To Love Britain doesn’t imply a blind acceptance of all its qualities
The row about the Daily Mail’s story about Ralph Milliband has been big news this week. For me, as well as the specific issues around the inappropriateness of the Mail’s criticism of Ed Milliband’s late father, this has for me opened up a wider issue about the nature of patriotism. What does it mean to love or hate one’s country?
There are two points which stand out. First there are as many as stories for why people love Britain as there are people in this country. This is a small country with large differences. Many of us have a different stories of who we are and where we come from. Some of us, myself included, are proud to be able to speak other languages besides English. Even amongst English speakers we can at times celebrate the mutual incomprehensibility of those who come from different parts of the same island. Our countryside is wonderfully different with major changes in landscape in the space of a short journey.
So diversity is in our genes as a nation. The Britain I love tolerates and indeed celebrates diversity. If Britain as nation state has had a single defining quality over the centuries it has been the ability, in general, to manage differences and avoid the worst excesses of sectarian or political conflict which have been so common in parts of mainland Europe. There are exceptions and the history of Ireland illustrates many of them.
My second point is that a love of country does not imply a blind acceptance of all its qualities. It is possible to love Britain but hate some of the injustices which have been carried out its name. As a Welshman I hate the historic repression of the welsh language. As a mental health campaigner I hate the negative attitudes towards people with mental illness which have pervaded our society. As a criminal justice reformer I am profoundly ashamed of the fact that we have the largest prison population per head in Western Europe.
There is an important sense in which history defines a nation and I am a strong supporter of young people learning the history of Britain. But history must not be a straitjacket and within our history there are many different and, at times, conflicting narratives. History is not just about kings and queens and indeed it is one of the most positive contributions of Marxism to the study history to shift its emphasis more onto the stories of ordinary people. Those different stories do inspire a love of nation but they also highlight some of what we ought to change in our country.
A patriotism which also dreams of a brighter and better tomorrow is entirely possible. Indeed it is ironic that one of our best patriotic songs, Jerusalem, is based entirely on such a vision. How many “lovers of Britain” sing with gusto:
And was Jerusalem builded here,
Among these dark Satanic Mills?
Earlier in the week I had 10 minutes waiting in Liverpool Street Station standing by the moving Kindertransport memorial. That made me very proud to be British. That is the Britain I love.