John Humphrys - Is Patriotism a Good Thing?

July 09, 2021, 4:28 PM UTC

By the time you read this England will be on the edge of its seat waiting for the kick-off or celebrating its success or drowning it sorrows. What ever happens there’s no doubt that its achievement in reaching the final of Euro 20020 has sent a wave of patriotism through the country. We (or at least the media) have been talking about little else. People with scarcely any interest in football are saying it has inspired them with a sense of patriotic pride for the first time in their lives. Yet in the past the very concept of patriotism, far from bringing us all together as it is doing now, has itself been a source of division. While some have seen attachment to their country as central to their identity, their loyalties and their politics, others have been deeply wary of patriotism, fearing it inevitably breeds the most dangerous form of nationalism, aggressive jingoism about other countries, and a politics of violence. So is patriotism a good thing or not?

I have to confess that football leaves me cold. But then I’m a Welshman and rugby’s my thing. Even so, I’d be even more of a curmudgeon than my caricature paints me if I were to deny that England’s successes on the field in the last couple of weeks or so have produced a surge of patriotic pride. It’s made almost all of us feel better about ourselves, each other and the country itself. Of course it could be said that this euphoria, not experienced on such a scale for a very long time, is due in part to the fact that national success on the soccer field has coincided with impending release from Covid lockdown. There’s a big pent-up desire to shriek again, to cheer, to celebrate, simply to be able to affirm that there are good things that happen as well as bad. It’s also true that, perhaps as never before, the media have fuelled that euphoria by their coverage. Presumably, at some point, the BBC will spot there are other things going on in the world.

But be that as it may, there’s no disputing that this national outburst of joy is indissolubly linked to patriotism. Listen to the endless vox-pops with fans after matches. Once they’ve had their say – or even before – about the genius of Sterling, the just-in-time revival of Kane, the masterly management of Southgate or whatever, they’ll be talking about ‘pride’, about what it all does to the sense of being English, about football ‘coming home’ (to England). The catch in the throat is unmistakably patriotic.

Even though I have failed to watch a single England match I can understand all this. In the past I’ve often left Twickenham or Cardiff Arms Park after Wales has thrashed England feeling the same euphoria, the same adrenalin at work. I have felt (and resisted!) the impulse to hug my Welsh compatriots and even some of the dastardly English enemy too, so great is the glow I’ve felt about life in general and my country in particular. It’s been no good my sober side trying to tell me: ‘Don’t be so stupid – it was just a game.” I’ve wanted to enjoy the emotional experience while I could and for as long as I could, so I’ve told the sober side to go off and find something else to do for the evening. This was always more important, at least until the following morning.

What strikes me as unusual, however, about this current euphoria is that with regard both to football and to the heady intoxicant that is patriotism, it all seems entirely benign. This is not commonly the case either with football or patriotism. Football success, and especially English football success, more often goes hand-in-hand with loutish behaviour and hooliganism. Deprived of the opportunity to fight the ‘Huns’ or the ‘Frogs’ properly on an actual battlefield, jingoistic young Englishmen, much the worse the wear for drink, would routinely be expected to roam the streets of foreign capitals before and after a match looking for a scrap with supporters of the other side. Whatever the result on the pitch they seem to want to prove that “ Ing-ger-land is Ing-er-land and is the best.” It hardly makes you proud to be British.

But we’ve seen none of that this time. Perhaps, again, it is one of the more welcome by-products of Covid and of the fact that fans have mostly had to watch their team from afar. But whatever the reason, the behaviour of English fans, for all their fervour, has been mostly civilised. There’s been a little booing when the national anthem of the opposition has been sun, but that has been the exception rather than the rule. And that’s unusual.

Equally, the outburst of patriotism has for once seemed to lack an ugly side. Or, to put the point more precisely, no one seems to be warning of the ugly side to patriotism, as is usually the case. Think the last night of the Proms. While half the country is singing along to Land of Hope and Glory and waving the flag, the other half view the scene from the Albert Hall with distaste, even horror. They see it as evidence that the country is stuffed with fascists just aching for the chance to challenge the soggy consensus that keeps us all rubbing along complacently together and wanting instead to assert a national superiority ready to take on the world. On this view of the matter, patriotism inevitably breeds a militant form of nationalism that soon becomes the sort of jingoism that sent a generation to die in the trenches.

But to make such a case about patriotism in general seems preposterous in the current upsurge in patriotic feeling, which is presumably why, for once, no one is making it. The patriotism, like the football, seems benign. It is simply bringing us all together in a shared experience of pleasure, of belonging and of pride. No more, no less.

Who would not want such a harmless, indeed valuable, form of patriotism? It’s hard to think of anyone, except those who think ‘bringing us all together’ is itself of dubious merit and who insist we must see anything and everything through the prism of their own particular obsession, be it class, or gender, or race – none of which has much interest in national unity. But, at least for the time being, that seems not to apply to many of us. We like the benign patriotism that Southgate and his team have unleashed and it leads us to ask an obvious question: beyond football and sport more generally, can we find any other inspiration to an unsullied patriotism that can make us feel good about ourselves and our country without also stirring up its dark side?

An equally obvious answer is that we can. At ninety-five, she lives, recently widowed, at Windsor. It may be about nothing more than her longevity; or that the Queen appears unchanging. It may be that, at a more personal level, we are simply astonished that a woman who has lived so long, who has only just lost a beloved husband of seventy years,and who has trouble enough in her own family, can still continue to do her duty, can go on smiling at us, carrying out her engagements apparently with pleasure and can even seem to relish Zoom. Whatever it is, she has managed to silence virtually all scepticism about her right to her role. She has become, in herself, the ultimate inspiration of a patriotism that seems entirely benign. She even gives the NHS the George Cross.

But it’s the Queen I speak of, not the monarchy itself. There is plenty of room for argument about whether the institution of monarchy serves the purpose of a source for the benign patriotism I’m talking about, and it is an argument that has only temporarily been put aside. It will be resumed once she is no longer with us. There will be those who will argue that the institution of monarchy unites us because it sits above all that divides us. And there will be those who say monarchy can never unite us because it embodies and perpetuates the inequality and class divisions that still so characterise our society. The sort of patriotism fostered by hand-waving monarchs and successful national football teams just papers over all that, say the sceptics.

We will doubtless have that debate later. But right now we can safely say that while a benign patriotism can be enjoyed temporarily it may take a real, living human being, representing a patriotism shorn of its ugly side, to provide us with something more lasting. Today we have the Queen; one day we may have King William.

Watching the Duke of Cambridge, as genuine and avid a football fan as the best of them, leap in the air with joy at every English goal scored in the last few weeks, suggests another such figure is in the making. That’s all very superficial, your sober side may be saying. After all, the guy’s only watching a game. But I wonder whether those leaps, and the man making them, tell us something about the sort of patriotism we still cherish.

What’s your view? Is patriotism a good thing or not?

Let us know what you think.