Monthly Archives: November 2011

E pluribus unum

“Patriotism has become a dirty word to some and a nostalgic exercise for others. For many on the left, it is a problematic concept, seen as the gateway to jingoism, nationalism and arrogance. For the right it is equated with outdated symbols of Britishness like the battle of Trafalgar and the Union Jack.” (‘A Place for Pride’, Demos)

Unquestionably, patriotism is somewhat of an enigma in modern Britain. Talk of a collective British identity always seems vague, and across the political spectrum there has been and continues to be widespread failure articulating the concept.

In response to this ongoing identity crisis, last week saw the publication of Demos’ ‘A Place for Pride’, in which a case is made for a reinvigorated notion of patriotism. This approach criticises the left and right alike and calls for a rejection of the traditional top-down approach that has dominated the discourse on the subject in Britain, instead advocating a bottom-up, localised patriotism from which a modern conception could grow.

As a Briton and someone who would consider himself far from a patriot, the nature of this study is thought-provoking by its very definition. A blind faith in the NHS and the BBC are about as pro-Britain as I get (the 2010 World Cup killed off my one other patriotic impulse). However, these bastions of Britishness are not nearly enough to orientate an entire identity around. If patriotism is to be accepted as good and worthwhile it should be emotively felt. With this in mind, Demos’ conclusions regarding the attitudes of the left towards patriotism flag up some undeniable truths.

“They fear the consequences of patriotism – which they see as chauvinism, racism and bigotry. They fear the right, more comfortable with unthinking patriotism, will manipulate this powerful emotion to render populist havoc. They fear that patriotism is necessarily conservative and that, without their own story to tell about nation and pride, they will be left behind.”

It would be naive to deny that Labour and the left have faced problems with the very notion of patriotism. Is it compatible with our message? Where do we fit into patriotism? Is it even good? For many years the left hasn’t known the answer to these questions and it speaks volumes that the now defunct ‘Blue Labour’ mantra contained a rethink on patriotism. But, this problem is not unique to the left and the study similarly highlights the equally problematic vision spurred on by the right.

“Those on the right have got it wrong too: they think patriotism means adherence to a set of institutions, historical narratives and deference to certain manifestations of the mystic nation.”

With the right’s symbols of Britishness being “too brittle and too fixed”and “non-negotiable”, the idea that the right wraps nationalistic feeling in history is clear, this is dissociated with contemporary society and also requires a highly improbable connection to be established between newer generations and the past.

While focusing on the right, there is arguably a vocal element who see Britishness as something inextricably linked to empire. Look no further than the rife eurosceptism currently dominating aspects of the media and political landscape. The European project is seen as anti-British and an unwelcome intrusion on the British way of life. But, in reality basing patriotism in history and age-old institutions shows an unwillingness to accept the flexibility of identity and undervalues the changing nature of Britain.

This explains why Cameron’s vague ‘Big Society’ is not only deeply flawed but based on ill-informed assumptions. In order for a ‘Big Society’ to emerge and subsequently develop people have to first believe that there is an identity worth investing in. Demos’ report argues currently this isn’t the case. Perhaps, in an ironic turn of events, there is an argument to be made that the occupy movements, the student protests and even the riots, supposed symbols of societal breakdown, are the most together Britons have been in collective action for some time. If taken as true, this is a disaster. Anti-state sentiments, or a backlash against the state, should not formulate the basis of togetherness. As a result of this failure, it’s fair to claim pride, place and patriotism in their current forms simply aren’t connecting with a state under strain, or one unsure of its own identity. This has been the case for longer than the political establishment dare to admit and it’s for this very reason Demos’ argument for a bottom-up patriotism is compelling.

“No longer can we begin at the top and work our way down; instead we must start at the bottom, in the day-to-day sentiment of people’s lives, and work our way upwards and outwards to determine the best symbols, ideas and institutions to represent and bolster that sentiment.”

“Instead you must be prepared to engage in the hard and unpredictable graft of building the framework and infrastructure to support patriotism and pride as it grows; you must consider it as a means, an end and a metric in what you do elsewhere; and you must devolve responsibility for building it to a local level,where experience can be delivered to facilitate its growth.”

It’s hard not to laud Demos’ conclusions. It’s been a long held personal belief that a singular national identity is implausible. I’m a young man living in Greater London, people across the country, whether they live in rural Yorkshire, Cornwall or Merseyside, do not experience life the way I do.  While far from an ideal comparison and somewhat of a simplification, you only need to look Stateside to see a perfect example of identity being left to the individual to see the merits of this approach. Fair enough America is a far larger geographical space, with a codified constitution as a tie that binds, but being American is a broader more all-encompassing concept than being British. In fact, as Demos identify ‘Britishness’ has been far too rigid, resistant to change and grounded in false notions of togetherness. This simply doesn’t work.  Remove this fallacy and you are left with the local, the people you pass everyday, work with, interact with, these individuals shape your feelings towards your community. If this was left to grow and articulate itself, a community of communities could entrench a sense of pride which has long vacated this small island.

Kitchener's infamous war cry seems more outdated than ever.

