Patriotism – a politician’s refuge
Gordon Brown wants us to “embrace” the Union Jack and to ape the sillier patriots in America by displaying it in our front gardens. But why do they want us to be patriotistic?
It was not so long ago – certainly within the tormented, frustrated memories of masses of under-educated children – that we were taught British history began with the arrival in these isles of the Romans. Well at least that made it easier for the people who needed to be known as teachers; rather than work at any seismographic-type research or presentation they need only instruct their famished pupils to open the allocated history book and begin to recite from Page One. A corollary of this careless policy was the assumption that history began in Britain because it was a special place, where special people were bred. Telling those kids they should be grateful to be British elevated them from their hopeless, infested poverty through a belief that to be British was best and that all other peoples of the world should be treated with sympathy – respect could be allowed to intrude only if the others kept to their place in the anthropological order of things. It worked alright – as witnessed by the pupils’ daily salute of the classroom portrait of the king and queen.
One whose portrait did not hang in the classroom, but whom the kids were often reminded of as an icon of British superiority, was Captain Scott the naval officer who led the 1910 expedition to Antarctica. Scott’s previous experience there taught him a lot about the perils in setting foot in the place and about the need for detailed, meticulous planning. He was ready to go back and this time, apart from certain scientific operations, there was no doubt about the intention of the expedition. The brochure aimed at potential sponsors put it: “The main object of this expedition is to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of that achievement”. Scott himself saw it as “…an empire expedition…by a set of men who will represent the hardihood and energy of our race”. Implicit in these declarations was that Scott’s men would be the first to get to the Pole but when he stopped off at Melbourne on the way to Antarctica he learned that the Norwegian Roald Amundsen would be in competition with him.
After landing and setting up camp at Cape Evans Scott’s men experienced a succession of emergencies which, while no lives were lost, were a grim foretaste of what was to come. The Pole party – Scott and four others – set out on 1 November 1911. They arrived at the Pole on 16 January 1912, after a journey which had all but drained them of all their resources, to find that Amundsen had got there a month before them; a black flag was there, fixed to a sledge. “Well we have turned our back now on the goal of our ambition with some feelings, and must face our 800 miles of solid dragging – and goodbye to most of the day dreams” wrote Scott. But it turned out to be worse than that. Battered by savage weather and malnourished, the five men were simply unable to get back to Cape Evans. The first to die was Taffy Evans, whose reputation was as one of the strongest in the expedition. He collapsed on 17 February and died quietly in the tent that night. The rest of them pressed on; Titus Oates could hardly walk and Scott’s feet were so damaged that he thought amputation was the best he could hope for. They had no choice but to shelter, as best they could, in the tent until the blizzard blew itself out but there was no let up in the weather.
It was then that Oates went out into the storm to die and the three others – Scott, Wilson and Bowers – stayed to die together, on or about 23 March 1912, eleven miles from the depot where they had left the food which should have saved their lives. “We shall stick it out to the end, but we are weaker, of course, and the end cannot be far” wrote Scott in his diary. Their bodies were found by a search party eight months later.
That was not the time for any useful appraisal of Scott and his expedition – of the mistakes, the miscalculations, the flawed equipment. That would come later. Meanwhile, on 14 February 1913 there was a short memorial service at St Paul’s Cathedral in which, according to the Daily Sketch, the keynote was “ … a song of thankfulness for that these sons of our common country had died as they had lived, in the spirit which is the noblest heritage of Englishmen”. During the service thousands of captive schoolchildren throughout the country were subjected to “…the true story of five of the bravest and best men who have ever lived on the earth since the world began. You are English boys and girls, and you must often have heard England spoken of as the greatest country in the world, or perhaps you have been told that the British Empire…is the greatest Empire that the world has ever seen…” How many of those schoolchildren, or readers of the Daily Sketch, thought back to a year before, to another service at that same cathedral centred on the victims of the Titanic disaster, when the destruction of the unsinkable liner had said something about the decline in British power, as had the humiliation of the British army by the Boers. In the near future was the 1914/18 war, the traumas of the naval battle of Jutland (when a British admiral wondered out loud whether there was “something wrong with our bloody ships”) and the slaughter on the first day of the Somme offensive, which re-aligned British military history. Scott’s tragedy was cynically used to blanket the reality of what was happening to British capitalism and to its people.
