In both Western and Eastern civilisation, Britain has paved the way for many cultural advances that are now commonplace. The island nation has influenced the world with its free-market economics, industrial technology, language, social customs, and so on. Despite falling behind other nations such as the United States and China both economically and militarily, a modern phenomenon in Britain has once again shown it to be a leader of cultural standards and of forward thinking. Britain’s popular abandonment of patriotism—a notion that Western civilisation has clung to for nearly 200 years—could very well be the beginning of a new era of Western thinking.
Although the concepts of nationalism and patriotism were the motivation for major global conflicts and widespread destruction, nations have continued to support these sentiments as healthy. At their roots, patriotism and nationalism are ideas that a nation is morally superior to another. This notion can make global cooperation difficult and, furthermore, can serve as a tool to instil a nation’s population with a desire for war and a hatred for others.
A structured idea of nation developed in the middle of the 19th century. As certain areas of Europe emerged from the occupation of France after Napoleon’s fall, they began processes of self-definition. These now-free states took historical events and cultural traits that made them distinct from other nations and constructed identities accordingly. Such nationalistic sentiment was responsible for the creation of Germany and Italy in the late 1800s. Ironically, it was the same patriotic sentiment that led both nations into totalitarianism and near-destruction half a century later in the lead up to World War II.
Today, the idea of patriotism is not only absent in mainstream Britain, but considered a shameful vice. Displaying the Union Flag is unnecessary, unless at a Royal celebration or sporting event. Displaying the English flag of St. George’s Cross is offensive, boorish, and racist. Performing national music is nostalgic—perhaps even a bit ironic—but never with the kind of earnestness with which the songs were composed during the Victorian period of British Empire. For example, towards the conclusion of the annual BBC Proms, a renowned opera singer came out dressed as “Britannia”—a female personification of Britain that resembles the Greek Goddess Athena. Dressed as a national symbol, she was to sing “Rule Britannia”: an epic anthem that typifies the Victorian period and British conquest. However, her spear prop was ostentatiously crude, her childishly coloured hat comically slid off her head, and she maintained an incompetent look on her face. This display was not an unexpected “wardrobe malfunction”, but rather a deliberate mockery of Britain’s own patriotic imagery.
As an American first arriving in Britain in 2008 and then leaving a year later, I had a hard time understanding this way of thinking. I attended school saying a pledge of allegiance every day. I saw numerous flags displayed on my neighbours’ houses, at my school, and at public buildings. Both elected officials and everyday people often proclaimed that the United States was the greatest country on earth. I watched Rocky IV and felt proud that the Russian enemy lost, however silly the medium. I had regular exposure to the bold symbolism customarily displayed with earnestness in America: eagles clutching arrows and laurels, and so on.
Ever the curious mind, I asked myself why two nations with such a shared history and special relationship may differ so greatly in this regard. Returning to Britain to work in 2011, the answers have started to become a bit clearer. Britain’s shedding of patriotic sentiment appears to be a direct consequence of its close proximity to fascism in World War II. Alternatively, America’s more innocent support of nationalism can be linked to its relative safety from the threat of Nazism, as it was more focused on the Pacific theatre in World War II. The war concerning Japan was a conflict in which questions of politics played no role.
Nazism and Fascism are the most robust examples of nationalism. Germans, Austrians, Italians, and others, acquiesced to horrendous acts of violence without question because of loyalty to their nation. This phenomenon almost reached Great Britain, and very well may have had Hitler been a better tactician and the United States not gotten involved. However, it is not the memory of Nazism alone that is responsible for Britain’s move away from patriotism.
Despite the British majority’s lack of nationalist sentiment, a peculiar phenomenon in Britain has existed since World War II: an extreme Far Right. The British Far Right is not composed of mom-and-pop Tea Party nationalists that define the US Far Right; rather, the British Far Right more closely resembles fringe Neo Nazi groups in America, only trading their shaved heads and steel-toed boots for business suits and more thought out political platforms. British Far Right groups are sizable organisations, appealing to the suburban white British displeased with modern reforms that encourage immigration and social welfare.
The Far Right has attracted enough support to enter the ranks of the British government and British representation in the European Union. These groups—such as the British National Party and the English Defence League—are ultra nationalists seeking to “protect” Britain from domestic threats to its culture. In the 60s and 70s these threats centred on international finance and Jews in Britain, however, current threats are purported to be Muslim, Afro-Caribbean and Eastern European immigration destroying British civility. Although the likelihood of these groups gaining control in Parliament is minute, they present the same kind of threat that the early Fascists and Nazis did to an economically downtrodden Italy and Germany, staging marches, destroying property, and engaging in violence. Fears that the Far Right could garner more support should Britain slide further into economic recession have their historic precedent.
As stated, America’s view of nationalistic sentiment as healthy is a result of its inexperience with Nazism: the kind of naivety where the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Because of this naivety, issues that would be highly contentious in British politics are logical in the United States. For instance, Americans’ fear of unrestrained Mexican immigration—an issue that is inherently racist in character—is given the disguise of a legal issue. That disappearance of the pledge of allegiance in schools—a practice that teaches young and impressionable minds that unquestioning obedience is the norm and that dissent is shameful—is purported to be a travesty of modern America.
Most sensitive of all, questioning the United States’ actions in the lead up to 9/11 is borderline treason. In a CNN Tea-Party debate amongst Republican Presidential hopefuls, Ron Paul touched upon this very issue and was met with jeers. Paul had been receiving near-unanimous praise up until he truthfully gave his opinion on United States intervention. Ever the Libertarian, Paul is against American intervention abroad and explained the motives behind the 9/11 attacks: that the US, through foreign bases and complex economic allegiances, is forcing its Western culture on areas that simply do not want it. The crowd booed Paul and cheered when an opponent Rick Santorum retorted with the more palatable explanation that Islam “hates our way of life”.
In the Paul case, as in others, America’s inherent patriotic pride clouds its peoples’ vision to the realities of its foreign policy and the dangers of patriotism. Britain, on the other hand, is a world leader in holding government accountable and encouraging dissent. The reluctance to display national symbols, and the light hearted manner it takes when it does display such symbols, shows that Britain is incredibly advanced in terms of culture and civility. I cannot help but question my government when it is clear that my government is trying to sell itself with emotion and symbolism. That Britain disdains the use of such emotion may be the nation ushering in a new era of thinking, in the same way it ushered in so many others.