Thursday, August 04, 2005

The fall and rise of British patriotism

Americans have long been mocked and derided, both in Britain and in wider Europe, for their sense of patriotism. American tendencies towards outward displays of nationalism and loyalty, for instance flying the stars and stripes, are very often looked upon with a mixture of amused condescension and suspicious hostility. Rare is the Brit who would be caught dead with a Union Jack hanging in front of his house, apart from, perhaps, on the day of some national celebration. A strong sense of patriotism, or certainly any public display of such, has come to carry the faint whiff of imperialist ambitions from the past, a sense of superiority that is presumed to be incompatible with the multicultural “diversity” mantra to which all right-thinking people are assumed by the cultural elite to subscribe. No doubt there are plenty of Brits with just as strong a sense of patriotism as most Americans, but they seem to have been cowed into keeping it mostly quiet, lest they become pariahs.

But perhaps those days are coming to an end. In two recent pieces, one on the BBC and one in The Guardian, there are signs that, as a result of the radical Muslim problem which Britian has discovered in its midst, at least some seem to be having second thoughts about the downgrading of national pride and purpose in Britain, and that they are looking to America as a model to follow.

The first, on the BBC, was just a small hint. Harold Evans, former editor of The Times, The Sunday Times, and head of the Random House publishing company, is set to take over for Alistair Cooke as the BBC’s man to comment on America. (For those Americans who may be unfamiliar with Cooke, his weekly broadcasts from the US on the BBC, called Letter From America, are legendary in Britain, having run from 1946 until his death last year.) In a profile about Evans and his feelings about America, Evans is quoted as saying:

"In Britain, we've seen those isolated pools of Muslims in Leeds or Huddersfield who seem to have identified with some crazy mullah. But here they are much more likely to say I am American first and a Muslim second. At least, that's my guess.

"No one is ashamed of being a patriot here, whereas nobody dare be a patriot in England - at least not recently, because they are likely to be hooted out. In Britain, patriotism is thought to be the preserve of right-wing nutters and that's a tragedy in my view."

Jonathon Freedland of The Guardian hit the same note yesterday in a much more expansive piece dedicated to the same topic. Freedland notes the lack of a coherent and promoted sense of Britishness, and suggests that perhaps this in part to blame for the seeming lack of national loyalty among some immigrants and first generation Britons, particularly Muslims. Quoting one Aatish Taseer, Freedland says:

"Britons themselves were having a hard time believing in Britishness", [Taseer] writes. If you denigrate your own culture you face the risk of newer arrivals looking for one elsewhere."

In this case, says Taseer, an Islamic identity, a sense of kinship not with Britain or Pakistan but with the global brotherhood of Muslims, the Ummah.

Noting the fact that the US does not seem to have the same degree of home-grown Islamic radicals as Britain, Freedland sensibly, albeit surprisingly, looks to America as a model:
But surely the chief reason is the way America approaches newcomers. It does not allow a vacuum where national identity should be, but fills the void with Americanness. Loyalty is instilled constantly - not only at one-off ceremonies - whether it be saluting the flag at school or singing the national anthem at a ballgame…

America works because it emphasises not only diversity but the ties that bind, too. It encourages a hyphenated identity - think Italian-American - but insists on both sides of the hyphen. In Britain, liberals especially have striven so hard to accept that people are Scottish or Jewish or Asian, they may have forgotten that they are also British. For bothness to work, you have to have both.
Freedland is not entirely correct here. The US does not insist on both sides of the hyphen. It insists only on the right hand side, and simply allows the left hand side to co-exist with it, although the recent onslaught of identity politics (of which Freedland almost certainly approves) is obviously making it increasingly attractive to be some kind of hyphenated American rather than simply an American.

In any event, Freedland concludes:
This, then, is the challenge. To forge a Britishness which welcomes
difference - but which is not so loose, so nebulous, that it leaves a hole where
national identity should be.
It is a big challenge, one that cannot be achieved quickly. And it will take a serious adjustment in attitude from those on the left, where “diversity” is something less to be accepted than to be celebrated and worshipped for its own sake. But regardless, it is good to see the strength of American patriotism being recognized by some voices in places where it has largely been treated with contempt in the past.


