against the stars.”
Arthur C Clarke