Patriotism in the UK

by Martin Butler

Patriotism is a contested ideal in the culture war which bubbles away in the UK.  It’s worth examining not only as an idea in itself but also with regards to how it is understood and expressed in the present cultural context of the UK. It seems to me that the debate is dominated by two ends of a spectrum, both misguided. At one end there are those who find the word itself too problematic to be worth salvaging. It is, they would argue, despite claims to the contrary, unavoidably linked to its ugly cousin, nationalism, with its xenophobic and jingoist associations.[1]  On the other end of the spectrum there is a strong pushback against this squeamishness, although this side of the argument, which I call politicised patriotism, tends to associate the sentiment with a narrow set of political views and promotes the cartoonish idea of patriotism focused on flags.

But what is patriotism? Whereas nationalism is the aggressive pushing of your own nation as somehow better than others, patriotism, understood in its benign sense at least, is just love of country.[2] But what exactly does this mean? We need to acknowledge here that, as Benedict Anderson points out, nations are to a large extent ‘imagined communities’.[3] They are constructed entities based on a particular narrative handed down through history and culture. Anderson makes the amusing point that “The Barons who imposed Magna Carta on John Plantagenet did not speak English and had no conception of themselves as “Englishmen”, but they were firmly defined as early patriots in classrooms of the United Kingdom 700 years later.”[4] Anderson, I think, would want to contrast an imagined community with communities of individuals who in some way have direct social interaction. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar famously identified the magic number of 150 as the maximum number of meaningful relationships a human being can maintain.[5] Evidence suggests that hunter-gatherer groups that exceeded this number tended to split.  But we use the term ‘community’ in a far broader sense than this, so most communities are indeed ‘imagined’ in Anderson’s sense, and we have no trouble understanding this sense as real community; although we can acknowledge that the word ‘community’ is perhaps often used too loosely.[6]

A.C. Grayling takes a far more dismissive tone towards the nation-state, pointing out that, “Nations are artificial constructs, their boundaries drawn in the blood of past wars”.[7] We might well agree with this but it is surely an unremarkable observation. Human beings are cultural creatures and many if not most ideas that are important to us are in some sense constructed. We are keen to assert our civil rights or get paid for employment, but do we want to claim that rights and money are natural phenomena?  By identifying something as an artificial, or social, construct Grayling (and many others) seem to assume that certain ethical or political consequences directly follow. But is this the case? And when he talks of boundaries drawn in blood, it is not clear what he thinks should follow from this. Should we wipe the slate clean and start again?  This way of thinking, as we shall see, derives from a kind of hyper-rationalism which cannot cope with the deeply contingent nature of human existence. It does not of course mean we cannot criticise the nation-state. It has been said that the nation-state has become too big for the small problems (e.g. local issues we can connect with directly) and too small for the big problems (e.g. climate change). However, nation-states are the way the human world is structured, so we certainly need to come to grips with their reality.

Identity is something we hear much about these days and certainly national identity has to be included as an important component in the array of identities we have come to hold. Despite the constructed (or imagined) nature of the nation-state, we have no problem absorbing this idea from a young age. In 1966 as an 11year old watching the world cup final, I had no difficulty identifying with the 11 players who represented my country. I wasn’t even that interested in football, and my parents certainly weren’t sporty but it did matter very much how those 11 players, about whom I knew next to nothing, fared in that particular game. Social identity theorists such as Henri Tajfel convincingly argue that human beings naturally identify with their group and divide the world up into the ‘in-group’ and ‘out-group’, and this can occur on the basis of quite arbitrary differences. Social media is, after all, chock-a-block with ‘us’ and ‘them’. This can be quite depressing. However, we should think of it as simply the logical consequence of the Aristotelian insight that “man is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by accident is without a state is either a bad man or above humanity”.[8] Being political (or, as we tend to say today, social) is not an amorphous or generalised characteristic for a particular human being. It surely must mean, as Aristotle indicates, having bonds and attachments to a particular community (e.g. a state), and particular communities have an outside as well as an inside. Logically there must at some point be a distinction between those who are within and those who are not within a given community. This distinction does not have to involve animosity, and individuals can join and leave communities, but there has to be a distinction nevertheless. Many traditional communities make a virtue of providing lavish welcoming rituals for visitors, but they are still visitors. And we can argue that if communities are to mean more than just a collection of individuals, they will only thrive if there is some notion of the common good, some kind of attachment to the group which goes beyond calculated self-interested benefits. A borderless mass of amorphous individuals is, I think, incoherent. It’s also worth noting that the very notion of democracy depends on the concept of the ‘we’ which transcends particular individuals, political parties or factions. In a democratic vote there has to be some reason why those on the losing side accept the verdict of the majority. Even though the process may well be flawed, there has to be a sense that the democratic vote is a decision made by the whole community; it is a decision we have made and should be accepted by all.  There needs to be a glue that transcends the divisions that democracy inevitably spawns. Societies with deep religious or cultural divides can become democratically dysfunctional due to a weak sense of national cohesion. Iraq and Northern Ireland are examples that spring to mind.