Blogger Marc said...

Scott, I read somewhere once, that some councils in Britain actually ban displaying the flag. It would be interesting to do some research to find out if this is true and if so where.

The reason given was that the flying of a countries flag might be offensive to some and cause trouble. Say what?

10:40 AM  
Blogger Marc said...

Scott, you and your readers might also be interested in John Wayne's take on the use of the hyphen, especially in regards to Americans.

It's even more powerful when you hear it read by the Duke.

You can download it here.

cheers, marc

11:20 AM  
Blogger The Christopher said...

Very nice page here. I'm an ex-expat myself, doing my time mostly in Scotland.

The British lack the patriotism that they once had. Talking to the older generation, you get a much different feeling than even when you talk to younger guys who consider themselves "Thatcher-tories." The news monopoly known as the BBC certainly plays a big part.

In Aberdeen when they had the commemorations for the 60th anniversary of D-day, they hung some Union Jack flags, but they also hung rainbow flags. Why, you ask?..."to commemorate gay people were persecuted by the Nazis." Well, so were Jews and Catholics. The point is that it was D-day commemoration and putting up rainbow flags took something away from the brave men that fought. Gays could commemorate on another day.

11:02 PM  
Anonymous max said...

Well, so were Jews and Catholics.

BTW, great post Scott.

1:38 AM  
Anonymous Mark said...

As an American I've been puzzled why those in the European region (UK included) so disdained the idea of patriotism and some sort of national purpose. After reading some articles on the subject, the conclusion I came to was that Europeans were adopting a kind of "throw the baby out with the bathwater" mentality. That Europeans remember a time when they used to show more national pride, but they remember it as a time when they got themselves or some other people they regarded as enemies into trouble, feeling so fervently that their side was "right" and the other side was "wrong" that it led to war, etc. They associated this absolutism with their sense of national pride and decided it was too dangerous, so they decided to extinguish it.

Before 9/11 conservative commentators used to bemoan the fact that there wasn't as much expression of patriotism as there used to be, here. That wasn't a problem after 9/11. American flags were everywhere, particularly on the east coast, with the close proximity to the attacks. I think it's a sort of thing that comes and goes with us.

Re: the hyphenated American stuff

There used to be some who didn't like it at all, because it was seen as a political correctness campaign on the part of those promoting multiculturalism. Before the hyphenated terms came along, if we wanted to refer to a racial group, we would call them blacks, Asians, Latinos, etc., or sometimes "people of Asian descent". Even some minorities objected to the hyphenation. I can remember when Whoopie Goldberg went around talking about her visit to Africa. She said it was a wonderful experience, but she also said, "I knew from that trip that I AM an American!" She also said, "I don't like the label 'African-American', because I'm not African. I'm American." She was speaking more from a sense of her own self identity, the way she lives, and the way she looks at the world. She was saying that she'd been to Africa, and she learned from that experience that even though she knows she's descended from Africans, she's not African in any sense of the word, culturally or otherwise. Which makes sense, since she was raised here from birth. Of course she wouldn't know anything else.

Now it seems we've reached a happy medium with the hyphenation. Ordinary folks are not expected to use the hyphenated terms, but public officials expect themselves to use them, and so they do. They see it as a kind of teflon language by which they can be assured that absolutely no one will be offended!

The impression I've gotten from reading actual accounts of European attitudes towards American patriotism is that they take it as us being "in your face" about it, or perhaps being in denial, that we should be less proud of ourselves than we are. I think these are misimpressions. People display the flag for all sorts of reasons. Some use it as a sign of welcome. Some use it as a sign of rebellion, of independence from authority, but identification as American all the same.

The most reliable place where you'll find the Pledge of Allegiance recited is before the start of sporting events. We used to recite it in the classroom once a week, though this has been controversial, and sometimes revoked, though since 9/11 it's been reinstated in some places. To be tolerant of those who feel differently, the children are not required to recite it.

11:19 AM  
Blogger The Christopher said...


