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When William Booth brought the public’s attention to social conditions in 1890 he called his book, still in print, In Darkest England. An arrestingly ironic title that did much to draw attention to the savagery in which many lived not in the wilds of uncharted territory but a few minutes’ walk from the comforts of a prosperous civilization. Booth was not alone in recording the sequestered disease at the heart of Victorian society. What these men and women understood was that it was not simply a question of alleviating the effects of poverty. It was a question of confronting the root causes of malnutrition, beggary, prostitution and crime. Society had to take moral responsibility for its failure to provide for its citizens.
From this perception rose a range of determined charitable enterprises, including Booth’s Salvation Army, and the research foundations, the societies and inevitably the political organisation that sought to restructure society. Reformers, radicals and, at the margins, revolutionaries all could agree on the need for a change of perception at the heart of society.
The Daily Mail responded with characteristic concern and wisdom. It dismissed Zola’s Germinal as "the unnecessary portrayal of offensive incident."The Daily Mail responded with characteristic concern and wisdom. It dismissed Zola’s Germinal as "the unnecessary portrayal of offensive incident." What possible motive could anyone have to discomfort decent citizens with tales of misfortune? Of course one knows these things go on, my dear, but really, must we talk about them when there is absolutely nothing we can do except offer such charity and sympathy as we may allow without destroying all that we hold precious? My advice is that the poor work diligently and stop moaning.
The motive of those who stir things up is of course 'envy' and/or 'hatred'. The have-nots envy the rewards of hard work and good sense. The privileged who speak out are the spoiled ingrates who delight in mischief. Those of us who love our country are prepared to defend it from the enemy at the gates and the enemy within.
There have been those who love their country so much they are prepared to talk of ‘broken Britain’. It was a phrase frequently on the lips of David Cameron and his allies in politics and the media prior to coming to power. The notion was that social democracy, even after the onslaughts of the 80s, was eroding the social fabric by misapplied policies from essentially alien ideas. Now, thanks to economic good sense, Britain is a coherent and determined nation again.
In this way of thinking the right’s emotional attacks on the state of society are motivated by patriotism. The left’s reasoned, evidence-based critiques of society are motivated by a hatred for ‘our’ country. According to the right, contempt for social democracy is a source of national pride. Concern for the commonwealth of society is intolerably subversive.
Because this popular nationalism is founded in unexamined emotions it is not easy to counter by reason. The logic is transparently confused. The rationale is inchoate. Its very nature denies the validity of serious consideration. It is rant rather than reason. The Daily Mail never misses an opportunity to show how ‘the country is going to the dogs’ without seeing any contradiction between the impulse to denigrate and its proclaimed patriotic principle.
The patriotic principle is a complex one when applied to these islands. Even the idea of Great Britain as a single nation is questionable. It is a union of nations with divergent languages, customs, laws and parliaments. It is not and never has been a unity. The union has never been easy: the Jacobite Rising, the Clearances, the Year of the French, Parnell, the Easter Rising, the Troubles, Plaid Cymru, Sinn Fein, the SNP all testify to a recurrent dissatisfaction with the union of nations so clearly different. The very notion of a single British commonality of heritage, customs and values is questionable. The disparity goes beyond regional variations on a common theme. Finding a coherent British identity demands a tableau of symbols that tend either to stress the differences – Morris dancers, kilted Highlanders and Welsh bards – or to concentrate on London and its environs: St Paul’s, Brighton Pier and Ascot.
The have-nots envy the rewards of hard work and good sense. The privileged who speak out are the spoiled ingrates who delight in mischief.When Churchill evoked in Augustan prose his patriotic history it was of the English Speaking Peoples. Perceptively, and with reference to his own background, he saw that there is no specifically British identity that does not embrace the divergent cultures of these islands, and the effects of imperial expansion. It makes an awful lot of sense to seek to identify the nature of a cosmopolitan English language culture. It makes no sense in trying to create an island fortress nation united in a love of all that we hold dear beginning with a queen of German ancestry, an established religion of Middle East origin, and a parliament founded by a French nobleman.