So though the word ‘patriotism’ might have problematic connotations, it is clear that the idea of an identity with, or an attachment to, your country, which we might express as ‘love of country’, is both normal and natural. There’s a two-way process here. On the one hand our nationality forms part of our own individual identity; on the other hand, to be more than a collection of individuals, a nation requires its populace to identify with it as a communal entity.  This is partly at least how nations are constructed.

But what exactly is it about our country that we identify with or feel attached to?  Implicit here is the idea of an entity which continues through change. Orwell makes the point that “Patriotism has nothing to do with Conservatism. It is actually the opposite of Conservatism, since it is a devotion to something that is always changing and yet is felt to be mystically the same.”[9] Victorian Britain would be a very alien place to most UK citizens in the 21st century if they were to travel back in time, but we are still happy to regard it as the same nation as the one we live in today, just as I have little in common with my 11year old self despite being in an important sense the same person. We can also note that the changes that become incorporated within the identity of a nation often have their source in dissident voices which challenge the status quo. We saw this with the example of Magna Carta. Some of the key values that are lauded as ‘British values’ in the school curriculum were certainly not the established values of the British state in Victorian times, and owe more to movements such as the Chartists and Suffragettes. So patriotism is not a simple matter of identifying with the forces that happen to be in power at any given time.[10]

We can allow here a family of interlocking themes that make up a nation’s identity. This can be rather pick and mix. Some focus on specific historical events and movements, some on cultural embodiments, some on the physical geography and landscape, some on cuisine and dress, some on values and ‘ways of life’, some on the peculiar romance of run-down British seaside towns, and so on.  Anderson links nationhood with the rise of the vernacular and the printed word. Language is surely a crucial element in the attachment we feel to our own country. To not just know your mother tongue but to feel completely familiar and confident with all its nuances, odd expressions, embedded humour, cultural assumptions and so on, is central to the feeling of being at home, which is so closely linked to the emotional ties we have with our country.[11] It’s easy not to notice this as it’s the water in which we swim. Being a monoglot I notice it strongly when returning from a foreign holiday. For example, the oddly apologetic nature of public interactions in the UK – false maybe but endearing and distinctive nevertheless. To have none of this is surely to invite alienation.  We should also not forget that any engagement in political debate assumes a level of attachment to country. These days we often get too emotional about politics, but without any emotional attachment why would we care about government policies or which party was in power? We would simply think no further than our direct personal interests. I, for example, was upset by the Brexit vote in the UK because I had a sense that my country had made a big mistake – I might be quite misguided here but that is beside the point. As I am retired it’s unlikely to make much difference to me personally.

Some particular features of patriotism in the UK need highlighting. Firstly, being a constitutional monarchy, it is often assumed that commitment to the monarchy is an intrinsic part of true patriotism, but this is surely not the case.  Just as the barons who challenged the arbitrary power of King John can be seen as formative in the nation’s identity, it could be argued that at this point in history it would be best for the UK to move to a different constitutional arrangement for appointing the head of state. Now of course you might disagree with this profoundly but it is not a matter of patriotism.  Secondly, it’s often assumed that the military has a special connection with the feeling of patriotism. The armed forces do of course play a pivotal role in the defence of the nation, but surely patriotism is as much about cooperation and working with other nations, as well as working for the well-being of the whole populace. Charity workers, teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, scientists, carers, entertainers, and so on are doing something which is just as patriotic as military service. One might argue that a member of the military needs to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for their country, but we should also note that in modern warfare civilians are often in the firing line as much as the military. It is interesting to note that the songs sung by soldiers and sailors in the past, in England at least, did not have a nationalistic tone but tended to bemoan their lot or express a nostalgia for home.[12] The more overly nationalistic songs tended to have quite a different origin.

