My Country. Right or Wrong? Bernard Porter Argues That History and Patriotism Should Be Kept Firmly Apart

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IT SEEMS TO BE GENERALLY AGREED (a) that we lack a sense of 'national identity' for Britain and for England (less so for Scotland, Wales and even Northern Ireland); (b) that this is a Bad Thing, especially when we want to make it plain to immigrants what being 'British' means; and (c) that the best way to find that out for ourselves is to rummage in our national past. It is our history that can show us what our 'core' values have been through the ages; what has made Britain distinctive and (by implication) good; and consequently what we can all be proud of--so binding us all together (including immigrants). It works with other countries, in particular the United States, whose patriotism is very firmly rooted in its history--or, rather, in a mythic version of it. That's what gives the US much of its strength and confidence. Britain has nothing like this.

Granting for the sake of argument (only) that it can be useful for a people to have a firm sense of its 'national identity', looking for this in Britain's case is fraught with problems. One is that people are bound to differ over what her 'core' traditional values are. This is because we've never been taught them in the past. One reason for that is a strong tradition in British education of not using history to teach 'patriotism' explicitly, unlike in many other countries of the world. (Mrs Thatcher tried to change that, but failed.) Of course, most history texts in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were broadly pro-British, but in a variety of ways. Some lauded British military and imperial achievements; far more, however, focused on the growth of domestic 'liberty'; and a number were overtly critical, especially of Britain's exploits abroad. Very few indeed made much of Britain's difference from other nations; most emphasized the common humanity of the British with the other peoples of the world. So children were brought up with little sense of this particular form of 'identity'.

This, in fact--to be paradoxical for a moment--may be Britain's most 'identifying' feature: that she never had any identifying features apart from it. At least, no one could ever agree on them. When past Britons thought of 'Britishness'--if they thought of it at all--they did so in entirely different and even conflicting ways, according to their class, their nationality within the British Isles, religion, gender, and so on. The nineteenth and twentieth-century upper classes' view of what made an 'Englishman', for example, was totally distinct from that of the working classes. We can see a late echo of this in John Major's famous 1993 'back to basics' image of England as a country of village greens, district nurses on bicycles and warm beer, which of course bore no resemblance at all to urban workers' views of it. 'Britishness' and 'Englishness' also changed over the years. It is interesting to look at some of the 'values' that puffed Britons up in the nineteenth century: not all of these have stood the test of time. Early on, for example, one of the things that made them most proud was that they didn't have a police force, like on the Continent. Later, any kind of 'secret service' was associated with Continental tyranny. In the mid-nineteenth century they took pride in being a peculiarly pacifist country--against much of the evidence, it has to be said. Later on, most Britons took huge pride in their absolute tolerance of all immigrants and refugees, even the fieriest ones, like Karl Marx and some later terrorists, whom they resolutely refused to exclude or even extradite. Again, this was what made Britain superior to other countries. Much of the 'patriotism' of the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was intensely radical and divisive, defining itself in terms of violent working- and middle-class struggle against the nation's rulers. (Hence Dr Johnson's famous dismissal of it: 'the last refuge of a scoundrel'. …