The Problem With Patriotism

A group of World War Two airmen posing in front of a Lancaster Bomber of the type flown by my father throughout the summer and autumn of 1943 Picture from He and they were proud patriots in an unquiet world.

It was the Dublin born playwright and Nobel prize winner George Bernard Shaw who said “You’ll never have a quiet world till you knock the patriotism out of the human race.” (Misalliance, 1910).

I could not agree more. Others might dismiss the statement on the grounds that Shaw was a Socialist: member of the Fabian Society, present at the founding of the British Labour Party and apologist for Lenin, Stalin and Mussolini.

Ignoring Shaw’s sometimes inconsistent political views, I want to examine the quotation in the context of global history in the 110 years since they first appeared.

I am proud of my father’s war record. I have no doubt that he believed his service in one of the most dangerous and controversial forces of the war — a Pathfinder squadron within bomber command — was a powerful demonstration of his patriotism.

I have no way of knowing what my father believed he was fighting for when he flew nightly bombing raids on German cities, because he never made it back from the 18th November 1943 raid on Mannheim. I choose to believe it was for a better world rather than merely ‘King and Country’.

Looking at 1930s Britain from the perspective of almost 80 years of lived experience, would I find it possible to be patriotic about my country in 1939? My answer is ‘no’.

England, before World War Two and my birth, was a place I could not have loved in the unquestioning way of a true patriot. Bigotry, homophobia and misogyny were the order of the day. Sexual harassment was condoned as were capital and corporal punishment, including the judicial use of the latter.

The inbred sense of entitlement and superiority felt by the proprietors of the largest empire the world has ever known made Britain, on reflection, not a lot better than the enemy she was fighting. Which is, coincidentally a view expressed by Shaw at the onset of the first world war (Common Sense About the War (1914)).

Hitler took the whole notion of the ‘Fatherland’, and the superiority of the fictional race to which he claimed to belong, to its most obscene conclusion. But the seeds for such beliefs are there in the idea that any one country, any one religion, any one ethnicity, is superior to all others.

A better world

The peoples of Britain, Europe and the USA did begin building a better world after the war in which I was born and my father died. The post-war government in Britain created a health service free at the point of use. Internationally the United Nations, NATO and the European Union brought the promise of lasting peace.

I hope Frank senior would have approved of my embracing of centre-left politics in the 1980s, and my active involvement in, first, the UK Liberal Party, and then the Liberal Democrats. I was proud to be a member of two local authorities that argued for, and, to the extent they were allowed to, implemented, progressive policies on Education and other council run services.

Under successive governments Britain decriminalised homosexuality and eventually made gay marriage acceptable. Capital and corporal punishment were outlawed, along with sexual harassment and other forms of bullying in schools and workplaces.

Women were empowered to follow careers that proved them to be the equals of men — though their pay still lags behind.

The established Church allowed women priests and, quite recently female bishops.

As I entered my twilight years I really thought we had achieved a lot on the road to that better world. I could feel pride in my country and its achievements. I could be as patriotic as my father had been at the time of my birth.

There was a lot still to do. There were people who saw some or all of these changes as unwelcome. Resistance to measures designed to counter the harmful effects of parallel technological developments remained strong, but our rivers and the air in our cities are much cleaner than they were in my youth. There exists an international agreement to cut carbon pollution, signed up to by 192 nations.

And then 2016 happened. Many of my fellow citizens espoused the worst kind of patriotism, rejecting their country’s membership of the European Union in a bid to ‘control our borders’ and to ‘make our own laws’. No longer were they willing to work with others to seek a better world. In stead they wanted to make their own country ‘better’, if necessary at the expense of others. There was and remains a strong feeling for many that this involves rejecting many of the reforms of which I am most proud.

Something very similar happened in the USA. ‘Build the wall’ and ‘send them home’ were sentiments embraced by a leader who does not hide his admiration for white supremacist organisations.

Meanwhile, the world is far from ‘quiet’, to use Shaw’s word. Wars waged in the name of patriotism continue to rage across large parts of what used to be called ‘the ancient world’, whilst ‘patriotic’ governments in Britain and the USA put what they claim are their own national interests above the future health of the planet.

Patriotism remains every bit as problematic today as Shaw deemed it to be in 1910.

Frank is a retired Engineer from England now living in Ireland. He is trying to learn and share the lessons of history.

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