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Patriotic love should not be blind: a response to Demos' Britishness report

A critical look at Demos' latest exposition of Britishness, 'A Pride for Place'.
Andrew Mycock
19 December 2011

A recent Demos report, A Pride for Place garnered considerable press coverage, largely due to its assertion that British Muslims were ‘more patriotic and optimistic about Britain than the white British community’. Aside from the deeply-questionable universal categorisation of ‘Muslim’ and ‘White’ communities, the report did not seek to explore this finding beyond concluding religious or ethnic identification was not a barrier to British patriotism. The authors instead argued there was an urgent need to rekindle a British patriotic love by recognising what British people are proud of in their local communities. The report asserted that a more connected and participative sense of local identity, nurtured through the promotion of local community activism and volunteering, would in turn enhance a sense of British pride and patriotism. 

There is merit in this proposition. Gordon Brown and David Cameron’s promotion of British identity based on key values and institutions have been criticised for being too abstract and elitist. Membership of a national community is an affirmative process which involves emotional commitment that reflects citizens’ lived experiences. However there are fewer union-wide national moments such as Royal occasions, sporting events or even Children in Need and these are typically marked with family, friends and work colleagues in our local communities. Such localisation of our sense of place and identity means it unsurprising that the report concludes that daily interactions within local communities can also encourage a connected sense of national pride.

The relationship between what the report describes as ‘human motivation and identity’ is highly-relevant, particularly as the Coalition government has sought to extensively recalibrate the relationship between citizens and the state in an effort to reduce the UK’s budget deficit. The gradual withdrawal of state from public life, through cuts in the scale and scope of its remit, highlights the ideological need to redefine Britishness within the context of the Big Society. The Demos report calls for the de-politicising of the Big Society and its decoupling from deficit reduction as they believe this has tarnished the altruistic actions of patriotic citizens who are active in their communities. This naive proposal seeks to construe social activism as apolitical, thus conveniently overlooking the ideological underpinnings of the Big Society as an integral element of a government policy framework which seeks to cut public funding and services whilst placing greater responsibility on individuals and communities to provide their own social and cultural resources.

Prioritising local community activism does not though necessarily mean that people will feel an increased sense of integrative national pride. Local and regional identities can provide a counterpoint that actually dilutes commitment to the nation by emphasising differences rather than commonalities. Localism can also provoke exclusory patterns of behaviour through ‘nimby-ism’ that can stimulate inter-community conflicts that contradict broader patterns of national cohesion. Attempts by Brown, Cameron and others such as Alex Salmond to articulate grand narratives of citizenship and national identity may well be flawed but are politically necessary to encourage the diverse and often fractured patchworks of communities across the UK or its nations to coalesce.

The central flaws in the Demos report are however conceptual, particularly the deeply misleading claims that pride is ‘roughly analogous’ with patriotism and that patriotism is a-partisan and lacking political underpinnings. National pride does not necessarily translate into patriotism but Demos suggest that those who are proud of their community or country must enter into a relationship founded on uncritical emotionally-bonded love. Such relationships can be destructive and fail to acknowledge that modern state nationalisms are complex mixture of civic and ethnic dynamics. The potential for xenophobic discrimination is as easily realisable on a local scale as recent scenes at Dale Farm proved. It is not mere coincidence that the British National Party succeeded in local elections through a campaign which linked active community participation with broader issues of the British patriotism or its lack thereof.

A lack of sensitivity to the nuances of the post-devolution UK state is apparent throughout the report. A survey poll on British institutions and cultural icons asked respondents to agree with statements such as ‘I am proud of David Beckham as a symbol of Britain’. The former captain of the English football team is an unlikely candidate to induce pride across the whole of the UK. Similarly, the idea that Shakespeare and the singing of ‘Jerusalem’ are primarily aspects of British rather than English pride is myopic at best. Whilst the authors misguidedly claim Scottish citizens are less adept at combining their Scottish identity with their British identity, they readily conflate Englishness and Britishness without acknowledging its implications.

The presence of competing Scottish, Welsh and English national identities also raise conceptual and rhetorical challenges in articulating an organic patriotic Britishness. The solution is revealingly retrogressive; each are described as ‘sub-patriotisms’ that are ‘politically regional identities’. The casual dismissal of Scottish, Welsh and English nationhood and citizenship is couched in the language of the past but has no place in a modern multi-national state such as the UK. The report also cites Britain and the UK interchangeably without recognising distinctions between the two or their implications, and consciously avoids engagement with some of the most patriotic Britons located in Northern Ireland.

The authors conclude that there is a need for pride-testing for two groups who are regularly identified as being identity-deficient citizens. The report recommends that citizenship testing for those applying for UK citizenship should be scrapped citizenship and immigrants should undertake a period of community activism to promote integration and national pride. But although criticisms of the knowledge-based structure and content of the current citizenship tests are valid, there is no evidence to support the idea that a period of ‘compulsory volunteering’ would instil British values and some immigrants would certainly resent being forced into such social activism.

The report also critical of the way history is taught in schools, thus tapping into broader governmental concerns about the dilution of a sense of patriotic Britishness and the need for what Michael Gove has described as a ‘modern, inclusive patriotism’. To redress this situation, Demos propose that the history curriculum in England (but not the rest of the UK) provides greater emphasis on post-1945 national and local history. A sense of pride in their local communities would also be encouraged through intergenerational mixing between young and old. This would suggest Demos concur with the Coalition government’s belief that history teaching in school has the somewhat mercurial potential to stimulate a positive sense of national identity. Such assumptions are not however evidentially founded; my research suggests that many young people enjoy studying history but that the correlation between levels of historical knowledge and national pride is questionable (apologies this is pay-walled). Many young people are suspicious of the motivations of government in appropriating history lessons as a vehicle to inculcate patriotic Britishness.

It also overlooks pertinent questions about the teaching of patriotism in schools raised by Michael Hand at the Institute of Education. A recent survey conducted by Hand together with Yougov suggests that four-fifths of parents do not want their children taught a patriotic version of British history and instead seek a critical balance between positive and negative constructions of the national past. Hand argues that although teaching patriotism or love of a country may well have benefits, such as motivating citizens to become more engaged or active, this is outweighed by the potential for clouding of citizen judgement and undermines the necessary critical distance from the state. He concludes that, as arguments about the positive and negative aspects of patriotism are evenly-balanced, it is not justifiable to seek its promotion in schools.

Although the authors claim localised British patriotism is ‘about pride, not anger’, citizenship without a progressive role for the state can easily refract into narrow-minded and exclusory nationalism. The ‘natural path of patriotism’ they offer is well-worn, hazardous, and open to domination by motivated groups whose interests might not always be civic or inclusive. Pride or even love of each nation in the UK should be underpinned by a critical awareness of the positive and negative potential of nationalism. Interestingly, the report notes in one brief paragraph that half of respondents were embarrassed to be British. This would suggest that many Britons adopt a critical approach to nationalism of all hues. This is not however explored in any further depth in the report. According to Demos, patriotic love of the nation - even if they are unsure which nation -is clearly blind.

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