Column: Homeland

©CC BY-SA 2.0 Jimmy Baikovicius
©CC BY-SA 2.0 Jimmy Baikovicius

Columnist A. Miller-Draper on patriotism


There is an old English saying that “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” I believe it derives from the 18th century, when the nation state was in its early ascendancy, and it was a comment on the then political arena of Britain. Most people share a love of their own country. It is, after all, their home. But does that love translate into unquestioning loyalty to the prevailing political system of their country? Does it also include a wilful blindness to society’s inadequacies.

At the time of the handover of Hong Kong in 1977, by the British back to China, the then Chinese government urged Hong Kong’s citizens to be patriotic, that indeed it was their duty to be patriotic. It was an intimidating admonition to the people of Hong Kong. Patriotism, in this instance, meant loyalty to the Communist party, which still does form the government of China. Hong Kong, particularly after the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, was notoriously anti-communist. Patriotism can too easily be exploited by an unscrupulous government, be it Milosevic in Serbia, or the archfiend Adolf Hitler in 1930’s Germany.


So, any right thinking individual needs to be wary of so-called patriotism, particularly when it is conjured up by politicians and political leaders. In many ways it was at the nub of the whole Brexit conundrum, last June 23. Though it would be an error to label one side of the argument more or less patriotic than the other.

It was also illuminating to hear the case for leaving the union being put forward by recent immigrants, or those of immigrant descent. It certainly was not a clear-cut choice for most British people. And what a polyglot, multi-ethnic population the British have become, in the last half-century or so. Lord Nelson’s appeal to patriotism on the deck of the Victory, 200 years ago, when he signalled the fleet as they sailed into action, “England expects every man to do his duty”, may still resonate today, but it would be an England composed of people from all over the planet. And what is it in today’s England that can still tug the heart-strings-history, the monarchy, the beauty of the countryside, the friendliness of the people, the absolute and fundamental paramountcy of the rule of law, the food, the weather?

Perhaps the actual ingredients making up this love of country may alter in their primary appeal. But I find it quite moving when a man or woman of Pakistani descent, for instance, but born in Britain, speaks with such evident devotion of their new home country, and argues for Brexit! The same applies, of course, for those born of mixed race, where there might be expected to be some confusion of loyalties, exacerbated by the differing cultures of the parents. I always felt Nasser Hussain, Indian father and English mother, was a very fine captain of the England cricket team.


And then what of America? All the colours of the rainbow there. And has it not been an inspiration to see America led by Barack Obama for these past eight years? Kenyan father, American mother, born in Hawaii, partially raised in Indonesia! America has never pretended to be anything other than an immigrant nation. Britain remains rather nervous about its own identity. But both countries have provided real homes for people from all over the globe.

©cc-by-nc-2.0 Thomas Hawk
©cc-by-nc-2.0 Thomas Hawk

Some countries are not so all-embracing or welcoming; their individual culture not so accessible to immigrants. This may just be an accident of geography. Japan does not attract waves of immigration and aspects of its culture are quite impenetrable to foreigners, nonetheless it is opening up, not least to Japanese of mixed race descent.


The more distant, or rather more foreign the culture, the more difficult it is for the immigrant or refugee to be absorbed by their new nation. Many Muslim immigrants to the Christian West have experienced this difficulty in recent decades. Some traditional customs may be found directly at odds with the more liberal values of the West. This is not necessarily to invalidate those traditional values or customs. Attitudes to women are one notorious area of conflict. Western nations have made it clear that the rule of law ultimately determines these customs’ validity.

When it comes to the contemporary crisis of Islamic fundamentalism, it is understandable that so many Western nations, to their regret and consternation, have had to assume a virtual constant state of emergency. Crucial to the Western national reaction is that their citizenry should remain united, that a wedge should not be driven between the vast majority of the law-abiding Muslims, and their new country; unlike Mr Trump and his clarion call demagoguery, whose appeal reveals the accuracy of the observation that patriotism can indeed be the refuge of a scoundrel – a dangerous and deluded man! Love trumps hate! I like that riposte.

France, it would appear, is currently in the eye of the storm. France, in many ways, has a adopted an enlightened approach to its immigrant population. It does not matter whence your origin, all that is demanded is that you embrace French culture, embodied by its language. The Francophone culture traverses the globe, from Indochina in the Far East, to the South Pacific, to the numerous countries of West Africa, to certain island states in the Caribbean, and, of course, North Africa. They are all regarded as French.

That isolated pockets of this vast French nation should become so lethally radicalised has filled the French nation with an awful dismay. That severely economically deprived areas, favoured by recent Muslim immigrants because rents are cheap, have been allowed to build up in most of the larger French cities has not helped matters. Nonetheless the vicious ingratitude of these isolated radicals offends something very deep in the French soul.

Solidarity with the victims of the Paris attacks| ©cc by-nd 2.0 Bianca Dagheti
Solidarity with the victims of the Paris attacks | ©cc by-nd 2.0 Bianca Dagheti


Clearly it is important for human beings to feel they belong. And if they can’t belong, or rather don’t feel they can belong to their new country, then I suppose it’s natural they cast around for somewhere or something to which they think they can belong. So people can hang on to their old ways. For most immigrants language is the crux of the matter. Speaking the language of their new country fluently, they can more rapidly assimilate.

The internet, it would appear, is speaking a new kind of language too, one of instant access across continents, so that a troubled young man, locked away in his tenement room in a French city, can feel closer to some Jihadi maniac in the Syrian desert than to the family living just down the corridor.

Identification with the nation state itself is no longer so readily applicable. Anyway, certainly in the West, despite the language obstacles, a universal mass urban culture, with its hallmark of facile communication technology, has outgrown the nation state. Being from a Western country, it is easy to feel quite at home in any number of other countries in the West. And perhaps that is a good thing. We don’t want too much patriotism, or fundamental radicalism. We are all one – the very motto of the United States of America – e pluribus unum. Or to paraphrase the great 18th century German poet Goethe – “wherever I hang my hat is home”.



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