Thirdly, there is an important relationship between patriotism and the history of a country.  An assumption is often made that somehow patriotism requires you to defend your country’s history; that we must, for example, defend ‘the empire’. But surely, as with attitudes to our own lives, we need to be as objective as possible. We learn and make ourselves better by noting what in we have done well in the past and where we have made mistakes. Someone who looks back on their lives and sees neither mistakes nor achievement is unlikely to be seeing the truth, and so is unlikely to be able to learn.  I see no reason why this logic cannot apply when a nation looks back on its own history. Obviously, as individuals we cannot be held responsible for either the rights or wrongs in our country’s history, but nevertheless I do think that the patriotic approach to the politics of the day must attempt to learn from history in order to make the country a better place. Given that we can do something about the future but not the past, the focus should surely be on improving the nation for the future rather than on over-attachment to the past. It might just be my perception, but growing up in the 60s I remember a positive orientation towards the future rather than a focus on WWII, even though it was still quite recent. Today, it seems we look back more to the war for reassurance, almost as if there is a lack of confidence about the future.

What then are the two ends of the spectrum I mentioned at the beginning? Well at one end is a view that refuses to distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. Again, I will give a quote from A. C. Grayling. In characterising nationalism, he says:

Disguised as patriotism and love of one’s country, it trades on the unreason of mass psychology to make a variety of horrors seem acceptable, even honourable. For example, if someone said to you, I am going to send your son to kill the boy next door you would hotly protest. But let me seduce you with ‘Queen and country!’ ‘The fatherland’! ‘My country right or wrong!’  And you would find yourself permitting him to send all our sons to kill not just the sons of other people, but other people indiscriminately – which is what bombs and bullets do.[13]

This is an appalling caricature and makes the assumption made by many that patriotism only really matters in relation to conflict and war.  Love of country must surely mean wanting the best for your country which, from any sane perspective at least, does not lead to the blind assertion of ‘my country right or wrong’, and is certainly not just about war and conflict. We have seen that patriotism does not mean unquestioned obedience to the powers that be. Certainly, the values, achievements and constitutional arrangements of the UK have resulted as much from conflict and dissent as from conformity and obedience. I would also suggest that the ‘the unreason of mass psychology’ referred to by Grayling is a pathological condition that arises from those who are profoundly alienated and ill at ease in their own country, and is not evidence of a strong emotional attachment to a country. A generous interpretation of Grayling here might lead us to claim that it is the word ‘patriotism’ that he finds problematic and that he regards it as irredeemably linked to militaristic nationalism. But if this is the case he needs to leave room for a sane notion of love of country that is disentangled from nationalism. He gives no such indication of this and does not seem to allow for any kind of benign emotional attachment to one’s own country.  There is a strand of thought which finds the whole idea of an emotional attachment to a nation anathema. It’s a kind of hyper-rationalism which cannot cope with the sheer arbitrariness of both national identities and nations. Most of us at least do not chose our national identity, and as we have already seen nations are constructed entities. But it is part of the human condition to be immersed in this kind of contingency.

