The Union Jack has been in the news a lot recently, and not for vexillological reasons. Fun with Flags, you might say, but there’s something serious going on here. National symbols, love of country and loyalty to it – these aren’t trivial issues. They pertain to the very fabric of our or any other nation.
If I can play amateur semiotician for a moment, the flag is the signifier and the nation is the signified. When we see the flag, we are thinking of it as something which has worth because it is a symbol of the nation it represents. Depending on who is looking at the flag, it might trigger feelings of pride, admiration, indifference, shame, fear or a multiplicity of other emotions.
One of the principal sentiments sparked by a national flag is patriotism – being invested in the good things a country is and does. Patriotism might look to a country’s values for its bedrock, to its great leaders, scientists and artists, to its people’s qualities. My own British patriotism, for example, would look to values of fairness, openness and tolerance, to Attlee, Darwin and Dickens (and many others besides), and to the generosity of spirit of the majority of British people I know.
Patriotism is also about home. There’s a German word for it – Heimat – meaning the place where those we love are, where the culture and landscape are familiar and comforting, and where we enjoy a degree of security and continuity in our lives.
My British sense of Heimat encompasses the great capital city in which I’m privileged to live; the feeling you get (another German word – Gipfelgefühl) on the summit of Great Gable; the sense of community and common purpose among the friends with whom I sing; a pint of proper beer in the hubbub of our local micropub; and the fact that most things work. I’m proud to be part of a country that at least talks about diversity and inclusion with some seriousness (though has some way to go in achieving it), in which people can criticise their Government publicly without being in fear of their lives or their freedom (though getting those voices heard can often be problematical), and which seeks to support its most vulnerable people through health and social care (but where, again, it could do better).
I’ve put qualifiers against each of those points because the healthiest and truest form of patriotism is that which sees room for improvement. It stares into the darkest aspects of our history (for example, the mixed legacy of the colonial era (and maybe here I should add English understatement to my list of reasons for national pride)); it recognises that, alongside the greats, we’ve also produced quite a few second- and third-raters (draw up your own list); and it accepts that not every Brit is or has been a paragon. That’s far from ‘talking Britain down’ – it’s understanding better the country we love.
The patriot would never say ‘my country right or wrong’. Sophie Scholl, for example, was a great patriot because of her profound opposition to her nation’s leadership, something for which she paid with her life. Patriotism, then, isn’t the last refuge of the scoundrel (and in any event, Dr. Johnson wasn’t criticising patriotism itself, but rather its misuse for political ends). It’s a profound and complex sensibility which balances love of country with a realistic view of a nation’s shortcomings.
I’m very happy to rally to the flag that signifies this outlook. From that perspective, it projects real, deep-seated strength. You might also notice that I’ve used a number of German phrases and examples to illustrate my points, because that’s the country I know best other than my own and because patriotism is better for being situated in a wider context.
But what of nationalism?
I can see how there’s a place for nationalism under the right circumstances. It can help unite a people against a foreign oppressor: think of the Risorgimento, in which nationalist sentiment fomented the unification of Italy in 1871; or the Finnish struggle for self-determination in the first half of the 20th Century. I guess Brexiteers would say that English nationalism – and yes, English more than British – was similarly an engine of change for extracting ourselves from the grip of a foreign power (except of course that the EU wasn’t a foreign power but rather a treaty organisation of which we were a highly influential member). Scottish Nationalists may well see themselves in a similar light, wishing to put (metaphorical) clear blue water between themselves and their hegemonic southern neighbour.
Beyond being a means of lubricating the path to national identity, though, nationalism can differ from patriotism in assuming a certain in-group superiority. There are those that belong, and those that don’t. Are you one of us, one of them or, dare I say it (hand to mouth in horror at what I’m about to say), a citizen of the world? Nationalism has within it the seed of othering, but also of unquestioning compliance and confirmation bias. For these reasons, I’m much less comfortable with nationalism than I am with patriotism. It can become a parched, desiccated thing, short on empathy and strong on blind faith.
In those circumstances, the national flag can be appropriated by those with shallow, fluid and self-serving values, particularly autocrats and populists. It can become a symbol of a mythical past rather than a hopeful future. It can act not as a window into our nation’s soul, but rather as a mask for poorly argued assertion of national superiority. In that context, I see the flag as something in which Dr. Johnson’s scoundrel might well have wrapped themselves.
Better, surely, to have pride in a national flag that flies alongside those of other nations as an outstretched hand of friendship, rather than one that flies alone, as a clenched fist of belligerence.