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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 For the right it is equated with outdated symbols of Britishness like the battle of Trafalgar and the Union Jack.”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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