At the other end of the spectrum is the narrow cartoonish idea of patriotism. To understand this kind of patriotism we need to clarify the relation between politics and patriotism. The narrow flag-waving idea of patriotism trades on a misunderstanding of this relation. To claim to advocate political policies which are patriotic is a bit like claiming to advocate living a good life; it tells us very little.  A good life for some might mean a high-powered job, for others living in a log cabin away from it all. We all seek a good life. We just have to make up our minds about what this involves and how we might attain it. Just as seeking a good life is a background assumption against which we live out our lives, patriotism is the background assumption against which all political debate should take place, and should be the raison d’etre for all political parties. The patriotic politician is the individual who has thought seriously about what would be best for the country, and who then attempts to persuade and institute their policies with integrity and honesty through the democratic process. The only reason politicians parade their patriotism is to impugn the patriotism of others without appearing to; it is an underhand tactic, a kind of virtue signalling.[14]  We ought to be suspicious of flag waving by politicians but not because we lack patriotism or think patriotism is unimportant; quite the reverse, it’s because it indicates that those who indulge in it may lack the integrity required for patriotism.  Flag waving is to lack a grasp of what patriotism actually is, and is likely to be used instead of well-argued policy proposals. The patriotic politician, or political party will hardly mention patriotism. They will certainly not wear it on their sleeves. They will simply have a good record of delivering policies that benefit the country and a detailed set of policy proposals for the future. It’s a matter of showing rather than telling.

Politics for most of my life has been conducted in this spirit (give or take the odd relapse). The Brexit campaign was a watershed when this spirit was abandoned, as Brexit was successfully characterised as a patriotic project with slogans such as Believe in Britain.  (It’s worth noting that in the first EU referendum in 1975, although union flags were used there was never any assumption that either option was somehow intrinsically more patriotic that the other.)  Believing in Britain, whatever it might mean, is of course as consistent with remaining in the EU as leaving but the leave campaign managed to hijack this and similar slogans for their side. This is an example of how appeals to patriotism can be used instead of arguments. Something similar is going on when a political party portrays itself as being intrinsically more patriotic than others.  Thus, the Conservative party used the union flag as part it’s symbolism during the 2019 UK election. As far as I know no British political party during any electoral campaign has explicitly used the union flag as part of their party emblem prior to this election. This fact seems to have gone unnoticed by political commentators, but it is significant.  As a consequence, other political parties feel they have no other option but to compete in the ‘patriotism’ stakes, which in effect just means more flags, not more actual patriotism.

The naïve observer might come to believe this is an indication that the country has become more patriotic. It is actually evidence of a degraded politics. The more flags I see the more I worry that patriotism in the country is in trouble. Let’s hope this it is a temporary aberration. I for one will keep calm and carry on.


[1] An internet thesaurus does seem to support this line of thought although a range of more benign equivalents are also offered.

[2] This does not of course exclude loving more than one country although the emotional attachment to a second country will

   perhaps be of a different sort.

[3] Anderson, B., 2006. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. New York: Verso.

[4] Ibid p118

[5] Dunbar, R., 2011. How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks. London: Faber

and Faber.

[6] Broadcasters often talk as if there is such a thing as the ‘gay community’ or the ‘Asian community’, for example – this always

strikes me as odd.

[7] Grayling, A.C., 2007. The Meaning of Things. London: Phoenix. p73.

[8] Aristotle, 1984. The Complete works of Aristotle vol 2. Edited by J. Barnes and Translated by B. Jowett. Chichester; Princeton

University Press, p1987

[9] Orwell, G., 1941. The Lion and the Unicorn: Socialism and the English Genius. Part III . Available at:    and-the-english-genius/  [Accessed on 4/4/21]

[10] Authoritarian states pull the trick of making out that being patriotic means supporting those in power. Recently the Chinese

state has claimed that those who wish to run Hong Kong must be ‘patriots’ in that they must show unquestioned support for

the Chinese communist party.

[11] The idea that “the UK and US are separated by a common language” makes sense in this context.

[12] Orwell notes, writing in 1941 about the UK, that “Well within living memory it was common for “the redcoats” to be booed at in the streets and for the landlords of respectable public-houses to refuse to allow soldiers on the premises. In peace-time, even when there are two million unemployed, it is difficult to fill the ranks of the tiny standing army, which is officered by the country gentry and a specialized stratum of the middle class, and manned by farm labourers and slum proletarians. The mass of the people are without military knowledge or tradition, and their attitude towards war is invariably defensive. No politician could rise to power by promising them conquests or military “glory”, no Hymn of Hate has ever made any appeal to them.” Ibid, part II

[13] Ibid, p77

[14] Samuel Johnson’s famous line that ‘patriotism is the last bastion of the scoundrel’ is not a criticism of patriotism as such but rather of the way it can be used for self-serving motives.