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To Love Your Country Is Not Always to Be Proud of It

Parents are often put in difficult situations by their kids. Children don’t always achieve everything their parents had hoped for them, and in any case could well end up becoming drug pushers, alcoholics, chronic gamblers etc. Parents of such children would probably not be proud. However, it is more than likely, if they were half-decent parents, that they would still love them. 

This crucial distinction between love and pride is something politicians are yet to master. Patriotism remains a controversial and touchy subject in almost every Western country. It needn’t be. The UK’s Labour Party, for example, has dithered over its patriotism stance for decades. After former leader Jeremy Corbyn's refusal to sing the national anthem proved disastrous for his popularity, current leader Keir Starmer has attempted to reverse this by expressing the pride he has for his country, prominently displaying a Union Jack almost everywhere he goes. 

What seems to elude both of them is that patriotism doesn’t have to be about pride. It can refer more simply to a deep attachment, devotion or love for one’s country. Love covers just about anything: music, humour, architecture or, for us Brits, our tendency to talk about the weather, which can sometimes be strangely comforting. You would be hard-pressed to find someone who didn’t love something about their country, even at the most extreme ends of the political spectrum. Yet, when surveyed, 32% of Britons said they were ‘not very patriotic’ or ‘not patriotic at all’ and amongst 18-24-year-olds that figure rose to 53%.

The key reason is that patriotism is much too intertwined with pride. Pride is inherently divisive. It implies satisfaction with past achievements and history. This association fails to resonate with those unimpressed by Britain’s colonial legacy, who are more often than not young people.

On the left, ethnonationalism and patriotism are often conflated for no good reason. Claiming to be a patriot or waving St George’s Cross is seen as a declaration of racist values. Meanwhile, on the right, someone’s refusal to say they are proud of their country must mean they hate it and want to see it destroyed. This polarisation comprises anger, frustration, and the usual lack of understanding of the other side. The left views patriotism as a naive defence of Britain’s problematic history and ineffective government, and can’t possibly understand why anyone would want to defend such a thing in the first place. The right sees any criticism of Britain’s past or present as an attack on the beloved country they hold so dear. 

Britain isn’t the only country which sorely needs an elevated understanding of the love-pride distinction. Some Russians, unsurprisingly so, may find it extremely difficult to be proud of their country following the invasion of Ukraine. Elena Kostyuchenko, a Russian journalist and survivor of a state-backed assassination attempt, could be forgiven for hating her country. Yet her recent book’s title, ‘I Love Russia’, suggests much the contrary. In it, she argues that to love one’s country is to try and fix it and change it for the better. Those who criticise the Russian state are not the country’s enemies, as Putin wants his people to believe, but its greatest and most loyal supporters.

The Guardian’s review of the book calls the decision to give it this title ‘a little bizarre’ and ‘open to misinterpretation’, thereby completely missing the point and showcasing our difficulty in separating love and pride. The author’s decision to give her book such a simple and divisive title was a stroke of genius. Whilst it immediately captures readers’ attention, it is also the ultimate kick in the face to Putin’s narrative that his critics hate their own country.

Corbyn’s reluctance to overtly express his patriotism proved disastrous, people do not like to see their country purportedly dishonoured. A key reason Labour voters did not support Corbyn was because of his perceived ‘lack of patriotism’. Now, the Labour Party under Keir Starmer is seen as even more patriotic than the Conservatives. Labour’s newfound patriotism has undoubtedly helped them garner support amongst Labour voters disenchanted by Corbyn.

However, Starmer’s push towards patriotism has also seemed to push them to take tougher stances more broadly on issues like immigration. Why do immigration restrictions make you any more of a patriot?

In all fairness, divining a balance whilst such divisive and aggressive rhetoric surrounding patriotism persists is very difficult. In truth, politicians can claim to love their country more than most of us, as they are the people fighting to fix it, regardless of whether you agree with their actions. 

In an ever more divisive political landscape, we have a moral responsibility to think more carefully about the language we use and the assumptions we wilfully ignore. Much like the disappointed parent, I am not always proud of this country, but I will forever love it. If an exiled Russian journalist who almost died at the hands of her own government can love her country, all of us almost certainly can too.

Image: CGP Grey

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