Sure plenty of Catholic priests and evangelical ministers were persecuted and sent to camps. They weren't sent in the numbers that the Jews were, but anyone who stood up to the Nazis were.

3:40 PM  
Anonymous Natalie said...


Great read once again. Just so that our friends know over there many of us in the US have gone out and gotten the Union Jack and display it with the Stars and Stripes to show our unity with the UK during these uncertain times.

4:57 PM  
Blogger will24 said...

im british and the only reason we dont have union jacks outside our houses is that it is illegal and that we could have it at government places like schools and town halls

6:26 PM  
Blogger will24 said...

americans are alowwed to show thier patriotism by having flags outside thier houses because it is a republic.

this is because we are servants to the queen and not alowwed to do so.

6:32 PM  
Blogger will24 said...

im british and its true all are patriotism has gone in the last 30 years.

7:05 PM  
Blogger will24 said...

just kiddin

7:16 PM  
Blogger willthebrit said...

americans always steal things from the brits the apprentice,big brother,the office and pop idol its because americans cant think of any good programes

2:55 PM  
Blogger willthebrit said...

and marc yes the flag is banned everywhere in the uk

2:58 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

and also americans stole the programes the office, life on mars america sucks

6:06 PM  
Anonymous James said...

I'm British and we have not lost patriotism, especially where I live, in Kent.

We don't laugh specifically at American patriotism but more at where you think you're the best country in the world, which you're not.

And flags aren't banned, at least where I live

7:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Its true about councils banning the Union Jack and Cross of St George in case it upsets Muslims. It happened in my home town of Watford. This whole country has been torn apart by New Labour, The BBC and other Liberal Elitists pushing their multi cultural agenda on everyone.

I actually voted for the BNP in the London elections and am very glad we now have someone on the London assembly who is actually patriotic.

4:12 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Britan doesn't need flags everywhere to remind us of who we are our patriotism is our heart and our language and football lol :)

12:46 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think that the UK is the best country in the world, culturally and historically, I love it with my whole heart and it upsets me that this country has been torn up by a goverment who seems to hate everything that makes Britain great! I agree with the above that we shouldn't need to fly the flag for a sense of patriotism but most people see it as too British or non PC, but excuse how can anything in Britain be too British. If anyone is offended by the British flying their flag or talking in their language or being proud of their country and its history then what are they doing here? I dread the day the Queen dies because I feel that really will be the end of Britains Great Legacy. I must say from reading about the United Kingdom Independance Party I was convinced that they seemed like a very good party to run the country and give the lefties a kick up the backside and Mr.Cameron! I wish the Torries would get there act together! All I can say is Rule Britannia, Britannia Rule The Waves, Britons Never, Never, Never Will Be Slaves! God Save The Queen!

11:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

im a british citizen, a patriot and a strong believer of what our culture used to be. but immigrants in our country have a different idea than immigrants in the USA. an asian who moved to America would call himself an asian-american; while if that same asian moved to england, he would call himself an asian, living in england.

the other day my local council cut the funding of the west bromwich st georges parade, because it encouraged "right wing movements" and "negated the multi-cultural society"

now pardon my french but thats complete bullshit! our own government is stopping patriotic events simply because they may be offending to other cultures, who cares?
its our culture, and its getting crushed by our own lack of patriotism, its disgusting.
i've half a mind to join he army, the last patriotic job left in britain now.

6:43 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm British and have certainly never derided American patriotism; rather, I find it splendidly refreshing. What other British people have said on this blog is true: people are afraid to show their patriotism for fear of being associated with the British National Party (BNP) or the English Defense League (EDL). White middle class liberals (often, although not always, wedded to the labour party)like to celebrate diversity for its own sake, often at the expense of their own culture. In point of fact, some towns no longer display Christmas lights for fear of upsetting the local immigrant population (usually Muslims), yet more often that not they have not expressed dissaproval in the first place. Britain could learn a great deal from America's example of how to integrate immigrants into mainstream society; all it requires is someone brave enough to stand up for what they believe in.

8:33 PM  

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