Is it time to ditch patriotic values?
Harry Craig explores how the meaning of patriotic values has changed over recent years, and whether they are still positive principles for individuals and societies to hold today.
In a culture war-dominated modern society, nothing seems to stir up such vitriol like the question of patriotism. It has become the latest buzzword thrown around by reactionary journalists and politicians, often to attack what they view as unpatriotic young people – epitomised in April by the suggestion of Conservative MP, Tom Hunt, that schools should teach patriotic values to students. However, such suggestions obscure what patriotic values really are.
Tuning into the BBC’s coverage of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee, it would appear that British patriotism is rooted in reverence for the royal family, mutual tolerance and respect, and some of the world’s best music. However, at the same time there are accusations of the government attacking the BBC and failing Britain’s music industry in the aftermath of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the British public seem completely divided on many of the supposed cornerstones of British patriotic values. A YouGov poll earlier this month showed that although there is strong support for the monarchy, this is not replicated among young people, with just 33% of 18–24-year-olds wishing to retain the monarchy, down from 59% in 2012.
For me, the question of patriotic values is even more complicated. I am a tri-national, holding British, French and German nationality, and although I was born and raised in the UK, my family background, with a French mother and German ancestry on my father’s side, has always made me conflicted on the subject of patriotism and national identity.
The way I define patriotism seemingly reduces it to a sole unconditional sense of pride in one’s country, and too often that becomes intertwined with the actions of its government.
Like many young people, I don’t feel particularly patriotic about being British, primarily because I don’t feel particularly proud about many elements of modern-day Britain. On the contrary, I often feel a strong sense of pride in being European, by virtue of my tri-nationality.
However, the way I define patriotism seemingly reduces it to a sole unconditional sense of pride in one’s country, and too often that becomes intertwined with the actions of its government. Patriotic values, particularly in Britain, have been sold as a belief that your country can do no wrong, and that any criticism of one’s country, no matter how justified, is unpatriotic and tantamount to treason.
In reality, patriotism should be conditional, and include the duty to hold one’s country accountable. I would argue, for example, that the government’s attack on the BBC and Channel 4 – two of our national institutions – is unpatriotic, yet according to Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, patriotism is about flag-waving and the national anthem.
Consequently, patriotic values often feel like a hindrance to social progress. Particularly when looking across the Atlantic to the US – where gun rights remain ardently defended by Republicans on the grounds of “liberty” and “patriotism”, even in the aftermath of the tragic mass shooting in a Texas primary school last month, whilst sports stars kneeling for the national anthem to protest America’s endemic racism and police brutality are denounced as ‘unpatriotic’.
Nonetheless, progressive patriotism can be a vehicle for positive social change – an aspiration reinforced by the war in Ukraine. Following Russia’s invasion in February, President Zelensky rallied Ukraine, a notoriously divided nation-state, behind a strong narrative of national identity.
The patriotic slogan, “Slava Ukraini!”, meaning “Glory to Ukraine!”, became the rallying cry of Ukraine’s wartime campaign, as its 44-million strong population united to defend this emerging, if flawed, democracy from the onslaught of Russian fascism and totalitarianism.
Many young people like myself tend to turn our noses up at the mention of patriotism – here in Britain, it feels synonymous with flag-waving, anti-immigration, and opposition to social progress. However, patriotic values can and should become a springboard for progressive politics and social change. Policies like criminal justice reform and a tolerant, humane refugee policy are, in my view, far more patriotic than clamping down on the right to protest or sending refugees to Rwanda.
The patriotic values of old – an unconditional pride in one’s country – are outdated and illogical, but a new, progressive patriotism can become the basis for social progress.