At one level, I’ve a lot of sympathy with Dr Johnson’s description of patriotism as “the last refuge of the scoundrel”. The increasing use of both the Union Flag and the Cross of St George by the far right means I’ve come to associate both with an extremism with which I am not comfortable. If someone waves either flag to justify the mis-treatment of ethnic minorities, my instinct is to be on the side of the minorities.
But this isn’t the whole story. Identity — including identification with country — are really complex and multi-layered. “National identity” has become blurred, and in the blurring there are real surprises as well as dangers.
A surprise reaction to Theresa May’s “Deal”
When Theresa May returned from Brussels with her “Deal” (the Withdrawl Agreement and Political Declaration) I was surprised by my own reaction. Intellectually I can easily say that the deal is a masterpiece of damage limitation. The civil servants involved have created something much better than I’d feared. It’s hard to imagine it being improved on. Yet it is so much less than continued EU membership that it’s a powerful case for abandoning Brexit. Emotionally things were much more raw. There was a powerful sense of dis-orientation. I found myself discovering something about how I identify with the UK in the palpable sense of grief at the country driving itself over a cliff.
The point here is that, while the ugly side of “patriotism” has been used to justify some brutal treatment of others, we do all identify in some way with things beyond the local. National identity creeps under the skin. From a British perspective it’s there in assuming the NHS will be there to care for us, in not being patriotic in an “un-British way” (usually), in the assumption that Westminster is the way a Parliament should be (even as we grumble about it).
Scratching the surface only a little, my sense is that, as small children we learn how the world works from family, school(s), from the town(s) where we grow up. Identity is built up gradually, and both regional and national identity is woven into that. David Goodhart’s The Road to Somewhere talks of the “tribes” of contemporary politics in terms of those who see themselves as citizens of somewhere and those who see themselves as citizens of anywhere. The polarity is useful, but we are all on that range. There is a particular rootlessness in people who really are (interiorly) citizens of “anywhere” — characterised by a perpetual “outsiderness”. My sense is that what he is describing is people in whom all the identity aligns around one place, and people for whom it is much more complex: it’s possible to move to the other side of the world without becoming rootless if the sense of rootedness is internal. But that leaves the question of what it is that has been internalised. In organisational consultancy, David Armstrong coined the phrase “organisation in the mind” to describe the model of an organisation that someone in it relates to. That idea can be extended to what makes up the “nationality in the mind”, but it is a complex web of things, rational and irrational, which together make up the set of associations. Some of that is positive, but it also carries a load of unspoken questions along the lines of “Do I belong?”, “Am I welcome?”, “Where is ‘home’?”.
Under normal circumstances that is something people live with. Aspects might come to the surface in the Olympics, or at the (remote) prospect of England winning the World Cup and the way people move gracefully from supporting “Team GB” and individual nations of the UK in another.
Already treating the EU as a country to which we belong
The fact that this is something we simply live with also allows it to change organically. In 2015, before the EU referendum was in view, I wrote something about the EU coming of age, because it seemed that people were grumbling about EU leaders’ treatment of Greece in the way we are used to grumbling about Westminster. It was as if things had developed organically to the point when the EU was functioning as a highly-devolved federal state.
That explains the visceral shock of the referendum result.
Staying at an emotional level, my shock at the Notre Dame fire only makes sense if I seeing Notre Dame as part of what I am identifying with. In effect, that says my identity is part British and part European. There need be no more tension there than there is for people from Yorkshire and from Lancashire, neither of whom are less “British” for being from rival counties.
On 17 April the coverage of the prospect of the rebuilding of Notre Dame on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme was fascinating. There were real discussions of whether and how it should be rebuilt. Surprised was expressed at money coming in more quickly than in response to humanitarian disasters. There was concern about whether that money should go instead to help the poorest in society. Those are all legitimate debates. But it also struck me that this was not being discussed as if the fire were an event in a “foreign” city. It had all the realness that would be there if the fire had been at Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s Cathedral. On autopilot we were identifying with Paris.
The fear of federalism
Some Brits (perhaps that should be “some English”) hear the word “federal” in the opposite way from most of the rest of the EU, as a centralising superstate. My hunch is that the emotional support for Brexit ties in with a fear that leads to that mis-reading. Perhaps this is part of the fallout of empire. But it doesn’t feel like a “failure to identify”, in the way that, before the Industrial Revolution, someone from a small village where all their family lived might not identify with the “London” they’d never seen. This feels more like a frightened withdrawl. The difference is that the “withdrawl” means people have seen something, been frightened by they reactions, and now need to tell stories to justify the withdrawl. That might explain a large amount of the seemingly-irrational support for Brexit. It probably doesn’t help that those who know the EU well don’t tend to be so frightened, which fits a narrative of “elites” that are “out of touch”. An analogy might be the person who hears an unfamiliar dog bark, and exaggerates its danger to justify their fear, and therefore mistrusts the person who’s played with the dog.
The snag for now, is that I fear the world from which people are withdrawing is a complex globalised world that is too much to get one’s head around. Those difficult emotions get displaced onto an EU with which we have enough in common to mean it can be conceptualised. The snag is that this means the fear of globalisation leads people to want to withdraw from the EU that would help us with it.
Danger of withdrawl
Part of my recurring anxiety about the parallels between this and what happened in the 1930s is that the fascist state of mind then was also about a withdrawl from reality — in that case clustered around fascist leaders who were seen as making everything good because they offered a way to get rid of painful emotions (on that reading, the genocidal horrors of that time were around the need to find and attack an “enemy” who could be seen as the opposite of the fascist leader).
The emotional case for Europe
At its worst, patriotism may be the “last refuge of the scoundrel”, but we all need to navigate our multi-layered senses of belonging. Identifying with other Europeans south of The Channel in shock and sorrow at a fire gives a sense of how entwined that belonging has become. The task is to live with that and not let the fears surfaced by Brexit turn that into a dangerous withdrawl. It’s to let the direction of travel of the last four decades continue and not be undone in the triumph of fear over friendship.