A Very British Disease
Levels of British jingoism reached nauseating heights in December as MPs overwhelmingly voted to commence air strikes in Syria. They came, they voted, they condemned innocent people to their deaths, and then they cheered and laughed. Never mind that other nations have already been carrying out airstrikes in Syria to little effect, never mind that the threat ISIL poses on western soil manifests itself mainly in the form of homegrown insurgency, never mind that British intervention in the middle east over the last decade and a half has created destruction and power vacuums; from Afghanistan to Iraq to Libya, never mind that ISIL draws its strength from trade with, amongst others, British ally Saudi Arabia and a far more effective strategy to halt their advance would be to strangle this flow of funding, never mind any of this. Britain’s mind had been made up. This was about the UK reasserting its presence in international affairs, this was about nationalism and the foolish, arrogant assertion that “British values” will naturally prevail over evil. This is another example in a string of endless examples of governmental oversimplification of a highly complex and volatile situation, an example of the ridiculous pervading view that we are righteous and good and we must sort everything out, regardless of the chaos we leave in our wake. As the brilliant Adam Curtis told us in The Power of Nightmares, international terrorism has been greatly exaggerated and distorted by politicians “to restore their power and authority in a disillusioned age” where “those with the darkest fears became the most powerful.”
What this state of affairs perfectly illustrates is the colonial attitude that is still embodied in British foreign policy. The case for bombing Syria was riddled with contradictions and uncertainty but the Prime Minister and several others, most prominently Shadow Foreign Secretary Hilary Benn, painted the situation in clear, black and white terms which it really did not warrant. But it didn’t matter, “Britain has got its mojo back,” as George Osborne proudly put it. It’s hard to escape the feeling that this whole situation is a horrifically misguided exercise in British posturing and patriotism.
This got me thinking about my own experiences of having nationalism and patriotism thrust upon me in everyday life. I am not patriotic at all. I am not proud of being British for, as I see it, there is very little to be proud of and very much to be ashamed of. I find it bemusing that people can be so deeply in thrall of the Union Flag. We are a nation built on colonial oppression, firstly of the Welsh, Scottish and Irish and wider Celtic culture, and then of people the world over. We are historically ruthless, arrogant and anti-internationalist. Our most revered figure of the last century, Winston Churchill, was a fascist and a brute; the fact he helped defeat an ideology of even more pronounced fascism and brutality does not change this fact. I do not look down at those around me who are patriotic because there is nothing inherently wrong with having pride in the place you are from, but I cannot bring myself to share this pride and I detest how it is often manifested as vitriolic nationalism.
As patriotism seems to be the default state for the majority of this country, those who do not buy into it can often be made to feel like they are outsiders. This was displayed on a national scale by the shrieking reaction to the decision by leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, to not sing the national anthem at a memorial service. Corbyn was decried, mainly by the press, as a traitor, unpatriotic and everything else under the sun; this was quite frankly a ridiculous response. The day people realise the role of politicians is to do the best for the people they represent and not to worship the nation state as an abstract concept will be a very fine day indeed. While the media’s agenda clearly played a huge part in the hysteric response, it still spoke to the prevalent view in this country that you must embrace the nation state and those who don’t are at the very least a bit odd. It isn’t the fact that large swathes of the population are, or at least give the impression of being, overtly patriotic that riles me, it is the unwritten rule in society that everyone should toe this line.
This is also apparent when considering the annual poppy appeal. While the notion of remembering those who have fallen to the folly of war is ostensibly a noble one, the symbol has been hijacked by nationalists and used to glorify soldiers and war. As I don’t believe we should live in a society which lionises killers, regardless of how just that killing may or may not be, I, like millions of others, choose not to wear a poppy. But even this is too much of an insult for many; we are labelled as ungrateful, ignorant and, that old chestnut, unpatriotic. Millions may have died during the second world war to protect the liberty of Europe, but they did not do so for people to be shamed into bearing a political symbol.
I’m sick of it, this very British disease. I do not love my country, and there is nothing wrong with that. That’s not to say there isn’t beauty to be found in where you’re from, from the people you’ve spent your life with and the identity you’ve created because of your surroundings. But I do not recognise the “British values” the likes of Cameron and Osborne and Benn speak of; I would suggest if we all look outwards we will find more humanity than we ever could in patriotism.