According to the patriotic myth of Britannia, the nation is worthy of reverence, but the network of associations that form our picture of society is suspect. As for the state, it is at best a necessary evil, whereas the nation is there for us. The state is created by the darkly anonymous others against the common interest. ‘They have elected a Labour government, and the country will not stand for it,’ an outraged Tory is said to have gasped in 1945. The nation is not somewhere identifiable and definite. It is evoked by nostalgia and sentiment. Society, however, is a network of component elements known and accessible. The nation is only superficially a matter of geography and social history. Its essential locus is in a mythic idea that resists, and fears, reason.
There was the old Afrikaner Nationalist slogan that translates as ‘Believe in God. Believe in your people.’ The appeal was tribal rather than social. National identity was to be found in the mystique of cultural identity as a unity according to the parameters of the known and the similar. There was no other culture that might share the land. There was nothing to learn from others. Other tribes were as ghosts of a barbarous pre-history before civility arrived with the settlers in their promised land. It is the kind of patriotism that leads to war. Conflict is built into its mindset. Operating according to a permanent siege mentality, the defensive positions are as narrow as they are extreme.
You do not have to travel to the Cape to find such indefensible attitudes. It is no longer permissible to speak of the ‘Celtic Fringe’ of Britain, but that dismissive phrase was operable in my childhood. The marginalisation has not abated with the change of language. To be ‘British’ is to display signifiers of cultural identity that millions of Britons do not share. Multicultural cities have transformed the nature of English urban life, but in the heartlands of the shire counties a mythic nationhood persists. There are many prepared to express a political choice that finds refuge in a mythos of a nation that never existed.
It never existed because the idea of the nation state reached its zenith in the century of spiritualism, and is about as valid a reality. The concept of a nation apart is relatively modern, certainly post-medieval. "This realm of ours is an empire" declares Thomas Cromwell’s draft of the Act of Supremacy. (Empire is here used in the older sense of a self-contained land.) Prior to that England had shared Christendom’s general allegiance, in theory, to the Holy Roman Emperor. Henry VIII, sovereign of the minor kingdom of England, stood no chance in his candidature when the imperial crown fell vacant. It was that rejection, surely, which prompted the breakaway. And with it grew the myth that came to justify centuries of piracy, slavery, war and conquest.
And so history was recast. Richard I, Coeur de Lion (the sobriquet is telling) may be represented by an exceptionally fine statue outside Parliament, but Richard spoke no English, and spent only a few months of his life in England which was then a province of the Angevin Empire. His queen never visited at all. How every unpatriotic of me to mention all this.
Every organisation is sustained by a myth of itself. The expectation is that it bears some resemblance to an identifiable reality. The rewritten history of Britannia evokes a mystique with undertones that cannot be fully articulated in a modern, liberally-educated society. The myth is not open to examination by informed minds. The myth is not aware of the cultural exchange of literature and ideas that inform those minds. According to the myth, the national identity is a determinant against actual social history. Ideas, especially from continental minds, are invasive and subversive. Under the protection of the Crown, and with the sovereignty of our heritage, we shall beat back the tide of history and our island shall be free again.
It is a curious patriotism that dismantles generations of social development, and that sells abroad national assets once in public ownership, and that displays no respect for citizens, families and communities in need of social resources. It makes little sense to claim loyalty to an anti-social abstraction. It makes rather more sense to swear loyalty to a sovereign ideal of a civilized society. Those are the terms on which progressive minds accept their allegiance. Such a state of mind commands respect. It is worth the oath of allegiance that every Member of Parliament, including Jeremy Corbyn, has sworn, some with more understanding of our common civic responsibilities than others. The myth of Britannia is treacherous. The reality of life on these islands deserves consideration.
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