Due to this, there is nothing wrong with choosing to identify myself first and foremost as a Londoner. This is not to say I regard myself as a separate entity superior to other Britons, but I think we can choose to define ourselves based on our emotions and have pride in these identities, which in turn makes a form of societal pride more likely to develop. Some would no doubt argue that localism is a strange bedfellow for patriotism, as it would seem to lend itself to tribalism. But surely it’s exponentially better to have individuals feel proud of their local area and interact with their community rather than have individuals who are completely disconnected to both their local and national identity.

“Patriotism is not unique or discrete – it is formed of, grows out of and influences more localised forms of public pride. People who take pride in their day-to-day lives, who appreciate their community and are proud of it, are more likely to feel predisposed to pride in Britain as a whole.”

Considering this, it’s vital for the political establishment to embrace this re-imagining of patriotism. Certainly feeling pride in your local area is a necessary building block of patriotism, the foundations if you will, and if encouraged will most likely lead to an increased notion of oneness through localism. In fact, maybe if this mantra is embraced, one day this Londoner and many other people across the country will find themselves bowled over with sentiments for Queen and country.

Kenneth Way.

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Ciao Berlusconi!

It was through a narrow and discrete door that Italy’s longest serving PM, Silvio Berlusconi, left the presidential palace late Saturday night to the chants of “hallelujah!” from protestors that had gathered to celebrate his resignation. After a high profile career that has controversially shaped Italy’s political landscape, the self styled “Il cavaliere” (the Knight) may have hung up his armour – yet his legacy leaves behind a nation that is edging closer to the precipice, amidst crippling debts and a society that has lost faith in its political class.

Heralded as an “outsider”, the self-made media tycoon was considered by many Italians in the early 1990s as a credible alternative to what may saw as a corrupt, clientelist and uninspiring political system. Casting himself as a moderniser and reformer who would bring about an “economic miracle” – Berlusconi’s legacy could not have been any further from the truth.

Reaction to the news of Berlusconi’s resignation.

Economic regression

Statistically, Italian debt currently stands at €1.9 trillion, at 120% of its annual GDP (the third most indebted nation in the “developed” world); with lending rates dangerously touching the 7% mark, a level at which lending is seen as unsustainable, and where a bail-out – in the image of Greece, Ireland and Portugal – may eventually become a reality. In the decade leading to 2010, only Haiti and Zimbabwe were ranked as having lower growth, with Italian GDP per head actually regressing. As well as this, Italy’s ageing population is a cause for concern in the context of growth forecasts, more than a quarter of young people are unemployed – a figure that rises to 40% in the south. Moreover, low productivity rates and high wages took haven taken their toll on competitiveness and job creation: whereas productivity rose by a fifth in the US and a tenth in Britain in the last ten years, Italy saw its production rate fall by 5%. It comes as no surprise that Italy is ranked 80th in the World Bank’s “Doing Business” index, below Belarus and Mongolia, and currently stands in 48th place in the World Economic Forum’s competitiveness rankings, behind Indonesia and Barbados.

Earlier this month, amidst market volatility, Berlusconi’s government performance over the Eurozone crisis came under close scrutiny from the IMF and European counterparts at the G20 summit in Cannes. Whilst many economists believed that Italy’s position was “markedly worse” than Spain, the IMF and European Union promptly dispatched observers and audit officers to Rome – a humiliating step for Europe’s third largest economy. In response, and to the stupefaction of many Italians, Berlusconi stated that life in Italy was that of a “wealthy country, it’s hard to find seats on planes, and our restaurants are full of people”.

Despite Berlusconi’s initial efforts to shrug off such procedure as a mere audit at a time of difficulty, IMF boss, Christine Lagarde, summarised the gravity of the situation as “identified both by the Italian authorities and by its partners, as a lack of credibility of the measures that are announced.” Or in other words, the lack of credibility in both Mr Berlusconi and his capability to deliver necessary measures.

Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy answering questions on Berlusconi.

With 51 votes of confidence in his government since 2008 and four ongoing trials – Berlusconi’s credibility, or lack of it, was not confined to the economy. For Andrea Mammone, the media-mogul’s “mediaitsation” of politics eventually became a “one-man-show centered on the increasingly-absurd figure of Berlusconi”. The high profile “bunga-bunga” sex scandals, along with police investigations into allegations of fraud, to the increasingly hard-line proposals to stop wiretapping, changes in juvenile prostitution laws, – projected the image of a “banana republic” in which a modern democracy could be run as a personal business entity. The promotion of showgirls and actresses into parliament, government and even as party candidates in regional elections, cultivated the macho and openly sexist portrayal of Berlusconi, whom in April 2011 joked “When asked if they would like to have sex with me, 30% of women said, ‘Yes’, while the other 70% replied, ‘What, again?’.”

It’s unsurprising to say that over the years, Berlusconi lost credibility both at home and abroad. Yet in the end it wasn’t his relationship with juvenile prostitutes, his eccentrics, allegations of corruption, nor his prolific contempt for the judiciary and the judges that were after him. In the end, the man who promised that he would deliver a “new economic miracle” – was finally brought down to earth by his failure to make the Italian economy grow.

Sanders Arampamoorthy.

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