Unbridled patriotism has seized hold of the British people. With Nigel Farage, Captain Britain himself, cheering from the sidelines Britannia has cast off the shackles of EU bureaucracy and is presently awaiting a bounty of vast riches. Political correctness and health and safety, the true agents of evil, will bother us no more; in Brexit Britain everybody (provided they are alabaster white and hysterically anti-EU) is free. We are a nation once again, and our government, filled as it is with authoritarians, liars and disingenuous psychopaths, are on hand, we must assume, to put our interests firmly at the centre of their agenda. The old way of life has ceased to be. We are now living in the age of the Brexit Tea Caddy, a bewildering time in which blind and inextinguishable patriotism is the national currency.
Let me explain, for those who have not yet had the privilege of discovering it for themselves, exactly what the Brexit Tea Caddy is: in brief, it is a patriotic memento celebrating Britain’s historic decision to leave the EU, which is emblazoned with the sort of WWII-themed propaganda that, for reasons unknown to me, sometimes appears on biscuit tins. Lovingly produced by The Daily Express for its readership of outrage hobbyists, it is an item that somehow manages to encapsulate everything I find objectionable about Middle England, and is indicative of the sort of bile-spitting reactionary who claims to love Britain yet actually knows next to nothing about it.
The caddy features on its box the words “LIVE – BREATHE – DRINK” (the official motto of Brexit Britain) and a signpost on which England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland have been superimposed. The average Daily Express reader, I’m sure, would not think twice about this, but for the sake of accuracy we should be clear: Ireland is not part of the United Kingdom and it certainly is not part of Great Britain. The Daily Express, which has often expressed a venomous anti-Irish sentiment, would do well to leave the Irish people out of its campaign venerating British arrogance. But perhaps the paper and its readership genuinely are that ignorant of British history. Chest-thumping patriots generally are.
It would be wrong for me to suggest that such people are not patriots. A patriot, by definition, is somebody who vigorously supports his country; he doesn’t necessarily have to know anything about it. On the other hand, can it really be said that the readership and indeed writers of The Daily Express truly support their country? Or do they simply support its current government, monarchy and former empire, which exploited and oppressed people both abroad and here in Britain for the benefit of a privileged few?
To my mind, their affection for Britain seems horribly insincere, not to mention rather creepy. Yet their form of patriotism, though not popular, is certainly ubiquitous in England, and the hysterical, jingoistic nature of it is one of the reasons so many on the Left feel unease about expressing affection for their country and its traditions: why, after all, would anybody wish to be associated with patriotism when its most fervent proponents seem to care only for the Queen, jam and imperialism?
Rather than allowing such people to have a monopoly on patriotism, we should be striving to make loving your country a sentiment with which all British people associate in a positive way; a sentiment free of political and racial affiliation and, most importantly, the conviction that we as a nation are inherently superior to our foreign neighbours. I am sure this suggestion would anger the average Daily Express reader, who would no doubt dismiss it as dangerously egalitarian and me as some wishy-washy, politically correct pinko. But they should know that they have had a far more detrimental effect on the way that the British people view their country than anybody like me ever could; for rather than celebrating, say, Britain’s contributions to science and literature, they choose to extol symbols of stereotypical Britishness—some of which are not actually British at all (tea), and a great many others are products of high society and the monarchy.
For the majority of British people, whose ancestors were more likely farm labourers and factory workers than nobility, this sycophantic notion of patriotism must seem hugely uninspiring. Yet it is happily accepted by the British media establishment, who spoon feed it to us whenever a sporting event or royal ceremony takes place.
I am happy to admit that I am not overtly patriotic. Not since I was a child have I cheered on England in an international sporting event. Nor am I roused by God Save the Queen, with its bizarre lyrics and dreary, soporific melody, or by the sight of a Union flag dangling from the window of a block of flats. Yet I do have affection for Britain: for its little towns and great cities, for its literature and its old pubs, and for its moors and meadows. I like how Britain’s various regions have their own firmly established heritages and dialects and how, in spite of this, the British people also share a single identifiable character. Some might say this character is marked by diffidence, stoicism, politeness and a desire to withhold one’s emotions, and to a certain extent they are right. But there is also another element to it that is much trickier to pin down. For me this is exemplified by items you might find in the homes of Working Class grandparents: horse brass medallions, a yellowed net curtain, a wall of commemorative dinner plates, discoloured holiday postcards and ornamental bellows beside a gas fire. But this, I appreciate, may not resonate with all British people as strongly and as warmly as it does with me.
