Thursday, 11 October 2012

The Progress of Patriotism

With a double-dip lurking in the very recent past and an environment of largely unpopular fiscal measures dominating the national press, this year's mood has visibly been one of spreading discontent with the political classes. This dismal spell is even more evident from recent figures on voting intentions, which suggest that British people are becoming more apathetic as they face a system largely perceived to be at the point of stagnation.

This year's conference season has given political commentators a great deal to think about however, as a positive side-effect of this environment has been that important thinkers from all sides of the political spectrum have becoming increasingly willing to rethink their respective received wisdoms in an effort to reinvigorate their causes and motivate their disillusioned supporters. The keynote speech of the Labour leader, Ed Miliband, was one such effort, and from polls taken immediately afterwards, it appears to have been a roaring success, albeit among an audience of largely Labour-inclined voters.


Nevertheless, echoing the words of Benjamin Disraeli, Mr Miliband's speech sought to take common ground with Conservative voters by calling upon a national sense of purpose and, more importantly, by invoking by name the topic of patriotism. Patriotism has long been a point of difficulty for the left, often seen as a dangerous, emotional and jingoistic "preserve of the right". Recently however,  prompted by winds of change gusting from the turbulent political climate, powerful voices on the left have begun to fundamentally rethink this position and also, surprisingly, to laud the merits of a largely decentralised government supported by a unified national identity.

Such a view has of course been Conservative policy for some time and has gradually been brought to government through such devices as the Localism Act. While this move therefore seems to have been largely designed to encroach upon what was once exclusively Tory turf, it has had the effect of making patriotism much more accessible to those of other political persuasions. This might in turn open up further opportunities to the Conservatives, who should feel much more comfortable debating issues already firmly cemented within their ideology.

The same is not necessarily true of the left. Much-maligned during the latter part of the 20th century, patriotism, and its close cousin nationalism, are easily challenged for their contribution to large-scale armed conflicts. For observers concerned with issues of global equality, they may also raise questions as to whether it is appropriate to allow disproportionate economic advantage or disadvantage to be allocated according to the arbitrary designation of where someone happens to have been born.

While it may be true that to hold a group identity based on geography alone is fairly arbitrary however, most other group identities are equally arbitrary. Whether based upon shared religious belief, profession, or even something as irrelevant as taste in music, they all function by taking superficial aspects of individual experience at a moment in time and expanding them to form a highly generalised picture vaguely applicable to every member of the group. That being said, it is easy to underestimate the impact simple geography has on human life. Geography restricts movement, slows communication and, for the most part, decides the individuals with whom any person may interact on a regular basis. It is sensible to suggest that such things as government, defence and the establishment of law should be based on such a feature that naturally lends itself to their maintenance. It is also very reasonable to establish a group identity primarily with those whom you encounter most often and whom you are most likely to encounter again in the future. Among other things, it makes these simple tasks much easier.

It is still a valid criticism of strong national self-image that such identity often leads to opposition with groups deemed to be "others" and "outsiders". When fused with modern military power this can become a dangerous cocktail that continues to threaten lives around the world. Nevertheless, it is fundamental to the human experience that people naturally form identities based on their everyday experience. Such identities, along with actions associated with their affirmation and the opposition of "others", are very common components of violence in general. Such violence  is a great deal less dangerous however once guarded beneath a national "monopoly" which seeks to limit the availability of groups deemed "others" with both a shared national identity and laws designed to prevent violent behaviour.

It is a pleasing result of the wealth and safety of western societies today that to be patriotic today does not necessarily imply a hatred of other nationalities. National identity need not be xenophobic, should not be exclusive and need not now even be mutually exclusive when the possibility of multiple citizenship exists. Those whose patriotism is a result of pride and an honest desire to work together towards a common goal, rather than a lack of self-confidence, should respect and honour those of other nationalities for the same qualities they see in themselves. Nevertheless, people are still restricted by and administered, fed and educated according to geographic limitations. While this remains the case, allegiance to a nation-state remains a rational and efficient way of working as a group towards technological, social and economic advancement. When organised on a large scale in this way, humans become capable of far more than they would when acting alone or within a small group.

British Conservatives should feel pleased that their fundamental beliefs have now come to be recognised by the opposition party as valid and highly mobilising. While it is certainly a challenge to ensure that patriotism does not take on the kind of xenophobic zeal that is found to be on the rise elsewhere in the world, it has the ability to unite people separated within very different regions (as can be found today in areas administered by British devolved governments such as the Scottish Parliament) under a common cause. Rather than see the Labour Party's new direction as a threat, as some political commentators have suggested, Conservatives should take it as an opportunity to seize the initiative, knowing that their ideas continue to carry powerful traction across very diverse reaches of society.