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Patriot games

Steve Tomkins

In self-deprecating Britain, it's easy to mock patriotism as illogical at best - and at worst an incubator of prejudice and intolerance. Stephen Tomkins did just that for 20 years - so how does he explain his newfound passion for England?

When I was about ten, a French boy came to stay with us for a week. He was my age, learning English, and in my memory at least he was called Hugo. But the main thing I remember that whenever we heard the national anthem, which unaccountably happened several times that week, I made him stand up with me.

This is not an especially embarrassing youthful memory - not when you consider the competition. I remember it not so much as the jingoistic pushing around of a vulnerable child far from home, more as a childish enthusiasm for my national identity, an enthusiasm my friends could share even if they didn't share the identity. Hugo may remember it differently.

A decade later I'm with a roomful of fellow English people watching soccer on TV in a student house, and it's the World Cup, England versus Cameroon. I'm cheering Cameroon. I am (as I still am) a sports vacuum, simply not getting what excites everyone else about it - I'm Richard Dawkins at a charismatic knees up, though on this occasion probably going further than he would in cheering the opposition. And equally I simply don't get why it's supposed to be important to me that people born within the same national borders as I was should fare better than people from Central Africa.

Patriotism, I explain, is illogical. Frontiers do not make people on one side more deserving of success than the others. Where's the sense in being proud of things you have absolutely no influence over, like which country your mother happened to be in when she gave birth to you?

It is also, I continue, malign. It fosters ignorant prejudice, enmity and war. And stupidity. If everyone thinks their country is better than everyone else's, then this is clearly a subject where passion is king and common sense the pauper who had their benefits stopped.

Another two decades later (round about now in fact), and I am a reconvert to patriotism. I like to think I became less of an arse about football matches a long time ago, but my decision to go forward and ask St George into my heart is recent.

And it is a decision. It's not simply a case of falling back in love with something I had gone off. Perhaps there is an element of that too, but it's also about deciding I was wrong and changing my ways.

One challenge came from getting to know lots of people from the USA. Partly this was a result of working for an organisation in Pennsylvania for a few years, but mainly it came from the discussion boards of in the heady days of the internet. (Whatever happened to that?) It gradually became clear that all of these transatlantic types - Republicans and Democrats, northerners and southerners, conservatives and liberals, black and white, the rude, the reasonable and the barking, and all across the religious spectrum, were unanimous in loving their country more ardently than any British person I knew. People who were spookily like me in every other way turned out to all be startlingly patriotic.

Once on Ship of Fools, some deprecatory comments by British people about 'America' sparked off, if not a Third World War, at least a second 1812. That was an education. The US forces found it incredible that Brits would make an unprovoked attack on something that meant so much to them. British combatants couldn't believe the US were reacting so disproportionately to jibes which would have caused barely a stir if they'd been ad hominem rather than ad patres.

A Florida woman said to me, in I imagine the tone you'd use to a psychopathic six-year-old, 'How would you like it if someone talked like that about your country?' I explained that as a Guardian reader, I heard people talking like that about my country every day.

I learned that US citizens seemed to have a powerful and profoundly personal attachment to their country, beyond anything I would have thought possible in people otherwise so familiar. They in turn learned that British people - or at least English people - or at least some of them - have an equally surprising gap where love of their country should go, a homeland-shaped hole.

The other thing that has happened over the same time in Britain, of course, is devolution. Whatever limited autonomy may have done for the national feeling of Welsh, Scottish and northern Irish people, it has disentangled Englishness from Britishness. For most of my life, when asked my nationality I would have said British. It was more inclusive. Saying English would have implied I wanted to distance myself from the others. Talking about England, and bearing or wearing its flag, was the province of aggressive white men who shaved their heads before it became the standard remedy for male pattern baldness.

Devolution, however, seemed to highlight several things for the English, or at least for English liberals, or at least for me. First, that our neighbours didn't share that desire for an all-inclusive cultural identity. They wanted not a blur of Britishness but distinctness. Second, they didn't - if you'll excuse these generalizations - share our self-deprecation either, but seemed in general to be more comfortable and positive about their nationality. Third, the more you think about these things, the more you notice that much of the time, when English people say 'British', we're ignoring three of the nationalities it includes anyway. I studied 'British' history to degree level without ever hearing anything much about Scotland that wasn't an invasion of England. Conversely, fourthly, this conflation of Britain and England loses sight of what makes England distinct.

All this is summed up neatly and visually, in (what do you know) football stadiums. In footage and photos of England matches throughout the 1970s and 80s, the flags you see waved by fans are almost all Union Jacks. (And yes, it can be 'Jacks'.) Throughout the 1990s, they got replaced by St George flags. It looks as if English fans realised that all those crosses said both too much and too little about who they were, and that they could celebrate mere Englishness without being racist thugs.

That at least is my take on what's been happening. Where it leaves me is with a number of thoughts. One, yes maybe national pride and favouritism are illogical (though no more illogical than taking pride in your looks or showing favouritism to yourself), but patriotism is not about those things for me. It's about love. Loving the place where you were born and/or grew up is one of the most natural things in the world, like loving your family and yourself.
If the worldwide tendency to think your country is better than everyone else's suggests something wrong with patriotism, being an exception to the worldwide tendency to love your country suggests there may be something wrong with you. Love is not uncritical. Jingoism may be envious, boastful, arrogant or rude, but love, as Paul says, is not. It can be angry and disappointed as well as hopeful and constructive. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth.
get over it

Another historical dimension to this I think is the spirit of ex-empire. A century ago we thought we ruled the world and were doing it a favour thereby. That's all gone, leaving a mood of apologetic embarrassment, the assumption that we are basically a Bad Thing. That self-contempt is not a healthy state of mind, any more than it would be on the personal level. It's time we got over ourselves. England is not a monster or a disaster any more than it's the New Jerusalem.

Those who most love one person do not love others less because of it; loving yourself more does not make you meaner to others; loving your country does not make you bigoted. We are told that God chose one people and loved the world. Love is particular, but not unique. The fact that there are so many particularly loveable things about you, dear reader, does not mean there are fewer loveable qualities to go round the rest of us. Some of your attractions maybe unique to you, but others you share with most of the human race. Some things that one friend loves about you are different from what another friend loves; some of your attractions are obvious to everyone.

What I love about England are, Edwardian terraces, democratic accountability, real ale in pubs, the South Bank, feminism, Elvis Costello, sausages, naan bread, spag bol, crispy duck and baguettes, Christmas, the BBC, Stewart Lee, the Lake District, the Church of England, religious freedom, the first warm day of the year, Ted Hughes, the NHS and chocolate biscuits. I feel less rosy about rainy summers, political disengagement, Jeremy Clarkson, cream teas, Rich Teas, bindweed, royalty, congested roads and the vindictive worship of celebrity. But love is patient and always hopes. I am re-enjoying childish enthusiasm, but promise not to make anyone stand up for the national anthem. At least, not until we get a better one.

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