On the way southwards to Antarctica lie the Falkland Islands, which hardly anyone apart from stamp collectors had heard of before 1982 when they were briefly occupied by Argentine forces until they were ejected by a British Task Force. This victory in a far away place was remarkable for its effect on the British political scene. Since the end of the war British armed forces had not enjoyed a string of unqualified successes; among their most stressful experiences was the Suez campaign in 1956, which was little short of humiliation for British interests in the Middle East. At home the 1970s were notable as a time of economic decline, with unemployment reaching three million. In this situation the effects of a British military victory reached far beyond the battle zone, encouraging workers to believe that although they were on the dole there was still something to be said for being able to call themselves British. In 1982 this particular delusion was called the “Falklands Factor”. According to Thatcher, “it is no exaggeration to say that the outcome of the Falklands War transformed the British political scene… but the so-called Falklands Factor was real enough. I could feel the impact of the victory wherever I went”. One of the places she went to was Cheltenham Racecourse, to address a Tory party rally, where she exulted that after the Falklands victory “…we rejoice that Britain has re-kindled that spirit which has fired her for generations past and which today has begun to burn as brightly as before”. To encourage the mood and flavour it with a bit of Battle of Britain memories, Vera Lynn was recruited to sing The White Cliffs of Dover at the victory parade.
But in the same speech Thatcher stated what she meant by the impact of the Falklands factor and the re-kindled spirit. As the troopships returning from the Falklands sailed into Portsmouth harbour a banner hung from the sides of one of them, with advice for striking railway workers: “Call Off The Rail Strike Or We’ll Call Down An Air Strike”. This referred to a strike called by the National Union of Railwaymen (as it then was) which, Thatcher said, “…just didn’t fit – didn’t match the spirit of these times…” The strike leaders were “…misunderstanding the new mood of the nation”. Another dispute involved the ancillary workers in the NHS; it had been rumbling on for some time but Thatcher was not impressed: “There is a limit to what every employer can afford to pay out in wages”; clearly, the new spirit did not involve any appreciation of the value of low paid workers doing jobs which were vital to the welfare of patients. Partly through the Falklands Factor, the Tories swept to a massive victory in the 1983 election, which gave Thatcher all the encouragement she needed to take on the trade unions – in particular the miners. It was an example of how patriotic hysteria is used directly against the working class.
One who has obviously absorbed the necessary lesson in this is Gordon Brown. Addressing the Fabian Society last January, in what was heralded as his first major speech of 2006 – which did not leave us breathless about what else was to come from him before the year was out – he declared that it was time for the “modern” Labour Party and its supporters to be “unashamedly patriotic as, for too long, such feelings have been caricatured as being tied up with right wing beliefs, when in fact they encompass progressive ideas of liberty, fairness and responsibility”. He also raved about what he saw as the need to “embrace” the Union Flag and to ape the sillier patriots in America by displaying it in our front gardens. Brown was “absolutely right” about this, said ex-Tory Prime Minister John Major, whose concept of an ideal Britain encompassed warm beer and elderly ladies cycling through country lanes to get to evensong at some ancient village church. It was not known whether Brown was comfortable to receive support from such a quarter; in any case he is probably accustomed by now to dealing with the fact that his party is indistinguishable from the Tories, especially in the matter of showing up as flag-waving, mindless patriots.
Patriotism has run through politics like a malignant fault. It did not represent progressive ideas when, in the case of Scott, it was applied to persuade millions of workers that they should endure the terror of the trenches and all the other miseries of that war. The same was true when it was used by the Thatcher government, in the wake of the Falklands victory, to push through measures which damaged the trade unions and so increased the vulnerability of the working class in relation to their employers. It is not a progressive idea now, when the Blair government wields it to justify the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with all they mean in terms of destruction and murder. Enormous damage has been done, throughout the world, by the notion that one country and its people are superior to the others. A truly progressive policy – socialism – recognises the essential unity of the human race and the urgent need to celebrate it by building society on that basis.