Patriotism is a sentiment that manifests differently in everybody who adheres to it, and I think it’s fair to say that patriotism of the British people is, on the whole, not vocal or even conscious. The vast majority of us, including those prone to bigotry, do not regularly partake in the waving of flags or the singing of ‘Rule Britannia!’; and such public displays of showing off are not at all typical of the national character. We may take pride in our heritage and achievements, but we do so discreetly for the most part; only insufferable loudmouths, diehard traditionalists and the editors of our national press feel the need to overemphasize our importance and greatness. The rest of us take a more realistic view of Britain and particularly of our leaders—because it is one thing to support your country and quite another to support your government without question.
This is an important distinction to make. Michael Caine, for example, is a professed patriot, and yet for many years he reconciled loving his country with his living hundreds of miles away from it as a tax exile. I can only imagine the extensive mental gymnastics that Caine performed in order to justify to himself this seemingly unpatriotic act. To his mind, perhaps, he believed he was merely exercising his displeasure at the Labour government’s high tax rate for the rich; that deep down he still loved the country that made him, but felt no obligation to contribute financially to its future and by extension the future of his compatriots.
If Caine wishes to identify as a patriot, then he is entitled to do so. There is no single authority on the laws of loving your country, and though Caine may well be a hypocrite, nobody surely can doubt his sincerity. In many ways he is exactly the sort of person you might expect to own a Brexit Tea Caddy. He rhapsodizes about being British whenever the opportunity arises, though the object of his affection for Britain is evidently not the British people, but a set of misguided beliefs rooted in his yearning for a bygone era. Coincidentally, his recent comments on his staunch support for Brexit reveal that, like many self-proclaimed patriots, he is also bereft of self-awareness. “I voted for Brexit,” he told Sky News, that last bastion of impartiality and understatement. “What it is with me, I’d rather be a poor master than a rich servant.”
This is incredibly rich coming from a man who has been a world-famous millionaire for the past fifty years. But it is typical, alas, of the attitudes of hard line patriots. For them, Britain is the freedom-loving nation whose only sin in our otherwise flawless history was our joining of the EU. We are not, in their eyes, historically the oppressors of foreign nations, but the country that fought Nazism and won. So deep and boundless is their delusion that some genuinely believe that we have been oppressed; that in spite of our generous benevolence the rest of Europe has been incredible unfair on us. But we are not an oppressed nation, and any suggestion that we are is disrespectful to the many nations that suffered at the hands of the British Empire.
Any possibility of redefining British patriotism for present times seems unlikely at this stage. Those with fetishes for militarism and the monarchy, who feel emboldened by the Brexit result, and sense that now is Britain’s opportunity to reclaim its standing as a world power, have made patriotism a deeply unpalatable sentiment with which many people don’t wish to associate. Under their influence it is little more than an innate feeling of superiority; it is the belief that Britishness belongs only to Middle Englanders, who dream endlessly of jolly vicars riding bicycles, cucumber sandwiches on the village green and other symbols of provincial innocence.
For me such things only serve to highlight the narrowness of their world view. I have never belonged to the Britain of which they speak and neither did my ancestors—labourers, factory workers, coal miners, dockers. Nor, I don’t think, do many people in Britain for that matter. Yet as long as the Brexit Tea drinking crowd are about patriotism will always be a sentiment held by people whose views are like contents of a chauvinist Victorian morale tale. I don’t think this is likely to change any time soon, not at any rate in the current political environment. So I hope, genuinely, that they enjoy their Brexit Tea, which I suspect tastes not unlike bile. But not just any bile: Great British bile.