If your personal patriotism is about reverence for the past and its symbols rather than your country’s current behaviour then you can justifiably be accused of living in that past. This may suggest that how your country now is compares unfavourably, in your mind with how it once was. So you grasp at nostalgic memory, whether it is yours or part of your personal inherited belief system. Intellectually you may know that the past is a foreign country where they did things differently but if that past is a comfort zone, whereas the present makes you uneasy, you’ll go there.
Some take the “My country right or wrong” approach and are resolutely loyal no matter what. Even glaring national failures like Suez had their “patriotic” defenders. But most of us acknowledge mistakes, though how we define them differs greatly.
The songs sung at the Last Night of the Proms are patriotic symbols of the past with little or no relevance for the present. Even the most jingoistic flag-waver can’t argue that “Britain rules the Waves” or that Britain is uniquely “Mother of the Free” . Nor that we have cloned a new Jerusalem in our “green and pleasant land”. That land wasn’t green and pleasant when Blake wrote the words as a critique of the emerging industrial revolution. It’s even less so now.
So the Proms songs about which there has been so much hoo-ha are moments of time travel to a distant age – interesting as long-since outdated symbols, particularly of Empire, but no sort of relevant reference for modern Britain. Worse than that if we cling on to them we implicitly approve what they stood for. If we sing without irony “Wider still and wider shall thy bounds be set” we celebrate imperial expansion – not that different, in practice, from the Third Reich’s search for “Lebensraum”.
The debate about the Empire, rather trivial and binary though it has been, has revealed for some just how important our imperial past is. It’s binary in that some celebrate it as a good thing – hence the defence of “Land of Hope and Glory” and “ Rule Britannia. Whether these defenders really think that these songs are any sort of descriptor of 21st Century Britain I dread to think. I suspect not and that it is more nostalgia for a lost age of perceived greatness.
My own view is that the debate, ludicrous though at times it has been, may have stimulated some to look more deeply at the 19th Century when the Queen was “Empress of India”. This to me was anything but a glorious past. The assumption that Britain rightfully and justly governed the sub-continent (and the rest of the pink coloured areas in your school atlas) needs greater challenge and wider understanding. Google “Amritsar” for starters.
The reality is that now, a few odd islands and a lump of rock aside, we have “lost” our empire. The writing was on the wall with India in 1948 and gradually the rest has drifted away. But when Argentina invaded the Falklands in 1982 (islands which I suspect few of us had even heard of ) we all went into full “Land of Hope and Glory” mode. Patriotism didn’t come more British than that. It was an absurd and deadly adventure to kick the invaders out but when the triumphant fleet returned John Bull had rarely been happier.
So what could we patriotic about today, or is it only the past? For me (I was heavily involved) the London Olympics in 2012 made me proud. There was no uber-jingoistic patriotism – the opening ceremony was confident and ironic not nationalistic. I loved it. We do The Arts and Sport well and can be genuinely world-beating. At our best we can be open and welcoming, but increasingly this is a rarity. But am I “patriotic” about modern day Britain. Absolutely not. The absurdity of Brexit and the gormless flag-waving many of its supporters indulge in is abhorrent. Xenophobia is much more than an undercurrent in British society, it’s pretty much the norm. And so it’s the past and the symbols we cling onto.
The furore over the Last Night of the Proms was a wallow in nostalgia with the self-appointed patriots ruling the roost. Not for me. But if you give me something to be genuinely patriotic about I’ll happily go along with it. If we’d led the world in coping with COVID- 19 that would be something to celebrate. But we’ve been culpably bad. If we’d treated the displaced person boat people washing up on our shores in a compassionate way I’d be the first to congratulate. But we’ve been shamefully vicious to them in thought, word and deed.
When Samuel Johnson famously said “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” he wasn’t knocking patriotism as such but false patriotism. I agree. I define false patriotism as that which relies on the past and it’s symbols and falsifies the past in the process. I would be patriotically proud of things that make Britain better today and for the future. You can keep “Glory” but I’d be happy with a “Land of Hope”. That’s in very short supply in 2020.