Sunday, 7 August 2011

On being a patriotic liberal

I consider myself a patriot. I'm also a social liberal and a member of the Liberal Democrats. There is a tendency among many, especially on the right, to see patriotism and liberalism as mutually incompatible. They are wrong.

Liberalism is an internationalist philosophy which believes in universal values (such as universal human rights) and as such is against the idea of people creating self defined groups and then extolling the superiority of that group over all others. So, if you define patriotism as "my country, right or wrong" and "my country is the best in the world and all other nationalities are inferior" then you are quite right in thinking that patriotism is incompatible with liberalism.

However, that is not how I define patriotism.

My parents were both English and they were British nationals. And, although I was born abroad, I grew up, and have spent most of my life, in England. I am English. And I don't consider being English a matter of ethnicity. If I look at people in my age group I can see people of every conceivable ethnic background and yet in their habits, cultural references, viewpoints, idols, irritants and pretty much everything else which defines one culture from another, they are no different from me. They are just as English as I am.

I once read a fascinating anthropological study of the English entitled Watching the English. I can't recommend it enough. It covers, amusingly and in detail, every aspect of English culture and what it means to be English. It talks about such subconscious yet universal English behaviours such as queuing - for example, if you're in a queue at a canteen and you see something off to one side and go to pick it up, when you return to the queue you'll glance at the person you were previously standing in front of and, without a single word being exchanged, you'll ascertain whether you're allowed to rejoin the queue or have to go to the back of it.

And all of these identifiers, all of these cultural traits, aren't something defined by ethnicity. They're something that people who grow up in this country know and instinctively adopt without ever being conscious of doing so. It's just the unwritten rules of culture and society which we learn as we grow up. Ethnicity doesn't come into it and I've found that's been born out just by looking at the people around me. People who follow the English culture (which, like all cultures, is subtly evolving and changing over time) are themselves English. End of.

So, having established that I don't view ethnicity as anything to do with being English, where does the patriotism come in? Well, when people believe that their country is the best and that all others are inferior, that is what I call nationalism. And, taken to extremes, it is one of the most dangerous and fundamentalist political philosophies possible.

Now, I'm proud of this country. I'm concious of being part of a culture which dates back and has evolved over a thousand years. I'm proud that that culture is one which has been enriched by immigration time and time again over those thousand years. I'm proud that it is one which tends to have a live and let live philosophy which doesn't try and force everyone to abide by the same rigid code.

And I love this country as well. England is part of me. I grew up here, and as much as I enjoy foreign holidays, I know I'll never feel home anywhere else. The history of this country, from invasion to civil wars to republic to restoration of the monarchy to parliamentary democracy, is my history. For better and for worse, all of that history has shaped our culture which has, in turn, shaped me as I grew up. Wherever I go, I'll never forget what it feels like to be in England, to be home. I'll never forget that hodgepodge of memories and experiences that make up what I think of as England. Fish and chips, Tudor cottages, the rolling hills of the countryside, the bustling, shining and grimy metropolis that is London, the smell of salt and seaweed and fish on the beach at Rye, the white cliffs, the M25 in rush hour, chicken korma, moaning about the weather, the oak trees in the forests, the sheep on the farms and all the rest. That is my England and I will never belong anywhere else.

So I love this country, and I love how being patriotic for us also includes grumbling about how bad it is but being incredibly irritated when foreigners criticise it. But that doesn't equate to blind support for my country. If, for example, a fascist regime came to power I would view it as my patriotic duty to resist what I would consider a pollution of what makes England England. For me, patriotism isn't incompatible with objecting to our treatment of certain groups in society, or our foreign policy, for me they are all wrapped up in the same thing.

Patriotism is the love of your country. And I love this country. And because I want it to be a place which deserves the love of all its people, I am also a liberal who campaigns to try and change things to make the country better. For me, that is what patriotism is about and I am proud to be a patriot*.

* - For the sake of clarity, when I talk about patriotism I consider myself to be an English patriot and, because England is part of the United Kingdom, I also support the United Kingdom and believe in the same rights and protection for all of its inhabitants. But the UK is a fundamentally political union of several countries, each with their own culture, and so I don't feel the same attachment to the Union as I do to England.


  1. Yes but your social liberal MPs are the ones with none but two government posistions. The Liberal Democrats at the moment should just be called the Liberal party.

  2. Being a social liberal and an economic liberal are not mutually exclusive. Just because a lot of our cabinet members are economic liberals doesn't mean they're not social liberals as well.

    Furthermore, social liberalism was the Liberal party philosophy long before it merged with the SDP.


I'm indebted to Birkdale Focus for the following choice of words:

I am happy to address most contributions, even the drunken ones if they are coherent, but I am not going to engage with negative sniping from those who do not have the guts to add their names or a consistent on-line identity to their comments. Such postings will not be published.

Anonymous comments with a constructive contribution to make to the discussion, even if it is critical will continue to be posted. Libellous comments or remarks I think may be libellous will not be published.

I will also not tolerate personation so please do not add comments in the name of real people unless you are that person. If you do not like these rules then start your own blog.

Oh, and if you persist in repeating yourself despite the fact I have addressed your point I may get bored and reject your comment.

The views expressed in comments are those of the poster, not me.