In 2000, Columbia Pictures released a film starring Mel Gibson called ‘The Patriot.’ As an eight-year-old working class boy from Leeds, this was my first encounter with this elusive and often pernicious word and, ever since, I have tended to conflate the term with Gibson himself. This association has always proved serendipitous. Like Mel, the word holds ugly connotations with racism, chauvinism, and ultra-conservatism; like Mel, these qualities have led to the words popular decline but, like Mel, the term is launching a spectacular and disconcerting comeback in the closing months of 2016.
Although I remember enjoying The Patriot all those years ago, I also felt acutely conflicted. I sympathised with Gibson’s character; a father forced to fight in the American Revolution to repel the British Empire: an empire that killed his son and oppressed his nation, the very empire that I believed to be the zenith of my national heritage and locus of my own patriotic fervour. Realising this contradiction, I felt alienated by the film’s narrative: the romantic and popular patriotism of revolutionary countries was not mine. Not for ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité:’ my patriotism was for Queen and Country; Not ‘of the people, for the people and by the people:’ my patriotism was for elitism, imperialism and a rigid class structure. In other words, my patriotism was not for me.
Until recently, however, I had changed my mind. I was, and still am, deeply proud of the working class communities that constitute this country; I was, but less so now, optimistic about British hospitality and pragmatism. I was relieved to find books that chronicled the radical, idealistic and dissident history of the British People and, from this, I was pleased to salvage a sense of national pride that corresponded to my cultural identity.
“Creative Commons Bunting” by Brian Ledgard is licensed under CC BY 2.0
However, this form of patriotism is fragile. Utter its name in public discourse, as a political tool or cultural cosh, and it shatters, to be replaced by rank nativism, puff-chested jingoism, and arrogant xenophobia. In the wake of Brexit, conservative politicians of all factions are instigating and exploiting a grotesque revival of old patriotism. During October’s Tory conference Theresa May attacked the ‘establishment’ for ‘sneering at ordinary patriotic Britons,’ and UKIP leadership hopeful Peter Whittle has called publicly for every school to have ‘a union jack and a picture of the Queen’ on its classroom walls. All this, on the back of Amber Rudd’s call for British businesses to list all ‘foreign’ workers; the Home Secretary calls it ‘naming-and-shaming.’
As a community, we at Goldsmiths must take ownership of this dangerous word. If we allow the political Right to define the terms of patriotism we afford them the ability to define the very nation in which we live and study. We must approach the word patriotism as if it is a microcosm of the grander ideological battle taking place in Britain. We must recover the romantic myth of patriotism from the history of other countries and establish a patriotism that prioritises community, freedom and equality, not conflict, factionalism and hierarchy.
In other words, if you disagree with what ‘patriotism’ means, change its meaning: you have the power. Samuel Johnson was correct when he said that ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’ and it’s about time we served an eviction notice.