I was at a dinner party in east London recently. The crowd was the usual mix – Left-leaning academics, barristers and journalists, mostly Blairites at heart, rather than Corbynistas, thankfully… – and all were united in deep concern over the state of the nation.
So once the initial chit-chat about the Bank Holiday’s superlative weather, summer plans and who would like what brand of small-batch gin (the host had several) with their tonics, the conversation turned to politics.
I can summarise the upshot of the many hours of raised voices, heartfelt declarations, breakout debates and disputatious imperatives in a few words. The nation is at a parlous pass – was it ever more parlous? – and we’re all going to the dogs. Scratch that: since the Brexit vote, the moment of apocalypse to these good souls, we’ve already gone to them. Now it’s just about how we roll around in the putrid muck.
All this gloom is utterly commonplace at middle-class social events – certainly the ones I frequent. Now it appears that these high levels of searing criticism and national self-loathing tally with the results of a YouGov survey published last week.
The survey found that while eight out of ten English people strongly identify as English, less than half of those between 18 and 24 are proud to be English (as opposed to 72 per cent of those over 65). About half of the 20,081 people surveyed think the country was better “in the old days”, and only one in six think its best days are still to come. Once again: we are going, or have gone, to the dogs.
But I see another story here, winking away under all this youthful negativity. It may be counterintuitive, but amid all the haranguing and doom-mongering lies a very British form of patriotism. Raining endlessly on our own parade is our way of showing we care.
Just as our forebears wouldn’t dream of gushing with words of national pride, even if they felt it, nor would we. We show our commitment instead by holding the nation to account: criticising, lobbying, arguing, protesting, writing… and having dinner party rows. We lambast Britain and so we believe in it.
Perhaps, then, it’s no surprise that the young – the very people most reluctant to admit pride in being English – are also the most optimistic about the future (though not too optimistic, naturally), with 28 per cent of 18-to-24 year olds believing the best years are still to come.
I’m more of a patriot (Brexit included) than pretty much anyone else whose company I keep. So do I squirm as the insults rain down on the motherland? On the contrary. I sit back and nod with appreciation; this is robust English political culture in action. This is the stuff of a nation that won’t take crap from its leaders. These are exactly the kind of combative, irreverent impulses that have made our country’s governments among the least corrupt in the world.
Now, an observer from another land – perhaps a French or American person – might think the kinds of emotions and ideas expressed at my east London dinner party (and all the other ones) mark out a country on its last legs; peopled by citizens who hate it.
Americans squawk and trumpet about having the “greatest nation on earth” and being the “land of the brave and the free” – all while seeing the breakdown of their society over race, guns and the most divisive president ever elected. The French crowed liberté, égalité, fraternité all the way to the guillotine, and “Vive la France!” doesn’t sound so good in the context of the swelling extremism, poverty, unemployment and strikes.
Even young Germans are looking for ways to be openly patriotic and nationalistic in ways that are completely alien to my British brethren. One young German, interviewed for a Demos study about nostalgia, said: “What have I to do with these few years of history [Hitler’s Third Reich]? Nothing. That’s none of my business. But with people like Bach, Heine, Goethe, Schiller, I do have something…”
In 1997, 850 primary-aged pupils from France and England were interviewed for a study about patriotism. Quel surprise, the French kids were found to be far more patriotic than their English counterparts: over half of the French children said they were “very proud” of being French, while only 35 per cent of our lots felt that way.
But herein lies the magic. For in focussing on our nation’s faults, rather than crowing about its brilliance, we show we care – not by singing rousing anthems or waving slogans, but the exacting and unsexy work of holding our country to account, over and over again.