How does the nature of English patriotism reflect the dangers of suppressing identity and stifling free speech?
Patriotism can be dangerous in two chief ways. The first is when it is encouraged. Patriotism which is mismanaged at a societal scale can lead to illiberal, narrow-minded attitudes which in turn leads to isolationism, xenophobia, racism and, in certain circumstances, provides fertile soil for extreme policies, such the targeting or expulsion of minorities. However, I believe that there is a different aspect of patriotism which is equally, if not more, dangerous than allowing patriotism to flourish and that is to stifle it completely.
To illustrate this point, England is an excellent example. England is an interesting example of a country, which whilst technically a constituent country of the United Kingdom, isn’t really allowed to be its own country. Whereas the other constituent members of the Union – Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland – all have their own public holidays, national anthems, devolved governments and Parliaments, England has a conspicuous lack of all three. The largest nation in the Union, with a population of over 53 million, comprising 83% of the entire populous of the country with its own rich culture, history and identity has no public holiday for Saint George’s Day, no national anthem of its own and no Government to govern its own affairs. In this way, English identity and autonomy is almost completely suppressed in the administration of the Union, but the far greater impact comes from the manner in which talk of English identity and patriotism is sidelined in society.
Whether it be accidental, or more likely a gradual, concerted effort to create such an atmosphere, when someone expresses an English identity they are almost immediately tarred with the brush of xenophobia, racism and nationalism. Everything which can be associated with the English identity is now linked with being right-wing and having right-wing views. The YouTube comments of songs such as Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory are awash with unsavoury, poorly spelled statements either lamenting Islam and immigration or misinterpreting Churchill quotes. Those who fly the flag of Saint George are marked out as individuals with strong opinions surrounding immigration. Those who say they are proud to be English are treated with suspicion. In the same fashion that England is ignored in the administration, English identity is demonised in society. There could be good reason for this: English patriotism which leads to nationalism poses a higher risk to the United Kingdom than any other constituent’s nationalism due to the demographics of the country, but the manner in which the issue has been handled has led to nothing but disillusionment and an anger which has fermented for decades as the English have been told that they are wrong to feel proud about their heritage and identity which has now created a dangerous atmosphere.
The concept of this suppression is somewhat enigmatic, but can be best displayed with the displaying of flags. The displaying of the Welsh, Scottish or Northern Irish flag generates little in upset or offence in the country, but when an English flag is displayed, the connotations, or perceived meaning of the display is hostile and is reinforced by politics, even the politics of the working class. In the lead up to the 2015 General Election, Shadow Attorney General, Emily Thornberry MP, tweeted a picture of a house in Rochester, with a white van in its drive and three England flags hanging from the windows. The image was clearly deriding the household for displaying their English identity and soon Thornberry had resigned as Shadow Attorney General.
Later Thornberry did tweet that “People should fly the England flag with pride!” but her false sincerity does not disguise the fact that she immediately associated the displaying of Englishness with bigoted attitudes. Her attitude also makes clear the attitude which Labour politics has lost a considerable amount of support from its working-class voter base – they perceive patriotism as dangerous. Whilst it is certainly true that the symbols of England, the cross of Saint George, the hymns and the identity itself has been somewhat hijacked by the extreme-right by groups such as the BNP and EDL, the fashion in which that particular threat should have been dealt with should have been to target those specific groups with argument and legislation in order to reclaim the English identity for all – instead, Labour politics especially, decided that it would be easier to group anyone who displayed pride in their English identity into the realms of xenophobia and associated ideals and to disassociate themselves with the working-class voter base in favour of the comforting support of the left-wing middle class. This created a vacuum where working-class voters who would not vote Tory, continued to vote Labour but built up resentment at the fact that they could not display, without sneering comments and insults, their English identity until an outlet came for their annoyance with the Party. In comes UKIP – very much not the Conservative Party, which told working-class voters that their concerns about immigration (another topic Labour has waltzed around over the decades) were just and that they should not be afraid to be patriotic. Thus a deep held feeling which many had regarding their identity, which had been trampled on by their politicians for years, was allowed to burst into the open – an explosion of sentiment which now had to be expressed in the context of UKIP and Euroscepticism which gave it quite the nasty edge. As long as UKIP is the refuge of the English identity, the English identity will be expressed in such a confrontational and displeasing way. In Wales and Scotland, the parties of patriotism are those of social democracy, Plaid Cymru and the SNP and consequently there is no such problem with their support base expressing patriotism, but that is demonstrably not the case in England.
To summarise what I have been trying to say, the theory goes like this: If you deny someone the right to have an identity, or to feel a way, or to believe in an ideal, resentment will build up and up and up over time until an outlet is created. Whatever form that outlet takes, will be powered by this built-up anger and may be even more dangerous than simply having let people have their ideal, belief or identity in the first place.
Thank you for reading this first proper article of 2017! What do you think about my theory? Is it more dangerous to suppress identity than to let people express it?