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The Tories must learn once more how to express patriotism, or the future belongs to UKIP

By Andrew Gimson
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Conservatives have somehow lost what should be the natural and instinctive art of appealing to our patriotism.  Edmund Burke was not so inhibited. As he says in a famous passage in his Reflections on the French Revolution:

"To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind."

Burke recognised that patriotism is not an exclusive emotion: it comprehends many others attachments, including the love of mankind. But he also prized and wished to show others how to prize the ancient liberties which we have seen since Magna Carta as our inheritance:

"We have an inheritable crown; an inheritable peerage; and an house of commons and a people inheriting privileges, franchises, and liberties, from a long line of ancestors. This policy appears to me to be the result of profound reflection; or rather the happy effect of following nature, which is wisdom without reflection, and above it. A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views."

As Burke recognised, the generous love of country, and of our country’s history and traditions, is the indispensible emotion which sustains, nourishes and enriches our politics in the present day. It enlivens dry and technical tasks such as cutting the deficit, for which it helps win popular acceptance. And when the nation is under attack, as in the terrorist murder in Woolwich, we know without necessarily needing to spell out that a vital part of the response is to foster an idea of our country which will inspire the loyalty and affection of all but its most malevolent and misguided inhabitants. As Burke himself put it (this is the last quotation I shall allow myself from him today: for more about Burke see my recent review of Jesse Norman's book): “To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.”

I have some sympathy with the modern disinclination to put patriotism into words. One would prefer the feeling simply to be understood, or taken for granted. We still possess powerful symbols of nationhood which command wide assent: the monarchy, the Armed Forces, the National Health Service (note the word “national”).

And people who bang on about patriotism sometimes get the tone all wrong. Understatement is preferable to bombast. As Dr Johnson once exclaimed: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Boswell hastened to reassure us that the great man “did not mean a real and generous love of our country, but that pretended patriotism which so many, in all ages and countries, have made a cloak for self-interest”.

But this perverted patriotism, employed for disreputable purposes, makes it all the more necessary to try to express an honest patriotism. In the 20th century, many Europeans concluded that because national rivalries had led to war, and national socialists had committed unspeakable crimes, nationalism itself must be suppressed. This was the wrong conclusion. The Weimar Republic failed because it was unable, in its brief existence, to command the loyalties of a sufficient proportion of patriotic Germans. The eventual corrective to Nazism was the decent, democratic nationalism of West Germany, with constitutional patriotism taking the place of loyalty to a tyrant.

Democracies, it has been observed, seldom if ever go to war with democracies. Here we find one of the best justifications for the nation state: that by providing a demos, or people, it enables representative government. Unless (which seems to me unlikely) the European Union develops into a nation, with its own demos, it cannot ever become a democracy.

The Tories worry endlessly about Europe. This is understandable, even creditable, for as Alan Clark said in his history of the Tories in the period 1922-97, the Conservative Party’s “real duty” is “the nurturing, protection and advancement of the British nation state”. But it is a pity that Tories so often sound frightened about Europe, and so seldom manage to convey, except by implication, a proper sense of pride in our own country. The tone is negative when it ought to be positive.

It is true that patriotic pride can encourage complacency: the sometimes unwarranted idea, as our politicians used to assert, that Britain is “the envy of the world”.  But it seems to me that with a few exceptions, we have now gone to the opposite extreme, and omit to express the patriotism defined, in the words of George Orwell, as “devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people”.

Some of these remarks may seem rather abstract. But they actually have the most specific bearing on the Conservative Party’s present predicament. For what is UKIP, if not an expression of disappointed patriotism? Many of its supporters have despaired of ever finding their instinctive patriotism expressed by Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat politicians.

The term “the metropolitan elite” is so damaging because it suggests our political class no longer loves this country. And it is true that in fashionable circles, patriotism is sometimes regarded as an embarrassingly old-fashioned emotion, which is in the process of giving way to wider sympathies.

In order to reconnect with the British people, our politicians need to discover once more how to express a reasoned patriotism. For Ed Miliband to declare himself, in his conference speech last autumn, a “One Nation” politician was a stroke of genius. He was showing his willingness to borrow, or steal, from the Tory tradition: to use a weapon fashioned in the 1840s by Disraeli for modern purposes.

I doubt whether Miliband will know how to follow up this initial success. But he ought at least to make the present generation of Tory leaders wonder how they ever left themselves so vulnerable to a smash-and-grab raid on their inheritance.

In order to develop a reasoned and modern patriotism, a study of the works of Enoch Powell will be found unavoidable. Powell’s tone is staggeringly un-English: as he himself said, “The sleeping nation will not be wakened by lullabies.” He wanted to shock us out of our complacency, a task which in 1968, in his Rivers of Blood speech, he achieved somewhat too effectually.

But Powell had cleared the ground in a manner which others were too timid to undertake. He realised that our self-esteem could no longer depend on the possession of an empire, or what he called “the accidental and improbable collection of territories and subcontinents mistaken for an empire”: territories which we had long known would in due course become independent.

Nor should we allow our patriotism to be sapped by the obvious and unremarkable fact that we had ceased to be the workshop of the world. Disraeli had recognized as early as 1838 that we could not expect to remain the only industrialised nation.

Having dismissed those two illusions, Powell was free to point out that we were still “a nation self-governed and self-taxed, living under its own laws and accepting no external authority”. This to him was something of inestimable value. He regarded the House of Commons as “the personification of the people of Britain: its independence is synonymous with their independence”.

This doctrine is regarded by the more timid members of our present political class as quite impossible to uphold. But for constitutional patriots, it expresses what we believe to be the truth.

To defend this doctrine, a degree of tact, an understanding of the temper of the people, is needed. In recent times, British Conservatives have tended to be more successful when they have described themselves as Unionists than as patriots.

As recently as the 1955 general election, the Unionists – as the Conservatives insisted on being known north of the border – won just over half the vote in Scotland, and 36 of the 71 parliamentary seats. As Professor Alvin Jackson, of Edinburgh University, has explained, in Scotland the success of Unionism sprang from “its ability to define itself in the language of nationality”. One could be proudly Scottish and Unionist. This “language of nationality” has now been surrendered, thanks to blunders by Edward Heath and Margaret Thatcher among others, to Alex Salmond. The Tories didn’t just forget how to express Scottish patriotism: they actually insulted Scottish patriotism by such acts of vandalism as inflicting the name “Conservative” on Scottish Unionists (Heath) and trying out the poll tax on Scotland first (Thatcher).

Patriotism is not some romantic irrelevance from a bygone age. It is an indispensible element in any practical appeal for support. The Conservatives had better start rediscovering how to express a generous and inclusive patriotism, or the future belongs to Nigel Farage.


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