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Rule Britannia!

I love my country, but that doesn't make me a jingoistic nationalist



If modern Britain committed pen to paper, a revised patriotic anthem might read: “Cor, Brittania! Hefty mistakes we made! Our flag never, never, never shall be waved.” The song would certainly capture something of our national psyche. It’s hardly a coincidence that we’ve made enduring celebrities of Eeyore, Mark Corrigan, and Sam Smith: self-loathing is intrinsic to the British DNA. 

 

It's understandable, particularly when the above statement is indisputable. ‘Hefty mistakes’ have indeed been made, not least by our colonial-minded predecessors, whose legacy remains painfully etched into the fabric of modern British society. Where possible, reparations should absolutely be made, and the standard British “sorry” doesn’t begin to cover it.

 

Yet, among the many lessons to be learned from Vladimir Putin’s devastating invasion of Ukraine, the tragic Israel-Palestine conflict, and, indeed, Donald Trump’s ‘MAGA’ rhetoric, is that meta-narratives provide an extremely dangerous framework for national history. The past cannot be comprehensively classified as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ and to do either minimises our collective responsibility for critical thinking.  

 

Xenophobic, jingoistic flag-waving has long attracted right-wing Reformers, National Front committees, and football hooligans, and has hardly furthered the cause of patriotic ‘PDA’ in this country. These forms of ‘nationalism,’ lacking as they are in nuance and inclusivity, are hugely dangerous — yet I need only cast my mind back to London 2012 to remember that national pride can be a force for genuine good. The opening ceremonies celebrated a revised form of nationalism that championed diversity, innovation, and creativity and — while it may have been rose-tinted — it rang true for many of us. 


After all, England’s performance on the sports pitch is often frustrating, but we have produced David Beckham, Tom Daley, and Jessica Ennis-Hill. Whatever the operational pitfalls of our NHS, I am resolutely proud to live in a country that values free healthcare. British colonialism was undoubtedly an atrocity, but I can nonetheless find it within myself to be proud of my British heritage, given that we now occupy what is arguably the most successful multi-ethnic democracy in the world. 


The very concept of ‘nationalism’ is an ambiguous, theoretical product of the nineteenth century, and nebulous and multi-faceted national histories can never be black and white. Of course, we should consider our past critically, but in neglecting to celebrate the genuine ‘good bits’ of British culture we risk erasing them from the national picture entirely.


I’m glad that restitution is now a serious discussion among national institutions, but British Arts deserve greater national recognition. From Wordsworth to Waller-Bridge, British artists have quite literally overperformed for generations. Whatever the pitfalls of museum curation, a disproportionate number of British art galleries offer free entry for all. We should be championing these institutions, yet funding has consistently been slashed in recent years. Sometimes, our country needs a bit of well-directed flag-waving.


More to the point, we occupy a world in which genuine democracy is a privilege — and an unstable one at that. According to 2023 statistics, the environment for journalism is ‘bad’ in 70 per cent of countries; 2024 may be the ‘year of elections’, but The Economist estimates that nearly 40 per cent of these will not be free or fair. I could pick apart Westminster for days, but I remain intensely grateful for my right to use the ballot box. We should all expound the value of our ability to access free press and celebrate it accordingly.     


I’m hardly recommending we don reds, whites, and blues, and take to the public stage, but so-called ‘Britons’ could do worse than to reignite a sense of national pride. Apart from anything else, expanding narratives of British heritage would stifle the one-dimensional ‘histories’ invoked by jingoistic, populist nationalists. If history makes one thing abundantly clear, it is that ‘Rule’ again ‘Brittania’ never could. 


Yet, in celebrating what we love about this country, we can create a positive global influence. British values of democracy, creativity, and diversity — made manifest in the likes of Fleabag, fish and chips, and “David Beckham’s left Foot” — can and should be projected with greater pride upon the world stage. I may not be proud of everything about Britain, but I love my eccentric, self-contradictory, and idiosyncratic country nonetheless.


Illustration by: Hannah Beggerow

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