“My unsolicited advice to the Labour Party:” tweeted Tim Montgomerie, Conservative commentator and activist, “if you want to look like a patriotic party you might occasionally take the British government’s side in our tussles with Brussels – rather than ALWAYS agreeing with the EU.”
In one neat exhortation, Montgomerie encapsulated much that is terrifying about Johnson’s Conservative party.
Government, of any colour, is merely a bureaucracy whose members are elected to further the interests and wellbeing of the country. Government is not as-one with the nation, and it is owed no sacred allegiance. Montgomerie and friends, however, seek to conflate government with country, misappropriating loyalty which is offered elsewhere. The most optimistic explanation for this is that their actual performance in office is deserving of no loyalty at all from voters. A less charitable assessment, however, would be that they wish to shut down dissent under the threat of nationalist bullying.
Oscar Wilde was incorrect when he stated that “patriotism is the virtue of the vicious.” Instinctual affection for one’s homeland is no more or less natural than love of one’s family. Indeed, even the most vehemently anti-patriotic Brits tend to understand this instinct when they see it in outsiders. Patriotism can be found in a swell of sentimentality at the sight of the coastline on a return flight to Britain; it can be found in a tear that pricks the eye at the stories of historical achievements; it can be found in the fervent excitement with which we greet news of medals for our Olympians, be they enduring rowers from Buckinghamshire, heptathletes with Windrush ancestry, or adoptive Somalian knights.
Patriotism can also take a more pragmatic form, infusing ostensibly practical enterprises with a higher meaning. “Keep Britain Tidy” gave a lofty purpose to the business of picking up litter. Likewise, the business of administering British democracy – issuing, collecting and counting millions of pieces of paper – is a profoundly uninteresting task, but can be approached by functionaries with an immense sense of pride, as they carry out a ritual through which Britain’s example helped shape the world for the better.
The common thread in all of these is a desire to improve the wellbeing of the country and its people, be that in health, happiness, economics, prestige, environment or community. At its best, patriotism is a nebulous sentimentality in which the origins of real achievements can nevertheless be found.
Furthering national well-being
Government, by virtue of its position at the helm, plays a key role in furthering that national wellbeing. It controls the purse strings, instructs the institutions, and sets the national agenda. A year spent in government can have more of an impact on the wellbeing of the country than most lifetimes outside it. Accordingly, the success of an incumbent government should always be of keen interest to anyone who claims patriotism as a virtue.
Taking an interest in the country’s leaders does not require slavish devotion to the incumbent government. Patriotic people should not welcome an incompetent or corrupt administration, for the same reason horse racing enthusiasts would not applaud a drunken jockey. While government may occasionally produce characters who inspire, who capture the national mood, or who unarguably preserve or enhance the country’s wellbeing (Attlee and Churchill being an obvious two), for the most part democracy requires that our politics be transactional. Government may expect our support for as long as it delivers good governance; beyond that, it should expect removal.
Malignant tissue should be excised
What should the response of patriotic people be, then, when outriders for Johnson’s government demand we take his side in another political punch-up confected to appease his base? What can we say of Johnson’s contribution to national wellbeing?
We only need to look around us for our answer. He has used the public purse as a piggy bank for friends and contacts, then raised taxes to record peacetime highs to fund state spending. He has invited a scion of a hostile foreign power to sit in the legislature, against security advice. Home ownership, once a cornerstone of British identity, is a pipedream for millions, and Johnson’s floated solution is laughable. He has diminished the country’s reputation internationally, our hailed pragmatism torched in favour of imminent pariah status. Economic growth is anaemic outside Northern Ireland and the capital, but food bank use is booming. Free bus passes for pensioners, once a source of modest liberty in old age, are now famously used to escape the cold. Ambulances stack up outside our hospitals, inside which many of our healthcare workers rely on charity for food.
This is not the record of a government that deserves unthinking allegiance; when this government invokes patriotism, it seeks the last refuge of a scoundrel. The most patriotic response to Boris Johnson’s administration is to excise it like the malignant tissue it really is.