What is the current crisis doing to British patriotism? What call has the UK – and the idea of the UK – on the love and loyalty of its people when they are so fundamentally and irreconcilably divided, when the country is effectively in the grip of a cold civil war?
It might be said, of course, that patriotism is at the root of our troubles and will in time settle them – competing, passionately-held visions for Britain are battling it out for hearts and minds. Everyone, every side, it could be argued, only wants the best and merely differs in the means for achieving this.
But for many, these are unromantic, unsympathetic, and perhaps definitive moments. The uncertainties and fears exposed by economic upheaval and cultural evolution and technological change are there to be exploited, and are being so, good and hard. The dark forces of cynicism and self-interest are abroad; grim, unbending ideologues and populist chancers have routed what were once, of a sort, democratic safe havens and stabilisers. Institution after institution is failing, rendered unfit and unlovely, from Westminster downwards.
Put another way: the United Kingdom was once a warm, safe, well-established home in a nice neighbourhood, with glowing fire, expansive gardens, well-stocked pantry and sturdy locks on the door, but now more resembles a burned-out, smashed-up, graffitied hovel in the wrong part of town. Fellow feeling is unsurprisingly low on the ground, replaced by mutual antagonism, rock-throwing, and culture wars.
All this, I think, presents a significant challenge to Gordon Brown’s argument that patriotism can save the Union. Brown, in one of his occasional, sonorous interventions, has warned that Boris Johnson may be the last prime minister of the UK, that the Union is “hanging by a thread” and that it can only be saved through “a progressive case” that captures the imagination of “mainstream Scots”.
“We can win the argument if we put it – we’re patriots, not nationalists,” said the former PM, as he accused the “two extremes” of Scottish separatism and Tory Europhobia of pushing Britain to the brink of collapse.
That Brown felt it necessary to say what he did, when there is no imminent electoral prospect of Scottish independence, should tell us something: the old lion has sniffed the air and scented danger ahead. But his solution, that the case for the Union must be better made in Scotland, is not a new one – I’ve been making it myself since before 2014’s narrow referendum victory (a win which in itself did nothing to put the independence argument to bed and may indeed have given it momentum).
The far harder task is explaining how that case can successfully be made – in what it consists, where its weight lies, where intellectual and emotional credibility can be located. As yet, there has been little evidence that those in favour of Scotland remaining in the UK are developing their arguments much beyond the familiar economic one. The economy is both a powerful and important factor, of course, but it is not sufficient – nor should it be – and it is unlikely to be decisive if and when there is another independence referendum.
So the problem Unionists have is that the non-economic defence of the Union has never been weaker. What call is there on Scots to be patriotic when 63 per cent of Tory members – the people who are choosing our next PM – say they would rather see Scotland leave than Brexit be stopped? Among the same group, 61 per cent would accept “significant damage” to the UK economy, and 59 per cent would happily see Northern Ireland leave the UK. Where is their reciprocal patriotism and solidarity? And does anyone believe their champion Boris Johnson truly gives a stuff about the integrity of the country, or anything much beyond his own pre-eminence? As for Corbyn, McDonnell and Milne… well, there is no succour, and certainly no patriotism, to be found among that cohort.
Where is the pull to patriotism if you are ignored, or regarded as an irritant, and can have no traction on decision-making? When you overwhelmingly vote against leaving the EU, but must do it anyway? When it appears that the United Kingdom and its interests are being hijacked by England and its interests? When it is not at all clear that matters will be resolved any time soon or, when they are, that the outcome will be satisfactory? When this might only be the beginning of something much worse?
For me, it is hard, today, to love one’s country. I do not feel very much like a patriot; I have never felt less like a patriot. I more often feel the unsought and unwelcome twitch of contempt, or the acid flash of rage. The good guys keep losing and the bad guys keep winning. Those who most extravagantly display the peacock feathers of their patriotism do so in ways that tarnish the very concept, whether turning their blazered backs in the European parliament, or waving a plasticated kipper around a stage, or sneering at the Irish, or offering up their pale, plump backsides as a smirking Donald Trump loosens his belt, or threatening to temporarily abolish parliament in pursuit of their otherwise unachievable goal. I am left thinking, what is this Britain? What have these people to do with me? Why must I be subject to their games and ambitions?
As a Scot today you don’t have to be a fan of the SNP or its performance in devolved government, or even the kind of person who thrills to the symbols and songs of nationhood, to feel the tug of something different, something potentially better than this abject shitshow. To want a say, a voice, some shared sense of national integrity.
Perhaps, as Gordon Brown says, patriotism can save the UK. But perhaps, more likely, patriotism is only hastening its demise.